Before I start here you have to know that I fit into every possible synonym of faint-hearted when it comes to eating all foods exotic. Chicken-heart? Check. Coward? Check. Gutless? Check. Useless Asian? Check. [Insert your synonym here] Check.. you get the point. Up until 3 years ago I couldn’t even stand the sight of a harmless bean sprout because it vaguely reminded me of maggots.(I have gotten over my fear of bean sprouts since). And in the same breath I will also let you know that I have no qualms jumping off airplanes and bridges. Just saying..
It’s been 5 months since I moved to Hanoi, and I’ve discovered that this city is teeming with exotic foods. Naturally as a consequence, every time I backed out from trying an insect when dining with my local friends, the name callings piled. In fact, it has increased several fold to the point where I want it to stop. My brother who has a stronger stomach than me and also boasted about his insect-y exploits in Phnom Penh once called me lily-livered! lily livered!? Who even uses this term? Worse still, who’s lily-livered enough to get labelled lily-livered?! This was the final straw.. I made a resolute decision to put an end to all this lily-livery and tell off the naysayers. I summoned my trusted friend and Hanoian, Mai Thao (MT), food connoisseur and culinary adventurist for help. To put MT in perspective, she once told me, “there’s this big fat white worm some Hanoians eat alive, that’s the only thing I have to check off my list..”. Needless to say, I’ve never let a conversation that starts like that carry any further.
MT was all too happy to oblige and put together an itinerary for me. Her condition was that I wouldn’t know beforehand what I was to be eating. She then outlined two golden rules:
1. Sit quietly as a pillion rider on her scooter as she took me around the nooks and crannies of Hanoi;
2. Eat (at least sample) all items that were placed in front of me, and that I was not to embarrass her in front of her fellow Hanoians by kicking a fuss.
I agreed. My saga began.
Item Number 1
MT: Hey Anil!
MT: Start thinking about how you will narrate this day to your grandchildren.
Then she went silent and reminded me of golden rule no. 1. She was clearly enjoying herself. And at this point I was regretting telling her that bean sprouts scared me. The first stop was for duck foetus. Yeah, you read that right, an egg that isn’t even an egg!
But on a more honest note, the broth in which the foetus is cooked actually made it taste decent. I stayed away from the part of the egg that had already developed the eyes and beak, but quite enjoyed the part that was still egg. 🙂 One down. [only MT knows] more to go!
Item Number 2
MT: Hey Anil!
Me: No, I still don’t know how I’ll narrate this day to my grandchildren!
MT: No, not that
MT: It’s ‘bloody’ hot today!
Me: Oh! yea, it is.
Little did I know she was toying with me yet again, our next pit stop was for raw geese blood!
The bowl of fresh blood is served with liver, cartilage and crushed peanuts. I tried to summon the Vampire in me to see this dish in a more favourable light but failed miserably, so I ordered a glass of wine to help me through. Just as I was about to take the first spoon, MT says, “Wait, we need to cook it first”. Finally, words from MT that would save me..She then proceeds to squeeze lemon juice over the blood dish, “wait 30 seconds then you eat”. I should have known better.
Item Number 3
Me: Hey MT! You’re having fun aren’t you?
MT: Yup, aren’t you?
I really don’t have much words for this Vietnamese delicacy.
I had a bad feeling about this one and sure enough, the next item on the list was dog meat.
I have a dog at home and this was where I wanted to draw the line but MT invoked Golden rule no. 2. A tiny morsel with two glasses of rice wine was all I could manage.
I was visibly distraught after this one, but I knew I had more to go so I put on the best game face I could.
Item Number 4 and 5.5
MT: Hey Anil, let’s cheer you up.
MT: Let me buy you some ice cream.
She has a sense of humour, alright, but an ice cream wasn’t gonna make me feel any better so we headed over to our next destination. This one was quite difficult to get to and had us navigating through the back alleys of Hanoi through construction sites and unpaved roads.
As if unpaved roads weren’t adventurous enough we had to get off the scooter and push it through this ominous looking dark alley.
The menu was brought to us and on the first page was the picture of a grasshopper. Insects it was, then. MT calls the waitress and places the order in Vietnamese, and as the waitress is about to leave I call her back and order for backup in the little Vietnamese I know, “Mot Bia” (1 beer). Game on!
The first thing that crossed my mind on seeing the spread, “how on earth did I graduate from bean sprouts to grasshoppers in a single day!?” Took me a good 10 minutes to muster up the courage to even touch these damn insects. A bottle of beer wasn’t gonna cut it. I ordered a stronger local wine.
A strong swig of wine and I quickly rip the head of the stink bug and put the abdomen in my mouth – One crunch. Two crunch. Swallow. Not Fun! I could feel my determination waning. If I was to get through this it had to be quick. Another swig of wine and I grab the smallest grasshopper on the plate, plucked one leg out and put it in my mouth – One crunch. Two crunch. Swallow. I was getting on a rhythm here so I reached out for the cricket but.. but it was just too big and muscular! I pause.
There was no way I could eat any part of that, but I also had this momentum going which I didn’t want to lose so I quickly plucked out a lone antenna – One crunch. Swallow. Done.
It’ll be awhile before I get myself to eat any of these items but one things for certain, no one will be calling me lily-livered any more.
Oh and if you’re wondering why 5.5, I counted the grasshopper leg and cricket antenna as 1.5. A Crick-hopper! 😉
As a side note, MT is a super cool person and not as I have made her out to be in this post. If you’re curious about her big fat worm wish then see this video here. She’s even made our adventure into a Fear Factor Challenge that you can sign up for. Thanks a ton, MT!