I’m Back! Here’s What I Ate

 

I told you my next blog post would be delayed…..

I recently had the amazing opportunity to visit both Saigon, Vietnam and Hong Kong on vacation with my parents and my boyfriend. In between all the historic sites, markets, temples, museums, gay bars, etc, etc that we visited, I got to eat a lot of great food, including many dishes (and animals) I had never tried before. Here are the most interesting or memorable things I ate for the first time during my trip, and what I thought of them.

Bánh xèo : I had this several times in Vietnam and really fell in love with it. It’s a crispy rice flour crepe, bright yellow from egg yolks or saffron, folded over various fillings like bean sprouts, mushrooms and shrimp. To eat it, you cut a slice of the crepe, wrap in lettuce and fresh herbs, pick up with your hands and dip in nước chấm, a sweet and salty dipping sauce. Aside from the intricate combination of flavors and textures and the fun of putting it all together, it has an excellent name: bánh, from French pan, is the Vietnamese word for cake or bread. Xèo is onomatopoeia for the sizzling sseeooww sound the batter makes when dropped into a hot skillet. I like to translate it as “sizzlecake.”

Centella juice : Called rau má in Vietnamese, centella is an herb with medicinal properties. I had never heard of it before seeing it on a menu in Saigon. It was served as a dark green smoothie that tasted exactly like raw green beans mixed with sugar. I finished it, but I don’t think I’d order it again.

Fruit : In Vietnam I tried several kinds of fresh fruit, including the delicious sweet-and-sour mangosteen, the enormous jackfruit and pomelo, and the funky-looking wax apple (which I hated). Not to mention ramubtan, durian, and various other awesome tropical fruits I’ve had the opportunity to eat in the past. I also had the first good dragonfruit I’ve ever eaten; in Vietnam they were quite flavorful, but the ones in the USA always seem to taste like crunchy, expensive water. Vietnamese people sometimes dip fruit into salty dried shrimp powder, which I rather enjoyed (although it still wasn’t enough to make me like wax apple. Blegh.)

19577368_10158947633785574_8523507010846434711_o.jpgMolten salted egg yolk French toast : This is not Hong Kong French toast, which is also a thing, but the specialty gimmick of a particular dim sum place in Hong Kong. Slice into the crispy fried toast and bright yellow egg yolk, which is both salty and sweet, oozes all over your plate. Or, get the even sweeter variation filled with bright purple taro. We got both, along with a few other items. I guess I go straight for the carbs, because when we first tried to place our order, the waitress advised us against ordering “too much bread”. Followed her suggestion, but still felt about ready to roll down the hills of Hong Kong after that meal. Worth it.

Jellyfish : In Hong Kong. The Romans ate this quite a bit, so I naturally had to try. I liked it! Cut into fine, pale yellowish strips, it had a chewy, slightly rubbery texture, like certain kinds of seaweed. It was served cold and didn’t have much flavor except the seasoning (sesame oil and seeds with a hint of chili).

Goose : Also in Hong Kong, barbecued. Not really that far outside my experience, really, but I never tried it before. Tasted just like duck.

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Fruit market in Hong Kong

Giant cuttlefish : Pictured above. I am still trying to identify the exact species of this minor spawn of Cthulhu, which was chopped into cubes with a huge cleaver and spooned into a styrofoam cup in Tai O, a small traditional fishing village on Hong Kong’s Lantau Island. The meat was sweet and tender, like crab or scallops, and did not resemble squid at all.

Dessert soups : This is a feature of Cantonese cuisine that was new to me. At the memorably-named restaurant Kai Kai, I tasted a sweet gingery broth full of little sesame dumplings, served hot, plus two soups served cold: an amped-up fruit cocktail with chunks of papaya in syrup, and another that was creamy with sago, taro and lotus nuts. I can’t think of a better way to end a hot, humid Hong Kong day in June.

Fertilized duck egg : Called hột vịt lộn in Vietnamese, and more commonly known in the USA by its Filipino name, balut, it’s exactly what it sounds like: a fertilized duck egg with a baby duck embryo inside. I’ve been wanting to try this for something like twelve years, and thus had to capture the moment of truth on video.

