1 Man, 365 Meals

An airline pilot turned accidental foodie undertakes an epic gastronomic adventure and survives to tell his tale…

“So What’s the food like over there?” This simple question from friends and family firmly entrenched in our Western world of steaks and pizza back home in the United States always leads to a not so simple explanation. In fact, their constant queries into my diet ultimately pushed me into a 12 month quest of grazing my way across Vietnam in search of an answer.

I set out to find a different meal every day for a year, and in theory, this goal seemed so elementary since, after all, we must eat.

How hard could this be? About three dozen days in, I had my answer as I confided in my friend Brandon, “I may have bitten off more than i can chew! I’ve still got 330 meals to go.”

Discovering Vietnam’s bustling cities on foot would become my main avenue of answering that nagging daily question of, “What’s for dinner tonight?” input from friends helped as well, and even airplane and fast foods would appear on the rare times when my motivation succumbed to laziness or a rainy season deluge. Sure, a few meals made more than one appearance but not for a lack of 365 different foods. Sometimes an uninspired experience at a local watering hole would warrant a second bite.

But let’s back up a few meals here to better understand why this project-cum-food blog would become such a monumental, and all consuming, chapter of my life. Early in 2010, I had secured a year’s leave from my airline in the United States to fly the friendly skies over Vietnam. One year turned into two and two quickly melded into three. Not knowing how long I’d remain in Vietnam, I realized a lasting souvenir such as writing about my experiences here could forever keep me tied to this amazing country no matter where my future landed me.

Several stops along the way stand out as personally defining moments providing full-on immersion into all things Vietnamese, often well removed from the beaten path.

365 Meals Image by Nam Quan-1

Pho Bo (Beef Noodle Soup) – 1 of 365

That my food adventure kicked off with such a commonplace pairing of rice noodles and chewy beef was more a testament to my own finicky food habits and fears than the sheer abundance of soup parlors dotting the streetscape.

Trust me when I say I would have rather dived head first into more exotic offerings such as curry frog legs or grilled boar, but my taste buds had not yet caught up with my ambitions. As I stared 365 future meals in the face, I had already succumbed to apprehension for anything beyond the Western friendly Vietnamese foods I had been sampling in earnest my first two years living in Vietnam. I was just not ready to venture very far.

Pho seems to fuel this country for breakfast, lunch, dinner and all times in between, so I rationalized that pho Bac Hai Ha Noi (36 Pham Van Bach, Tan Binh) restaurant was indeed a proper kick off for my upcoming year-long food endeavors.

As I slurped the final remnants of lunch that steamy afternoon, I realized stepping up my game was in order if I expected anyone to follow this food blog with any sort of interest. I decided then and there I would use this opportunity not only to provide the world with a window into the sheer variety of Vietnamese foods but also as a vehicle fostering my own personal growth by pushing myself well beyond my comfort zone.

Cha Ngan Nuong (Grilled Goose and Fermented Shrimp) – 77 of 365

My friend phuc’s dinnertime invitation sent us via motorbike in search of something beyond the mainstream in Hanoi. The wet and dreary streets finally deposited us in front of Pho Cuon Huong Mai at 25 Ngu Xa Street in the Truc Bach Lake neighborhood. The open front restaurant’s bedraggled authenticity, basking in its fluorescent lit glory, quickly collided with my Western sensibilities.

Succulently grilled morsels of goose atop a bed of sautéed onions and herbs exceeded all my expectations and made up for any ambient shortcomings. Phuc encouraged me to try the purple dipping sauce wafting its malodorous air across our metal table. He seasoned the thick paste with searing hot chilies and a splash of citrus. Though I cannot honestly say this fermented shrimp concoction packing a pungent punch is my favorite condiment, the tender poultry grilled to perfection surely left a lasting impression of hanoi.

Roasted Crickets – 94 of 365

This meal channeled childhood tribulations of my younger self refusing to eat a single green bean and a chunk of well-done steak. Fast forward several decades and here we have a bowl of crickets inducing angst in this grown man. Yes, crickets. Small, black crunchy crickets.

My friends Thuy and Evelyn joined me at highway 4 restaurant in Saigon’s District 3 to lend moral support for my first foray into adventure eating. This mainstream eatery has that one eyebrow raising menu column listing the more “exotic” choices.

