One of Vietnam’s many origin myths tells the story of Lang Lieu, the sixth Hung King’s ninth son from a squadron of 22 (not all squired from the same mother, I should add).
Roughly 3,000 years ago, the ageing sixth Hung king created a competition to decide who would take the throne. The rules were as followed: go gather the best food you can find and cook the king dinner. The best meal takes the crown and throne so, yeah, basically Masterchef with giant bells on.
For those that don’t know many of the sons went far and wide, but Lang Lieu, the most virtuous, and most humble of all the sons (but maybe not the life of the party?), stayed in the kingdom and failed to find inspiration. The night before the contest, he was visited by an angel (probably his mum or his aunt in disguise) who revealed the recipe for banh trung and banh day (two savoury cakes made out of sticky rice and stuffed with pork and mung beans) and won the crown for his “simply delicious!” meal that could be enjoyed by any commoner (In a wee present day echo of this origin myth, Vietnamese American Christine Ha scooped the third US Masterchef title with a pork and rice dish as her main course — again a meal any commoner could make).
I thought of Lang Lieu as I wrote a story in the most recent issue of Asia Eater — the editors allowed me plenty of elbow room to write a reflective piece (based on 14 years of experiences and observations) about how many Vietnamese people just can’t stomach foreign food and/or Vietnamese people’s intense love of their home comforts.
If you can grab an issue (go on, subscribe!) you can hear some of my own anecdotes on travelling abroad with Vietnamese people to discover they’ve packed more food than clothes. Or my friend’s brilliant story about a deputy PM and his staff cooking up Vietnamese food in the presidential suite at the five star George IV hotel in Paris.
I had a few things I couldn’t fit in — things like, how on my way back home to Vietnam from Dublin via Paris this summer, a middle-aged, French speaking Vietnamese woman sitting beside me on an Air France flight pushed her crappy, peppery, faux-Asian meal around with as little enthusiasm as I did. Eventually, her hand slipped into a bag and she produced a small bag of ruốc (Vietnamese pork floss). She sprinkled it over the rice and enjoyed a satisfying meal. And how I really felt like asking her for some…
Or how the day before my missus’ mother and auntie came down to Sunny-side up Saigon, my wife ordered bún chả — sure enough the Hai Ba Pham (as we like to call them) arrived with a suitcase filled with bun cha and other Hanoi staples. Once I might have thought – from an admittedly fairly ignorant and wholly Irish perspective – this is like me asking my mother to make bacon sandwiches in Dublin before driving to visit me in Cork. You can buy bún chả in Ho Chi Minh City. Bún chả made by Hanoians. But bugger that. No one makes bun cha like the Hai Ba Pham and Vietnamese people think nothing of travelling with food. Every trip (it seems) is essentially considered a picnic.
Another aspect I thought about when writing this story is that although resident foreigners like to chortle at this (and Vietnamese people’s caginess over certain Tay foods), most (or very many) expats and visitors are swimming in the shallow end of accessible foodstuffs; if you think eating pho and bun cha/ bun thit nuong and the odd rice dinner (as I did before I met my missus) means you’re down with Vietnamese cuisine, think again. Again, that’s equivalent to say, going to Italy and eating pizza and a few classic pasta dishes and coming away thinking you’re well on top of all things cooked and Italian.
Vietnamese people love to see foreigners enjoying Vietnamese food but (I feel) often we don’t realise that our menus are being censored when we eat with them. I realised this when two friends – Hanoi-born and bred boyos, who always hung out with beer-drinking-foreigners at the old bia hoi on Tong Dan street. Normally, people would always order the muc chien bo (deep-fried battered squid) and other tasty morsels. But left to their own devices, the two men had ordered long (cured intestines — sort of like Vietnam’s response to an Irishman’s black pudding) — to be dipped in mam tom (the infamous pungent, somewhere-between-pink-and-purple-coloured, fermented shrimp paste). Okay, I ate along (many would probably have passed), and I remember seeing its merits but have I ever ordered this dish? Never —and would I? Not unless I was really trying to impress someone (or get rid of them). [These are the same guys I ran into at Chim Sao restaurant dipping dog meat and various pickled items into dog brain sauce…]
Anyway, I’m not saying we should all eat intestines and dog meat — that’s really not necessary but as time passes and Vietnam’s cities fill up with all the generic fast food flotsam/ horseshit you can find everywhere else in the world, I’m starting to get a bit more passionate about telling people — expats, tourists, even locals in Vietnam — that if you really think the emergence of McDonald’s and BK is the beginning of the end, well, do your bit and get out there and eat more Vietnamese food.
And to be honest, it doesn’t matter if you’re eating a big mac or a falafel or a sushi set or a gourmet hamburger in a trendy cafe — as it’s all not Vietnamese food. The more Vietnamese food we eat the more we will protect this country’s incredible and incomparable culinary heritage.
So to get back to Lang Lieu, well, he can be the Patron Saint of “Forget that Foreign Muck — Let’s Stay at Home and Stuff Ourselves Silly with Our Own Food as its Way Better”-movement.
Bit of a mouthful that title, as it should be.