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Hospitality Comes Home

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<img src="http://forums.egullet.org/uploads/1217687514/gallery_29805_1195_25842.jpg" hspace="5" align="left">by Honor Rovai<br><br>"You wanna try some goat?"

I looked down at my red-faced husband. He was lounging on the tile floor of his great aunt's house with a group of his guy cousins. They were finishing up a leisurely dinner, telling stories over half-empty take out containers and frosty mugs of Heineken. I'd just rolled in on the back of a motorbike, fresh from my own girls' night out in Saigon's buzzing Tân Bình district. Ba Cu, John's spry great aunt, had used the upcoming International Women's Day holiday as an excuse to leave the guys at home and treat her daughters and me to bun bo Hue, the famous soup from the old imperial capital. My belly was full, and the hot, porky goodness of my meal was still fresh in my mouth, but I couldn't resist John's offer. It was our last night in Vietnam, and I didn't want to miss out on a local delicacy.

I sat cross-legged next to my husband and grabbed a spare pair of chopsticks. Following his instructions, I selected a glistening morsel of barbequed meat from the Styrofoam box, wrapped the mutton nugget in a dark green leaf and dipped the whole thing into a thick shrimp paste sauce. All eyes were on me as I popped the meaty package into my mouth.

"You like it?" John asked.

The meat was firm -- not tough -- with a gamey, earthy flavor similar to venison. The sauce and the leafy herb delivered a pleasant, pungent tang that countered the richness of the meat. Followed by a slug of cold beer, it was bar food at its most visceral and satisfying -- the Vietnamese equivalent of a crispy, red-skinned chicken wing dunked in creamy blue cheese dressing.

"Yeah," I said, still chewing. "It's pretty good."

"Really?" John said. "Because I lied."

I gulped.

"It's not goat," he said. "It's dog."

His family didn't understand much English, but they knew John had dropped the doggie bomb on me. The circle of cousins erupted in a chorus of nervous chatter, waving their hands at John as if to say "For shame!" Ba Cu patted my knee, offering comfort.

"They say that you're going to divorce me now." John grinned and reached for another piece of man's best friend.

It was a dirty trick. John knew I wouldn't try thit cho, the infamous Vietnamese dog meat dish, on my own volition. I was no wimp -- I took pride in my culinary bravery. Confident that my typhoid shot and six pack of azithromycin -- not to mention the Vietnamese obsession with fresh ingredients -- would protect me, I ate most of my meals crouched on plastic stools at makeshift sidewalk cafes, slurping noodles and broth with abandon, crunching bones and toothpicks underfoot. I'd gnawed on everything from black chicken legs to wild boar, stuffed myself with raw, leafy greens that guidebooks had warned me about, and devoured every spiny, sticky fruit that crossed my path. I'd even learned to drink my beer with big chunks of ice melting in it. Over the last gluttonous three weeks, I'd encountered only two gag-worthy foods: instant pho with sliced hot dogs (the other, scarier, dog meat) at the Hanoi airport and the mushy, oniony flesh of the cultish durian fruit.

Adventurous yes, but I'd drawn the line at dog. And bat, salamander and porcupine, too. These exotics popped up on the more encyclopedic restaurant menus, usually with accompanying drawings to help clarify things.

"Kangaroo?" I asked, after a waiter at a popular Saigon barbeque restaurant assured us that it was a house specialty. We stuck with the beef -- much cheaper, and more popular with the locals.

One woman's taboo is another's foie gras, but I just couldn't get past the yuck factor.

John's culinary line fell somewhere between dog and marsupial; the threat of a doggy dinner had loomed ever since our intrepid Hanoi-based guide, Dung, had sung praises over dog meat. Thit cho was a specialty in his city, with an entire restaurant row devoted to it. The gentle Dung smiled as he described his American clients' tearful reactions to seeing fried puppy carcasses at the local market. Given Dung's enthusiasm and John's rabid curiosity, I deemed it a miracle that we never found the time between touring the Temple of Literature and Ho Chi Minh's mausoleum to squeeze a Fido feast into the itinerary.

I thought I was safe once we left Hanoi, but John started talking dog again in the south, with Vinh, the guide who took us to the Cu Chi tunnels. Like many Vietnamese, Vinh said he hated the stuff, but told us that the dish was popular with a particular group of Saigon residents.

"Catholics who are originally from the north eat it," he said. "We joke that you better be careful if one of your Catholic neighbors invites you over for dinner. Your dog could be the main course."