Now I am not one to normally send a mealtime prayer heavenward, but I will admit to now begging for strength to ingest these grilled critters. Down the hatch the cricket went… eventually. And who would have known? They were quite good. We even discovered mint and coriander leaves add depth and sophistication to the dish.

365 Meals Image by Nam Quan-4

Pha Lau Nuong (Grilled Innards) – 193 of 365

The journey to and from the alley side table proved as interesting as this meal itself. My friends Richie and Mimi enjoy street food as much as I and definitely unlocked a whole new hidden side of Saigon. They held the keys to this entire meal of animal innards as well as the motorbike I borrowed to make my maiden selfdriven cross town voyage.

Perhaps every rule of the road known to man succumbed to my two wheeled fury as I manipulated that motorbike to District 5’s alley 565 off Nguyen Trai Street.

Wooden skewers of hearts, lungs and kidneys paired with a deliciously spiced dipping sauce left me working up the courage to commence eating. Richie explained these most interesting bite-size morsels known as pha lau nuong roughly translate as grilled innards. Though that evening the food and I would not properly connect, I felt replete nonetheless by becoming integrated with the culture surrounding us.

365 Meals Image by Nam Quan-3

Phao Cau Ga (Bankruptcy Chicken Questions) – 272 of 365

Black and white letters splashed across Anh Tuyet’s menu in Binh Thanh District aligned to spell out “bankruptcy chicken questions.” Sometimes these priceless translations alone beg the hungry to give the food a try. Brandon and I settled onto squat stools outdoors in the sultry air to ascertain just how exactly a cooked chicken files for bankruptcy.

As I lifted the skewer towards my mouth in search of an answer, weakness suddenly washed over me. The warm meat met the plastic plate with a dull thud as Brandon exerted copious amounts of peer pressure on me to try it. I timidly popped one in my mouth only to bite into probably the fattiest orb complete with subtle crunch I’ve ever experienced in my life.

I prayed my stomach would fail to rebel against the bologna tasting contents now being forced into it. Each bite unleashed a greasy liquid, and I just couldn’t move much beyond the awful fact, in my opinion at least, that this was some sort of offal. My coworkers would later tell me I had eaten chicken anus. I later joked with Brandon that if a menu fails to properly translate an item into english, chances are a Westerner would probably never find the dish back home.

Pho Bo (Beef Noodle Soup) Again – 365 of 365

A bittersweet sense of relief enveloped me as I washed down this final meal with a warm bia Saigon. Several hours of my day would no longer be consumed with finding yet another new food. On the other hand, such a huge chapter in my life was now drawing to a rapid close, and I was saddened as I realized that meal number 366 would not grace my blog the next day. I had debated wrapping up this journey with a bang by unearthing a food no one back home would dare touch but at the last minute decided to chart a familiar course by revisiting one last time my trusted old friend, pho bo. Once again I found myself walking back down the street near my apartment to that rundown pho parlor where it all commenced. To be sure, pho is probably the most common of Vietnamese foods in America where I would soon be headed, and I wanted these authentic and proper flavors fresh in my mind when I sampled their north American cousins. I savored every last drop of that beef infused broth while marveling at how far 12 months of exploring Vietnam well beyond the normal tourist and expat trails had brought me.

Just as with finally working up the courage to embrace a diet far beyond my norm, food would become an apt metaphor for my personal growth in Vietnam. This vivid land can seem so overwhelming, chaotic and intense to the newly arrived. The same holds true for food. The veritable street buffet simmering in pots and searing over glowing coals at first intimidates and taunts. Eating my way across Vietnam has taught me first and foremost that food is such a wonderful medium bridging language barriers and cultural gaps. I quickly discovered that even though the words to properly communicate in Vietnamese would never quite roll off my tongue, my neighbors and I could always share a smile and laugh over a meal. Finding a perch atop a tiny plastic squat stool on a sidewalk simmering in the humid air is a most inexpensive ticket granting the hungry admission into this fascinating culinary kingdom.

To read about all 365 meals, visit Jake’s blog at www.getoffthetrail.com.

Images by NAM QUAN

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