Aaron Horwath: It’s lunchtime in Hanoi, Vietnam and I’m walking the five minutes from my apartment to my favorite rice shop, shielding my eyes from the blinding July sun with my hand as I weave between the hundreds of motorbikes parked along the ancient, dilapidated sidewalk.
From a block away, I can see a cloud of smoke pouring from in front of a building and into the street, the universal signal in Vietnam for delicious food served here. The source of the smoke is a charcoal grill, behind which stands the owner of this little oasis of grilled meats identified by a weathered sign above the entryway as Cơm 57.
I lock eyes with the owner as he fans the flames of the grill with one hand and flips pork chops pounded as thin as playing cards and sauces quartered chicken breasts with the other. His eyes and friendly wave say it all: Ah! The foreigner is here! I’ve become a regular at Cơm 57 and he greets me every day with the enthusiasm of a long-lost friend, which I always return in kind.
I also greet his wife, who stands behind a table and lords over her steaming bowls of veggies and sizzling platters of meat. She holds up a plate with a smile, indicating that now would be a good time for the silly foreigner to tell her what he would like to eat.
A combination of pointing and minimal Vietnamese suffices for placing my order. Rice, of course. After five years in Vietnam, I have become a rice aficionado (or snob) and I am seldom disappointed: small food stalls like Cơm 57 take great pride in the quality and freshness of their rice. On visits back home to see family in Oregon and I am sometimes forced by a state of culinary-homesickness to sit down in an authentic Asian restaurant and expose myself to mushy, old rice which only doubles my urge to jump on the first plane back East.
As good as the rice is, the pork chops are the star of the show at Cơm 57. They are cut thin, making them both cook fast and incredibly tender, and brushed with a sauce that adds a sweetness that makes eating a pile of them easy work.
I gesture at the fried eggs: hai. Yes, two of those, please. The owner’s wife flings two eggs on top of the pile of rice and pork chops along with some fresh cut veggies. Vietnamese food features a lot of eggs and for good reason: whether fried, scrambled, made into an omelet, or slammed into a bánh mì, the Vietnamese cook eggs unlike anyone else.
Something else catches my eye and I point with a questioning look, eliciting an excited call of “bacon!” from the wife. My lucky day, I’ll have some of that too.
While the wife finishes piling my comical mound of food onto the plate, I walk up a set of stairs to the open room that serves as the dining area. Before sitting down, I need tea. Not want. Need. Plain water won’t do. Something about the salty meat, the heat, and the venue require Vietnamese tea. I grab a glass from a rack and scoop a few pieces of ice out of a cooler. Are the glasses clean? Is this ice made from unboiled tap water? In Vietnam, questions like these are best left unanswered. I pull the tab on a large tea dispenser and it pours out almost as clear as water. Light yellow, but almost clear. That’s the key.
I sit down on one of the famous blue stools that captivate every blogger and foodie that visits Vietnam and begin to prepare my area. I grab for what used to be a candy container but is now half-full of fish sauce. I also snag the small bowl of freshly ground chilies. I combine them in another small bowl and stir gently. It needs to be spicy, very spicy. Vietnamese food will ruin your palate in the best way: anything that isn’t diarrhea-inducingly spicy simply doesn’t cut it. It needs to hurt. You want to sit there, sweating with your fellow diners, marinating in a collective culinary masochism.
Sauce ready, my plate of food arrives. I drizzle my fish sauce and chili combination across the plate, letting it drip across the eggs, pork, and bacon before it soaks into the rice and veggies below. If done correctly, my hands will stink of fish sauce the rest of the day, as they should after a proper Vietnamese meal.
The key is to make sure each bite has a bit of everything. A little pork chop, rice, a cut of egg, and a slice of cucumber. I have been in Vietnam long enough to know how to eat properly: with a focused, almost angry ferocity as if a timer is ticking down, and if I don’t finish in time the owner’s wife just might run up and take my plate away from me. As I eat, I feel the warmth of the chillis, droplets of sweat forming on my brow, lower back, and under my arms. I am revolting and I couldn’t be happier about it.
Minutes later, my plate is cleaned with the exception of a few bones. Like a chess player that just used every bit of intellectual horsepower to knowingly make a winning move, I sit back on my stool, looking down at my plate with satisfaction. If victory had a taste, my taste buds had experienced it.
I grab my bag off the floor and head towards the front of the shop, only stopping to refill my tea for one last chug of the good stuff before quickly standing next to the dispenser.
Back outside, the man behind the grill tells me the price in English. I confirm the price in Vietnamese. He says thank you in English. I say thank you in Vietnamese.
Then I am off. It’s time for coffee.
BIO: Aaron Horwath is an American expat having spent the last five years living in both Vietnam and The Netherlands. When he isn’t writing, he can be found nose-deep in the pages of Emerson, Kafka, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. His other short stories can be found published at Across the Margin and From Whispers to Roars.
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