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Truly Ethnic Food
Tuesday May 21, 2013
By Ed Barna
I went to an open invitation dinner at Middlebury College one time, and I found myself sitting next to a bright, personable young man from Malaysia. In the course of our conversation, I remarked to him that he must find American food very boring. He agreed: there were so many spices that grew in his tropical country and cooks knew how to use, but that people in the United States don’t know at all.
We’re improving, though. When I was a kid, we went to a restaurant once a year, at New Year’s, and always the same one: Rutland’s only Chinese restaurant, the Kong Chow. Since then, Americans have shown a growing fondness for Asia food of many kinds. Adjectives have become nouns: city dwellers ask each other, if you don’t feel like Chinese tonight, now about Thai? Vietnamese? Mongolian? It’s an old American tradition, immigrants getting an economic foothold by opening a restaurant featuring things that are second nature to them, but exotic to others. Many people probably don’t think of Italian as ethnic, let alone exotic--the dishes have become as American as pizza pie.
But there are limits. It’s important not to assume that we really understand and accept another culture just because we like some of its recipes. Deep down under, there can be differences that aren’t so easy to translate into American. It’s important to recognize these differences, too, because they remind us that mutual understanding is a continuing process, and perhaps always will be.
A picture of a Vietnamese restaurant menu, which a world traveler had shared on a website, brought this home to me with especial force. On a visit to Ho Chi Minh City (Hanoi during the war), he discovered a place that catered to those with gourmet tastes in snake.
The intense heat and abundant water of some countries closer to the equator cooks up plant life of an abundance Vermonters can scarcely conceive. (For Southerners, the word “kudzu” may be enough.) This in turn creates habitat for gazillions of bugs, which become the food for phenomenal numbers of frogs and toads and lizards and other minor predators. Both bugs and the things that eat them get viped up in turn by the snakes.
Ask a former Vietnam infantryman about snakes and you might not get an answer, but watch for changes in expression. A close friend of mine who saw a LOT of action over there said he probably used more bullets on snakes than he did on the Viet Cong and NVA.
If life gives you lemons, make lemonade. If life gives you snakes, you make gourmet delights like the following, given as written, in order, Vietglitch words included. Only one page of a menu; what might have been on the others?
Snake soup with appetizer
Fried with lemon grass, mushroom
Fried skin (dip chili sauce)
Fried rib (serve with pancake)
Chopped rib and meat roll in leave
Snake spine simmer with greenbean, sticky rice (noodle)
Sticky rice mixing snake fat
THE WINE LIST
Snake heads wine
Snake gall bladder wine
Chinese medicine herb wine
Penises wine snake eggs wine
“Bon appetit!”, as the French used to say before Dienbienphu.
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