John's family fit this demographic, having come from Hanoi in the early 1950's, in part to escape Ho Chi Minh's anti-Catholic regime. If my husband's kindly great aunt celebrated our arrival with a whole roasted dog, it would be almost impossible to turn down.

I thought my fears were realized on our second evening with the family, when I heard pitiful yelping from the back of the house. I excused myself and went to investigate, tracking the yaps to a ventilated cardboard box sitting on the kitchen floor. A pot lid weighed down with a teakettle covered the top. To my horror, I discovered a juicy little puppy, plump as a grapefruit, wiggling around inside. My daring rescue was interrupted when a young girl -- the daughter of the man who leased Ba Cu's front room -- came in and scooped her pet into her arms, cooing and rubbing its ears. I was relieved that John's family could be trusted with such a tempting treat.

Dog poaching wasn't unheard of in Vietnam. Stories of beloved pets being lassoed onto passing motorbikes had led people to keep their dogs tethered on leashes when they were outside. But for the most part, the meat came from farm-bred dogs raised for human consumption in conditions that were no better or worse than those of other livestock. Urban dwellers like John's family bought their thit cho from specialty restaurants or market stalls, as evidenced by the ubiquitous takeout containers from which John and his cousins were eating. The line between a pet puppy and a doggy dinner was as obvious to our relatives as the one separating my grilled salmon from the Betta fish in my aquarium.

Once I returned to the States and did some research, I could fully appreciate our family's sensitive handling of the thit cho situation. Dog is a kind of macho health food, renowned for its medicinal, "body warming" properties, including increased blood flow to a certain area of the male anatomy. Because of this, many women eschewed the stuff, leaving it to the men and their silly chest-thumping rituals. Understanding both my queasy American sensibilities and my husband's desire for full cultural submersion, Ba Cu and the cousins had used Women's Day as a convenient excuse for some gender-based family bonding. So while I enjoyed my unforgettable bowl of bun bo Hue with the girls, John and the rest of the men could get in touch with their manly selves over some dead dog.

Eating dog meat was meant to improve luck as well as virility, which explained how John got up the nerve to trick me so recklessly. But I had my own reason for letting his deception slide: thit cho was tasty, but bun bo Hue was, hands down, my favorite meal in Vietnam.

<div align="center">* * *</div>

Honor Rovai is a freelance writer and event planner living in Los Angeles. Besides her daily tennis blog, GoToTennis, she's written for Not for Tourists and the online literary journal Ostrich Ink. Her short story, Housesitting, will be published by Awkward Press in Fall, 2008. She's working on a novel set in the dysfunctional world of high-end catering. Her mother, maggiethecat, is her biggest fan (though she stepped out of her Daily Gullet role for this article).

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Honor, what a lovely piece, and one that brought back many memories. I am no stranger to "odd" food, having spent growing-up summers on a farm in NE, I'd killed my first chicken before I entered third grade (and plucked it, and learned how to cut it up).

But, it was on my 9th (or perhaps 8th?) birthday that I had my first true Thai food, for my birthday. The first thing I ate was raw pork larb. Trich be damned, it gave me a taste for the odd and unusual, and taught me that just because it's not typically served in the US doesn't mean it's bad. BTW, I didn't know it was raw pork for many years, and it remains my favorite form of larb. This is not as off-the-wall as dog, but, remember, I was 8 or 9 and had been largely midwestern raised.


Susan Fahning aka "snowangel"

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Lovely to meet you, Honor, in such a well-designed and beautifully-written vignette. That grapefruit-plump puppy and the image of small men on roaring motorcycles, ropes whirring like cow-punchers' lariats overhead, is quite vividly alive here, and I hope one never meets the other.

I know your Mom is SO PROUD!!! I certainly would be. :wub:

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Hello! Thanks for the comments.

I'm starting to discover Thai food in all it's delicious, funky brilliance. We had a little in Thailand on this trip, but most was kind of resort-ified. Good think I live in L.A., where I just had the most delicious steamed mussels in a firey hot sauce. Haven't moved onto the raw pork, yet!

Motorbike action is one of the highlights of a trip to Vietnam! Puppynapping not so much (but I'm still not totally convinced that it happens!)

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Thanks for a thoughtful, well-written memoir, Honor.

Unless, like you, I am duped, I will never eat roasted Rover. Still, I'm curious: are there preferred breeds for thit cho, or for farming in general?

