Tuesday, April 13, 2010

The Good, the Bad and the Durian

To begin, I apologise for not posting the following sooner. My sin is most grave against my development-fieldwork research-design professor, who exhorted us to take field notes as soon as possible after an event, where taking notes during the event is impossible. Professor, I hope I can make it up to you through this post.

This past Saturday, I and most of my bandmates in (the now-defunct) Vocomotive went out to celebrate three things: the end of the year (and of Vocomotive); the birthday of Ibis, one of our sopranos; my eventual departure for Viet Nam. To do this, we had lunch at a Vietnamese restaurant called Phở Đầu Bò. Now, there is more to this name than you might think. To the simple one who does not speak Vietnamese, "Phở Đầu Bò" is just another name for a restaurant, presumably one where phở is served. To the one who speaks Vietnamese, "Phở Đầu Bò" means "Cow Head Phở". The restaurant's logo is a picture of a cow's head. To the clever one, "Phở Đầu Bò" is an ingenious marketing ploy. My tablemate Will told all of us at the table that someone told him that the restaurant chain's founders decided to name their chain "Phở Đầu Bò" because it sounds like "affordable". Say it out loud! You'll be amazed at the resemblance.

Affordable it was. Most main dishes, which are substantial, cost between six and eight dollars. Of course, when the main dishes are so inexpensive, you have to order an appetiser. And a drink. And a dessert. And something to take home so that you don't have to make lunch the following day. By the time you've sat down, you're on EI and you've mortgaged your home.

Before going to the restaurant, I looked briefly at its menu. All of the dishes seemed appetising. One in particular caught my eye. Its description is '"Hue" style beef, pork & blood pudding with vermicelli in spicy soup'. As soon as I saw this, I thought "Oh my God. I MUST have this. There is no way this thing is kosher.". The Torah forbids Jews from eating pigs and from eating blood (among many, many other things, including bees and horses). To eat this would be to take kashrut's lifeless body, slit its neck, drain its blood, put the blood in the fridge for twenty-four hours to let it congeal then eat it. I was sorely disappointed to find that the restaurant was out of blood. What kind of restaurant doesn't have blood on hand? Why should I be subjected to a blood shortage? Oh well. The next time I go to a Vietnamese restaurant, there will be blood.

I have read that a popular dish in northern Viet Nam consists of congealed raw duck blood topped with herbs and raw peanuts. This dish is called 'tiết canh' and it single-handedly makes every single dollar spent on avian-flu vaccine useless. If you want to see what it looks like, search "tiết canh" in Google Images.

Defeated, I ordered a beef phở with tripe (matter from cow's stomachs). At least I got to try something new (the tripe). To my surprise, the tripe was tasteless. I would think that, after having come in contact with so much grass/grains/ground-up 'downer' cows, the tripe would have more flavour. As for texture, the best comparison I can make is that to seaweed noodles which are very hard to chew.

Enough about the food for now. I was rather delighted to sit across the table from my Vietnamese friend, whom I thought could teach me a few things about Vietnamese. She hasn't lived in Viet Nam for a while but still speaks Vietnamese with her family members. My hopes were nearly dashed as soon as I told her that I would be working in Hà Nội, which is in northern Viet Nam. She told me that, being from southern Viet Nam, she cannot help me, because the dialect is different. Great. Maybe she was suspicious that I had become a communist. After she told me this, I did not ask for much help, owing to her disavowal of sufficient language skills. But she ended up helping me out quite a bit. In the Pimsleur Vietnamese programme (which I am using), one is taught that one should address an older woman as "bà". So right after the waitress delivered our food, I quietly said "Cám ơn bà" [Thank you (to an older woman)]. My friend swiftly reminded me that "bà" is used to address an old lady, not a middle-aged woman such as our waitress! It turns out that "chị" is the proper way to address a middle-aged woman. I just hope that the waitress did not hear me.

After much jovial conversation, cow flesh and rice flour, we decided to order postprandial drinks. I took advantage of my opportunity to order a durian milkshake. At first I was reluctant to do so because I had never had durian before, and wanted to taste it in all of its naked glory (or naked shame). But the milk and sugar would moderate the fruit's worst tastes, so I figured that the milkshake was a safe way to experience durian for the first time. Let me tell you, it was an experience. As soon as the durian matter enters your mouth, you feel as though your taste buds are being violently assaulted. After coming on strong, the durian apologises for its rudeness, cleans up the vomit and gives way to a thickly sweet flavour. I look forward to the day when I can enjoy durian by itself.

One of the unique things about Phở Đầu Bò is the fact that it has menus in its washrooms. The one I saw was at eye level (for those who are about 5'5") above the urinal. It is another ingenious plot by the owners. They encourage patrons to order phở so that they will spend a long time urinating. While they urinate, they see the menu, and think of how much more room they have in their bodies because the phở is expelled. Armed with confidence and with empty bladders, patrons order more and more food. But I had the strength of character to walk out of Phở Đầu Bò with my head held high, after three hours of good food, good conversation, bad Vietnamese and durian.


  1. Question - is it really necessary to forbid someone from eating bees? Who eats bees anyway? And does this also apply to honey?

    Secondly, I've heard about durian... and apparently it generally disgusts Westerners in the same way that many Asian people dislike cheese. You're brave!

  2. Thanks for asking about this, Becky. I just read a different translation of the verse in question, and it reads that "creeping creatures that creep on the ground" are forbidden, rather than "swarming" animals. The only forbidden insects are four-legged flying insects, with the exception of locusts (mmm! locust!). Maybe insects were eaten commonly in the time of the exodus from Egypt (more likely a slave revolt, but that's another matter). Honey is permitted, because it is not the bee itself. Every Rosh haShana (new year, literally "head of the year"), Jews follow the custom of eating apple slices dipped in honey.

    I can understand why people would dislike cheese, especially Parmesan. It stinks! It really dominates the flavour of whatever food it's on. It's definitely not as pungent as durian, though.