“What’s the plan, exactly?” It’s 5:30 in the afternoon and I’m sitting on the curb outside the Saigon port with a magician and a crew of wiry Vietnamese taxi drivers.
“I’m not really sure.”
“Well, what did they tell you?”
“That they’d pick us up here and take us into the city.”
“But you do this all the time?”
“All the time. Most ports we hit. Normally we just go to a bar, show each other different card tricks. Super causal. ”
“And you told them I’m coming?”
“I did, but I said you’re a magic journalist.”
“A magic journalist?”
“They won’t share secrets around a lay person. You need to be part of the community. It’ll be fine—just play it cool.”
While I ponder the potential benefits of being a member of the international magic community, a pair of young Vietnamese pulls up on scooters.
“Mr. Jon Armstrong?”
We each hop onto a bike and ride off, helmetless, into the Saigon sunset. After some gentle probing, I realize my driver, a sweet girl with a perfectly round face who tells me to call her Annie, has no idea who we are and even less of an idea of where we are going.
The confusion is compounded moments later when two men on scooters pull up next to us on the road and begin to shake their fists. It seems the local taxi racket doesn’t take kindly to strangers swooping into the port and picking up two potential fares without clearing it with the rest of the concern. So they give chase, following us for the better part of 10 minutes, demanding a $5 kickback and eventually pinning us against the side of the road. A few minutes later, a police officer arrives to mediate, finally deciding that the foreigners don’t owe the scooter toughs a dime.
When we finally enter Saigon, absorbed by the locust chorus of motorbikes and street vendors, the sun has set and the night air smells of fish sauce and exhaust. We pull up to the meeting spot, a coffee and teashop in District 1, where an 8-foot mounted poster announces the evening’s entertainment: “Jon Armstrong from Los Angeles, USA”, along with a dark silhouette of his bespectacled face.
“Looks like I’ll be performing. ”
I’m a fish sauce junkie, have been for years.
I first heard about fish sauce when I was a teenager staying in a pension in France. Several young Chinese from Cambodia, including two brothers named Chin and Mau, were also part of the household. They pined for the food from home, their parents’ Fujianese food, and also Cambodian cooking. As we ate bifteck de cheval and tournedos and other traditional French delights, they’d talk about the foods and flavors they missed, including fish sauce; there was none in the Loire Valley, that’s for sure. I could only try to imagine it: pungent, salty, and from a place far away.
That year Southeast Asia was in the news, almost every day. Cambodia hadn’t yet been dragged into the war, but Vietnam was hot and horrible. We watched reports from the Paris Peace talks on television, all very unreal. And soon after came news of the Tet offensive, in the spring of 1968, and the war got even hotter. Then all that was swept away by the huge events of May 1968, when France came to the brink of civil war, or so it seemed at the time. The next year I headed off to university and those glimpses I’d had into Southeast Asian food faded into the background.
It’s funny how life turns in spirals. Some years later I traveled to Europe with my then boyfriend, whose aunt was married to a Vietnamese doctor and living in Paris. And it was at their table, and in their kitchen, that I finally met fish sauce, got acquainted, fell in love, got hooked… all these words apply.
Foreplay: Food Porn Just Before the Lunch Hour
Shrimp in fish sauce, Phu Quoc, Vietnam
The sign in the Phu Quoc airport reads clearly. No guns. No explosives. No fish sauce. Curious though it may seem, the airlines have their reason: A bottle of broken fish sauce could choke a cabin with its fermented funk, and this island in the south of the Vietnam produces the country’s most coveted nuoc mam. The message is clear: Even for a cuisine built on the back of this brackish bottle, its stench can be too much to handle.
But get past the smell and there’s something deeply captivating about fish sauce. I first fell in love with it years ago on Phu Quoc, when I slipped through the back door of a local factory to take in the enormous wooden barrels used to transform anchovy and salt into the amber potion. I spent the next week on a scooter bouncing from one powdered-sugar beach to tne next, fueled by a steady diet of Bia Saigon and grilled squid lashed with fish sauce and chili paste.
Now it takes up prime real estate in my pantry. I spray it on roasted Brussels sprouts. I mix it with lime and chili and toss it with greens. I drag a skirt steak through it before grilling. Here, Phu Quoc’s finest forms the base for a simple stir-fry of shrimp and green onions. Without fish sauce, it would be bad Chinese takeout, but three years later and I still remember that pitch-perfect blend of salt and umami and caramel sweetness.
Nearly every Asian nation makes a version of fish sauce, fermented with a dazzling variety of aquatic creatures. You may have seen the bottles with the crabs and the squid on the label. They’re fine, but they’re not Phu Quoc. And the rest of Asia knows it, too. How else do you explain the cottage industry of fish-sauce counterfeiters dressing up their subpar bottles in Phu Quoc lingerie? Do yourself a favor and find a bottle of the real stuff; your food will never be the same. -MG
Foreplay: Food Porn Just Before the Lunch Hour
Pho bo, Saigon, Vietnam
It’s a tough forkful to swallow, but it’s pretty damn true: colonization makes for the most interesting cuisines. After all, it took the fastidiousness of the French to turn Vietnam’s ridiculous bounty into one of the world’s greatest cuisines. The French have their fingerprints all over many of Vietnam’s greatest culinary contributions: bahn xeo, the crispy coconut crepe overstuffed with pork and shrimp and bean sprouts, bahn mi, the pate-slathered sandwiches made on crispy, light baguettes, ca phe sua da, that ying and yang combination of thick, inky coffee and sweetened condensed milk.
And, of course, pho, one of the greatest fusion foods of all.
The best bowls of pho contain a chewy-tender combination of meat: shredded shank or brisket, gelatinous pieces of tendon, compact meatballs with a spring to their bite, and squiggles of lean raw beef, thwacked into submission with the weight of a cleaver so that they cook on contact once the hot broth is ladled in.
About that broth: It is one of the most complex, beguiling tastes in the world, a dark, brooding mixture of slow-simmered beef bones and charred aromatics and warm currents of toasted clove and black cardamom. Taking after the French, the pho cook works hard to keep the broth clean and clear as the fat and marrow are boiled out of the meat melange. But if you look closely, you can see the little globules shimmering on the surface, a reminder that there’s always just a little life left in that beef. That might not fly in Paris, but in Saigon, that’s exactly how it’s supposed to be. -MG