Hi Dave,

Supposedly, yes. I really can't confirm anything because I didn't visit any puppy farms or grill my relatives on the specifics (pun sorta intended!)

Here's what Corinne Trang says in her book "Authentic Vietnamese Cooking": "The Vietnamese do not eat just any dog but use only a few, very specific breeds - the preferred one being called "yellow dog." (I have also heard of "black dog" being eaten.)"

I've found similar info with my online research. Vietnam is a very food rich place, so it's definitely not something people eat because they have no alternatives. But those puppynapping rumors persist and Vietnamese themselves like to joke about eating neighbors' dogs. So it's a bit of a gray area, at least as far as I can tell with my limited research and experience.

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Spot on, spot on. In fact, my boss lost at least three cats as well to local neighborhood stockpots. C'est la vie! It's important not to get too attached. :biggrin:

This is really exciting for me to read, as I'll be back in Hanoi tomorrow, if everything goes to plan. It's great to get revved up for my trip. I've not travelled extensively in the south, however- did you notice a dramatic difference between Northern and Southern cuisine?

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Honor,

A very nicely written piece. Thank you.

With the Korean connection that I enjoy, I'd long heard of dog, and it's interesting that the pattern of it being a "manly, warming" meal seems to be contiguous through the Confucian states.

We finally did it in Guilin the other year, just the Boy and I. Serena refused to take part, and seemed particularly unhappy with Scud and I singing "how much is that doggy in the window" over and over.

gallery_22892_4411_31397.jpg

Go figure.

Thanks again!

Peter

P.S. - darn! Now I want to go back to Vietnam. I need more vacation time.

(note: edited for the photo. If I'm going to be graphical, I might as well have graphics)


Edited by Peter Green (log)

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Honor,

A very nicely written piece.  Thank you.

With the Korean connection that I enjoy, I'd long heard of dog, and it's interesting that the pattern of it being a "manly, warming" meal seems to be contiguous through the Confucian states.

We finally did it in Guilin the other year, just the Boy and I.  Serena refused to take part, and seemed particularly unhappy with Scud and I singing "how much is that doggy in the window" over and over.

gallery_22892_4411_31397.jpg

Go figure.

Thanks again!

Peter

P.S. - darn!  Now I want to go back to Vietnam.  I need more vacation time.

(note: edited for the photo.  If I'm going to be graphical, I might as well have graphics)

wow, great photo! The greens look delicious and crispy.

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Spot on, spot on. In fact, my boss lost at least three cats as well to local neighborhood stockpots. C'est la vie! It's important not to get too attached.  :biggrin:

This is really exciting for me to read, as I'll be back in Hanoi tomorrow, if everything goes to plan. It's great to get revved up for my trip. I've not travelled extensively in the south, however- did you notice a dramatic difference between Northern and Southern cuisine?

Hanoi is THE town for sidewalk dining in my opinion. I suspect that people there don't do anything but ride motorbikes and eat delicious meals on the sidewalk. I'm so jealous that you're going there.

There are many differences between northern and southern cuisine - pho is a great example. In the north they give you a bowl of soup - a perfectly balanced, delicious bowl of soup. In the South they give you a delicious bowl of soup plus a plate piled sky high with different herbs (basil, cilantro, mint, lime etc.) and you engage in some major self-garnishing. At first, being used to the southern way, I thought the northerners were crazy. What's pho without a squirt of lime juice? But now the northern style is my FAVORITE (Don't tell my relatives!)

Not that I think you need a guide book, but if you're curious for some online recommendations, you can't go wrong with Reid on Travel: http://www.reidontravel.com/http://www.reidontravel.com/

This pho place Mr. Reid raves about in Hanoi was fantastic. My Vietnamese husband, who grew up eating pho every week, called the place "revelatory." He doesn't normally use words like that.

So jealous, enjoy your trip!

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Let me add my kudos for such a well-written and enjoyable piece. Your images are evocative and memorable.

I, too, was just in Vietnam and absolutely loved it. Am hoping to return for a much longer stay.


I don't understand why rappers have to hunch over while they stomp around the stage hollering.  It hurts my back to watch them. On the other hand, I've been thinking that perhaps I should start a rap group here at the Old Folks' Home.  Most of us already walk like that.

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Honor thanks for a wonderfully written piece.

Although I'll probably never actually eat it the idea of dog suddenly seems very palatable indeed.

(My terrier suddenly flees in terror when the stock pot comes out).


Jon

--formerly known as 6ppc--

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