The egg was served piping hot with salt, pepper, lime, and an herb that I later discovered is called rau răm (Persicaria odorata or Vietnamese coriander). In the background you can hear the videographer/our friend Băng, who took us to the place and ordered me the egg (thanks dude!), and my boyfriend Shawn, who grudgingly observed while eating a much less-exciting bowl of phở. This happened after we had already had one fruitless search for the eggs–the first night we tried, we didn’t realize it was a Buddhist holiday and many vendors do not sell them on those days.

Overall this trip was an incredible experience, even if I didn’t get to eat giant water bug in Vietnam as I was hoping to. My mistake; Saigon is in the far south of the country, and it turns out the bugs are a regional northern delicacy, and not even that widely-known elsewhere. I think an equivalent would be going to NYC and being disappointed you couldn’t find a place to eat squirrel.

New ancient recipe coming soon!

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Bonus food item I didn’t try: you can buy vacuum-sealed, fully-cooked corn on the cob at 7/11 in Hong Kong. The writing on the package is in Japanese.

Ancient Recipe: Braised Flamingo (Roman, 5th century CE)

_DSC3235_02“Epicures regard my tongue as tasty. But what if my tongue could sing?” ~ A flamingo in Martial’s Epigrams laments his wasted potential

In case you couldn’t tell from the blog title, I have a special fondness for that marvelous pink monstrosity, the flamingo. Why? Because everything about them is weird. In their pained, awkward movements, they remind me of the borogoves from Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky; “thin, shabby-looking birds” who are perpetually “mimsy” (miserable and flimsy). They thrive on lakes of poison where few animals larger than the plankton they eat can survive, striding comfortably through boiling brine and laying eggs inches from gaseous fumes. They have naturally white feathers that change to pink from a diet rich in beta carotene, the same chemical that makes carrots orange. Their outlandish color and unique profile has made the flamingo the icon of American tropical kitsch and the unofficial mascot of Florida, and official mascot of the Bahamas.

But to the Ancient Romans, they were food.

Not that we should imagine Roman storefronts selling flamingo pie, fried battered flamingo bites, flamingo on a stick, etc. Nor should we picture vast leggy herds of flamingos corralled in the Roman countryside, although the poet Martial makes a tantalizing reference to flamingo husbandry in his Epigrams (3.58.14), describing them alongside other exotic livestock on a wealthy man’s farm in Baia (modern Naples). Native to the salt lakes of Africa, the flamingo was eaten in Rome only by those who could afford it. In Roman times, having a roast fenicopterus (“scarlet-wing”) on the table was a status-symbol and a means of flaunting one’s riches. Truly wealthy gourmets ate only the choicest parts, like the brains and tongue. Emperor Elagabalus was even said to offer the costly birds in sacrifice to the gods, when a regular old chicken would have done just fine.

The 5th-century cookbook Apicius, the most complete primary source on Ancient Roman cooking, features a recipe for flamingo in spiced date sauce with a note that “parrot is served the same way”:

Scald the flamingo, wash and dress it, put it in a pot, add water, salt, dill, and a little vinegar to be parboiled. Finish cooking with a bunch of leeks and coriander, and add some reduced must [grape juice] to give it color. In the mortar crush pepper, cumin, coriander, laser root, mint, rue, moisten with vinegar, add dates, and the fond [drippings] of the braised bird, thicken, strain, cover the bird with the sauce and serve. ~ Apicius 6.231

So what was it like to eat a flamingo? Was the taste really worth the trouble of acquiring the creature, or did Roman patricians eat them for show? Unfortunately the Romans left no firsthand testimony behind, aside from a passing mention in Pliny the Elder’s Natural History that flamingo tongue has “the most exquisite flavor”. And flamingo meat is not exactly easy to come by. The birds are protected by law in the United States (where I live) and in many other countries as well. But we can make a few educated guesses. Like all waterbirds, flamingos have an insulating layer of fat. This means that eating flamingo is likely a several-napkin affair, and that their meat, like duck, is probably rich and dark. For flavor we might look to ducks as well, specifically a wild-caught fish-eater like a merganser or scaup, species usually scorned by modern hunters for their pungent flavor. In a 2009 article describing an increase in flamingo consumption in India, one scientist is skeptical of their popularity: “As a rule, all fish-eating or carnivore birds, the flesh of these birds is stinky. It never tastes good.

