Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Destination Vietnam #6: Bia Hơi

As inescapable as hot, humid weather is in Vietnam, bad beer is just as unavoidable. As I previously mentioned in my dog meat entry, there is still not a universal custom to serve cold beer. So the already bland and tasteless beer is often made worse by serving warmer than room temperature. Just avoid all the Vietnamese beers: 333, Bia Hanoi, Bia Saigon, Halida, they're all fairly terrible. Vietnam is really not a beer country. But they do have a hidden ace up their sleeve, the local fresh beer--Bia Hơi.


So what is this bia hơi? It is a fresh draft beer brewed daily. I'm not a brewmaster, so I don't know what effect this may have on the beer, but the taste is extremely light. You can easily drink this like water. By itself, there would be little appeal, but bia hơi has the power to bring together loud Vietnamese men. Sitting in one of the bia hơi halls with a couple of dishes and some pitchers of beer gives you an unparalleled cultural experience.

Word of warning: bia hơi is not regulated at all. Though you'll be able to find it everywhere in Hanoi, I'd stick to the places that are well-populated to be safe. You never know what kind of antifreeze they pour into the beer.


Sunday, September 20, 2009

Destination Vietnam #5: The Dog Meat Entry (Thịt Chó)

Just follow the signs or ask the taxi drivers. Where do you go when you want to find dog in Vietnam? Search out the words thịt chó, Vietnamese for dog meat. However, there is a superstition that eating dog in the first half of the lunar month is considered unlucky. So on those days, the restaurants might all be abandoned, or even closed. My friends certainly had their moral reservations, but I was more concerned about the sanitation of the meat than the origin. In fact, I was right. Either we faced cosmic punishment for eating man's best friend, or the dog restaurant was the dirtiest place we ate at the entire trip.


Having not grown up with any type of cuddly family pet, I didn't have any reservations about dog dining. If you've read The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan, you'd have a sense of the argument that eating meat in general makes you a "specist." Essentially, indulging in carnal pleasure makes you guilty of discriminating against certain species as "food." Despite my contentment with this label, I won't discriminate against dogs as another source of food. In fact, I feel better about eating dog than any one of the myriad of endangered species commonly degustated at high-end restaurants now. Eating an unsustainable species and further removing them from existence, or eating an animal that some cultures tend to raise as pets? What's the real moral dilemma? Judge me all you want, but I'm giving you the chance to eat vicariously through me if you can't stomach the animal.

Since I didn't go to Vietnam planning to eat dog, I hadn't done any prior research. I took a chance, jumped into a taxi and asked for thịt chó. I'm sure that the driver took me to his kickback restaurant for a slice of the receipt, but I had no other reference to go off. We ended up on the side of the highway at Anh Tú Béo, a lofted restaurant with dining seating on the top floor above the kitchen. We sat on mats on the ground around a low table and proceeded to order some lukewarm Vietnamese beer. As bad as Vietnamese beer is already, they don't serve it cold. Besides taking the drink order, the server proceeded to start bringing out side dishes. They probably figured that we would only come all the way out there just for one thing.

From the bill we received at the end of the meal, I can try to piece out the dishes we received. On the table are a few bottles of Bia Hà Nội, the better of the Vietnamese beers. The first things we received were a plate of cucumbers (dưa chuột) and a basket of lemongrass, lime and basil. We started suspiciously nibbling on a big sesame cracker (bánh đa), my friends worried that somehow the Vietnamese and baked a puppy into the cracker.

Thịt hấp - steamed dog meat

First to arrive were the dog cold cuts, similar to the cold cut appetizers I've had at Cantonese restaurants. Since this was the simplest dish, it would be most appropriate to explicate the taste of dog meat here. If you're looking for something mysterious or mystical, you'll be disappointed. Dog tastes like a cross between beef and pork. That's all. It didn't taste like game, exoticism, nor tears. It is exactly you'd imagine a boring meat to be. The dish also had slices of liver. And dog liver tastes just as offensive to me as pork or beef liver.

