SURVIVE IN VIETNAM – Episode 3
Food is a part of Vietnam’s charm, but at the same time, as demonstrated in my previous article, it can very well be a force of terror. To add more thrilling flavors to your adventure in Vietnam the wonderland (Goodness gracious! As if there isn’t enough already!), here is the next item in the list of Vietnamese food for daredevils. Brace yourself; it is only getting worse/better!
*Author’s note: Shout-out to Billy Wood. Your insight into Vietnamese food as a professional chef has inspired this article.*
3. Shrimp paste
This dipping sauce is made of heavily salted ground shrimps, left for months of fermentation. There are several variations – mắm tôm, mắm ruốc, and mắm tép – depending on the kind of shrimps used. Other Asian countries do have their adaptations of shrimp paste. In Vietnam, it is reduced to a smooth purple thick paste.
If you don’t like the sight of it (photo above), I regret to say that the odor is in fact the worst part. The intense salty stink is so overwhelming that it can bring tears to your eyes. And it is there to stay. But you know how people say, “Don’t judge a book by its cover?” For shrimp paste, I’d say, “Don’t judge a dish by its smell.” Once you get over it, you will be able to enjoy numerous dishes that feature shrimp paste, from the signature bún đậu mắm tôm of the North (vermicelli with crunchy fried tofu and fresh herbs) to the Southern bánh tráng cuốn thịt heo (rice paper rolls with pork). Oh, have I mentioned it goes really well with the familiar pork innards and the notorious thịt chó? Of course, many restaurants realize shrimp paste is not for everyone, so they offer regular fish sauce as an alternative. However, if you opt for that second option, excuse me while I grab you, shake you really hard and scream at you with all the sincerity in the world: “You are missing out BIG TIME!”
To prepare shrimp paste properly, add a pinch of sugar, dashes of lime juice and some slices of hot peppers. Then stir well until the paste bubbles up. The ultimate secret to shrimp sauce elevation is the pheromone essence of cà cuống, a type of water insects! Before you squeak in horror, know that it is extremely scarce and expensive, and you should consider yourself VERY lucky if you ever have the pleasure of coming by that magical extract.
[TO BE CONTINUED]