Missing Saigon

It was a moment that will forever be embedded in my memory: a swarm of countless motorcycles rushing towards our lonely little cab, all coming from the opposite direction. Any one of those motorcycles could have collided with our vehicle. I should’ve been terrified.

But all I felt was excitement.

See, I had been warned about this, about the supposedly chaotic streets of Saigon. Anthony Bourdain described this in great detail in “A Cook’s Tour”; he thought he was going to die from the onslaught of vehicles.  A lot of websites and travel blogs say mostly the same thing. Everyone I know who has been to Saigon told me about the traffic.

To prepare myself, I kept in mind a friend’s words about surviving Saigon: I am the rock, and they are the stream. Sure enough, I witnessed that firsthand when the sea of motorcycles parted around our cab without leaving so much as a scratch.

With that mantra in mind, I felt confident enough to cross the streets of Saigon. With a couple of companions and a map, we walked around the city in search of Bourdain’s Lunch Lady, who supposedly serves the best beef noodle soup (pho) in the city.

It was not easy to find. The thought “this better be fuckin’ worth it!” crossed my mind a few times, especially after that first hour of walking. We had to ask some (thankfully very helpful) policemen for directions. Finally, after nearly two hours–we found it. I swear I could hear the faint sound of angels singing hallelujah in the background.

I had never been so happy to see a noodle stall in my entire life

I had never been so happy to see a noodle stall in my entire life

The place was packed, mostly with Caucasian tourists. We overheard a guy in one table actually talking about how much Bourdain raved about the food.

Was the pho worth the long and tiring walk? Lemme put it this way: I couldn’t and didn’t want to talk to my companions for what must’ve been a good half hour after the noodles were served.

Heaven in a bowl

Heaven in a bowl

 

"Lunch Lady" Nguyen Thi Thanh with her happy customer

“Lunch Lady” Nguyen Thi Thanh with her sweaty, dirty, but happy customer

I miss Saigon and its old-world charm. I miss its cheap, delicious food and its friendly people. I want to explore it again, and other parts of Vietnam as well.

Bits and Pieces

My life is almost completely devoid of culinary adventures.

I’ve long been aware of the fact that I’m not very adventurous when it comes to food, and it has never really bothered me–until now. Reading the first few pages of the insider’s edition of Anthony Bourdain’s “Kitchen Confidential,” which I bought after (belatedly) discovering what an interesting person Bourdain is, has truly put me to shame.

For one, he was food-tripping in France and tasting freshly-caught oysters when he was in fourth grade. What was I doing at that age? The only gastronomically risky move I can think of was trying out suspicious-looking cafeteria food. And that was because I had no choice.

Let me further illustrate just how picky I am with food.

I don’t eat anything raw. I don’t find sushi or sashimi appetizing. It’s a shame, really, because Japan is my dream destination, and–if my mother’s claim about my great (great, great?) grandparents is to be believed–I am part Japanese. Okay, maybe just, like, 1/16th Japanese, but still.

A couple of years ago, I went to Little Tokyo with some friends. It was supposed to be my first foray into Japanese food, but all I ordered was some sad chicken katsu. To stop a friend from pointing out how boring I am, I agreed to taste the salmon sashimi she had ordered. I grimaced at the raw fish for like half and hour before finally, quickly, shoving it into my mouth. The taste itself wasn’t bad, but the feel of the raw fish as it slithered down my throat almost got me barfing.

The only meat I consume on a regular basis is chicken, and I’m not even sure that counts as proper meat since chefs apparently think chicken is boring. If you count the ground beef in burgers, pizza and bolognese pasta, I guess you can say I eat beef regularly too, but that’s about it.

I am not very fond of pork. I can actually no longer count the number of incredulous looks and lectures people have given me after telling them I find lechong baboy disgusting. I find the idea of eating pig skin repulsive. I wish I can say my aversion to pork is due to health reasons, but it’s not. Maarte lang ako.

I don’t eat a lot of vegetables, much to the chagrin of my boyfriend who grew up in Baguio City and therefore subsisted on pork and veggies. I like non-green, starchy vegetables though. Especially potatoes. I swear, some of the best things in life are made from potatoes. Potato salad, baked potato, mashed potato, French fries, potato chips…

Anyway, I’m now halfway through “Kitchen Confidential” and the more I read, the more I become painfully aware of how much I’m missing.

I wish I could say that it has thoroughly changed my perspective about food, but that would be lying. It did, however, make me want to expand my food choices. I’ll probably eat–and cook–more beef and pork from now on. I’m going to try that French resto that a friend keeps talking about, and I swear I won’t order chicken.

Perhaps I’ll even give sushi or sashimi another shot. Maybe just one piece. Or two.