... the owner of a Saigon bun oc (snail soup noodles) asks me as I start in on the steaming bowl she's just placed in front of me.
In Shanghai refrains of Ni hui chi ma? (Are you able to eat it? Can you eat it?) accompanied almost every meal we ate outside our home. It always struck me as so very Chinese, this tendency to question a foreigner's ability to eat Chinese food - or use chopsticks, or speak or read Chinese, or ride a bicycle, or know much of anything about Chinese history, culture, or society, for that matter. A local could be well aware that I had a long history with China, carry on an entire conversation with me in Mandarin, watch as I negotiated a menu and ordered on my own, and then still exclaim, when I picked up my chopsticks, 'Oh, you can use chopsticks!'
It exasperated me no end. (Not so when Sichuanese asked, 'Ni hui chi la ma?' - Can you eat spicy food? This seems an entirely reasonable inquiry.)
Now here I am in Saigon experiencing a bit of deja vu. Look, I think to myself, I'm competently wielding chopsticks and spoon and leaning in so I don't splash soup on my shirt. Obviously I know what I'm doing. Obviously, I know how to eat bun oc.
'No,' my friend My clarifies. 'She sees you can eat it. What she means is, Do you know how to enjoy it?'
A different question entirely. And one that, I think, illustrates the Vietnamese passion for food and the act of eating. After I sip the soup, the shop owner spoons in a bit of rice wine lees vinegar. I taste and nod. She returns to her kitchen with a smile on her face, satisfied that now I know how to eat it.
Two days later we're wandering a market in a section of Saigon populated by transplants from central Vietnam. The area is dotted with small garment workshops; colorful bolts of fabric, cheap silks especially, spill out of doorways and every now and then the gentle whir of sewing machines drifts above our heads.
The market is compact but bursting with produce and jostling people, and the vendors - all women - are friendly. Skeins of pale rose and turmeric-hued noodles for my quang tell us that natives of central Vietnam shop here. So do the huge banh da (rice crackers) that are stacked,
and crisped over charcoal braziers.
I adore banh da, so I buy a couple and then head inside the market building. In its middle are tables filled with women gossiping and laughing and eating noodles and drinking coffee.
At my favorite coffee 'bar' I'm glad to run into Van and Vui, whom Dave and I have nicknamed Laverne and Shirley. Like the characters in the popular American sitcom Van and Vui, whom we met here the day before, are fast friends and work together in a (garment) factory. Short-haired, gravel-voiced Vui is loud, tomboyish, and jokey, and Van is pensive and shy. I nearly have to bring my ear to her mouth to hear her when she speaks.
When I sit down their eyes drop to the banh da in my hand.
'Do you know how to eat it?' Vui demands.
'Wait!Don't eat!' she commands. 'I'll be right back!' she calls as she disappears into one of the alleys outside.
After a few minutes Vui reappears lugging a banh chung (steamed glutinous rice cake). As she unwraps it the coffee seller pulls a plate, a few chilies, and a small saucer, which she fills with dark soy, from behind her bar. She hands a spoon to Vui, who proceeds to carve thin slices from the banh chung. Van, who speaks more English than her friend, explains that this version is filled with mashed mung bean only. The pork's been omitted because today is the first or the fifteenth (I'm not sure which) of the Lunar month.
Vui places a piece of banh chung between two banh da shards and motions for me to dip it into the soy sauce, then take a small bite from a chili before placing it in my mouth. (Later, the coffee seller simplifies the procedure by using the side of a spoon to chop the chili into the soy.) The mung bean is smooth and almost buttery and its sticky rice wrapper toothsome, all in wonderful contrast to the cracker. The spicy soy perks up the whole package fantastically. It's awfully filling, but with Dave's and Van's and Vui's help, along with that of our fellow coffee drinkers, we finish off the entire rice cake.
I have never, until this day, liked banh chung, and banh da I only ever viewed as a light snack. Clearly I didn't know how to eat either of them.
It's not the last time on this trip that I'll be asked, 'Do you know how to eat it?' I'm still mulling over the phrase, because the question seems to entail more than a simple inquiry about my familiarity with appropriate condiments and accompaniments.
And I've been thinking about the food of my own country and wondering what American dishes - if any - would prompt me to ask the same question of a foreign visitor. Does the fact that I'm coming up blank say something about American food, or about me as an American?
Is there a food you know well that would prompt you to ask a newbie, before he or she took a bite, 'Do you know how to eat it?'