Dồi nướng - dog sausage

Tasted like overcooked sausage. Tough, overcooked sausage. Whatever the casing was made out of (I suspect dog intestine), it harden in the grilling process. Biting into it was actually somewhat crunchy. Tastewise, there was much more going on in the sausage than in the steamed dog. Seasonings were added, and other dog parts I'd rather not know about (likely dog blood and fat).

Chả nướng - grilled dog

The final dish we had was the most mysterious. Since we actually were heading to the Snake Village for a meal of snake (which failed to materialize), we cut the dog degustation after this plate. I can't tell how many more were going to come, but this was too much meat, dog or not. I want to say this was a dish of dog belly, with thick fatty pieces of skin on the small bits of meat. But I can't tell you much beyond that. I can't even identify the crumbled yellow stuff on top of the meat. As inscrutable as it was, this was my favorite of the three dishes.

Even in Vietnam, dog is a novelty. You should have no fears of accidentally ordering a dog dish by pointing at a menu. It just isn't that common, though dog restaurants occur more in the North than South. From what I could tell, all the dog I saw was only served in special dog restaurants. So unless you're intentionally searching it out, you won't find it easily. Each of the plates we had were 40K đong, about $2.20 at the time of my trip.


Sunday, September 13, 2009

Destination Vietnam #4: Fruit in Southeast Asia

A fruit seller in Thailand

For all the agrotechnology we have in this country, it's amazing to think we can't produce fruit as delicious as in tropical areas. Of course, barring considerations of growing conditions and transportation, American fruit is mediocre at best. Especially after my move from California to New York, I realized I lucky I was to have the plentiful produce of sunny Cali. But still, California's got nothing on Southeast Asia in terms of fruit.


In Hanoi's old district, the streets are still known by the commodity that they sell. All the metal workers gather together and make a tin street. A little further is the leather street. Got an itch for stone Buddha statues? There's a street for that too. For the more food inclined, I'd suggest searching for the fruit "smoothie" street.

As you can see, they are not exactly smoothies. It's just a collection of fresh tropical fruit with crushed ice and condensed milk. I'm not sure what it is with Asians and condensed milk, but we love the stuff. Milk teas, mango pudding, toast, we'll eat it over anything. In this case, the milk just adds to the well-documented Vietnamese sweet tooth.

As far as eating fresh fruit on the street with questionablely produced ice, I'll again say that I ate without getting sick. And given the cheapness and abundance of tropical fruit, you'll really miss out if you neglect the street.

For the actual fruit, there is papaya, watermelon, dragonfruit (probably the coolest named and looking fruit, though incredible bland), mango, rambutan, longan and tapioca. Though you could certainly go to town on the fruit plain, the milk and ice made a pleasant dessert to cut through the sweltering heat of Vietnam.

The following are photos of fruit I encountered throughout the trip.

Rambutan, the most alien looking fruit. Tastes extremely similar to lychee.

Smoothie lady on street in Chiang Mai. Select the cup with the fruit, she blends it with ice and hands you a straw. Delicious.

My friends' first encounter with durian. Amused Vietnamese in background not pictured.

Most set meals finished with a dessert of fresh fruit like this pineapple and watermelon.

This was one fruit I had not encountered before the trip. I was determined to buy and try one of these mangosteen.

Mangosteen tastes like lychee too, though it has a certain tartness similar to cranberries. Be careful, it stains.

Miniature watermelon. Who knew?

Custard apples were more custard than apple. They have a soft, fragrant flesh like durian without any offensive odor.

Fruit seller in floating market in Thailand. From left to right: longan, starfruit, pomelo, custard apples, and a fruit I could never identify that looked like small hair yams.

Dragonfruit. I'd compare it to kiwi, but more like kiwi's plainer cousin that nobody asks out. Don't get me wrong, it's an awesome looking fruit, but doesn't taste like much. Wandering Chopsticks grew dragonfruit.