We may never know exactly how stinky was the flesh of a Roman flamingo (although it’s worth noting that the flamingo recipe appears in Apicius directly after a technique for removing foul odor from wild birds). And while I don’t want to rule out the possibility of my eating a merganser someday, today is not that day either. I decided to use a store-bought, farm-raised duck; milder in flavor but not too dissimilar from the ducks eaten in Ancient Rome. I also decided to go full ancient-style and buy a duck with the head and feet still on.

_DSC3125Those brown chunks on the plate are pieces of asafetida or hing, a dried plant resin that will stand in for laser root. Also called silphium, laser was so popular in antiquity that the Romans over-farmed it into extinction. Asafetida makes a great substitute because it’s the silphium plant’s nearest living relative. It has a pungent flavor reminiscent of cooked onions, and can be found online and at South Asian grocery stores.

The dried leaves on the plate are rue, a bitter herb which was very popular in the ancient world but today is rarely used in food, except in Ethiopia. I ordered it on Amazon. Use caution if you plan to cook with rue; some people are allergic. If you’d rather play it safe, you can substitute rosemary or sage.

THE RECIPE

Parboiling before roasting as described in Apicius is a good technique that I have used on duck before. It tightens the skin and renders out a lot of the fat so that it doesn’t become a greasy, splattery mess in the oven. Presumably the same could be said of flamingo (where did the Romans find a pot, and an oven, big enough? How did they deal with the neck and the legs?)

I washed and dried my flamingo substitute and trimmed off the extra fat, claws and wingtips. Then I poked holes in the skin all over with a fork to help the fat leak out during cooking (I remembered this from modern roast duck recipes).

Next I brought a large pot of water to a boil and put my whole duck in head first, together with a large pinch of salt, a quarter cup of white wine vinegar and about half a bunch of fresh dill. While my duck was boiling, I reduced one and a half cups of grape juice in a saucepan and added a cornstarch slurry to thicken it (only semi-anachronistic. The Romans didn’t have corn, but they did use starch powder extracted from raw wheat). I lifted my duck out of the boiling water and into a roasting pan with a rack after 25 minutes.

I was confused by Apicius‘s instruction to “finish cooking with a bunch of leeks and coriander [cilantro].” Roasted leeks, sure, but it doesn’t make sense to roast a bunch of fresh herbs, so I guessed that some sort of preparation was being implied. I chopped the cilantro, mixed it into the thickened grape juice and basted the duck with the mixture before putting it in the oven at 350 degrees. I didn’t have room for the duck and the leeks together, so I put them in separate pans.

Now it was time for the sauce. Like all ancient cookbooks, Apicius doesn’t use precise measurements, so I mixed together my spices through a combination of gut instinct, taste-testing, and the silent guidance of the Lares and Penates, the Roman household gods. I tried to keep everything equal, using half a tablespoon each of asafetida, powdered cumin, powdered coriander, dried mint, dried rue, and black peppercorns, plus 3/4 of a cup finely-chopped dates and a splash of white wine vinegar. I mashed everything with a mortar and pestle until I had a thick, gummy brown paste._DSC3166_01

My duck cooked for about 45 minutes, and I turned the heat up to 450 for the last ten minutes to brown the skin. Once the bird was out of the oven, I added the drippings to my paste and heated it in a saucepan. This step is important to mellow the flavor of asafetida, which is pretty nasty raw. Apicius says “thicken”, but the sauce was already so thick I actually added water to it, which didn’t really help. I realized after the fact that the Romans probably used fresh rue and mint leaves in this recipe instead of dried, which would have added more moisture. My sauce had the consistency of jam, and in the end I had to spread it on the duck with the back of a spoon rather than pouring it on top.

_DSC3209_02THE VERDICT

I tend to make a “Hmm!” noise of curiosity when I taste something unusual that isn’t exactly good or bad. My boyfriend told me that all he heard from the kitchen at this point was one “Hmm!” after another. The sauce is really the star of the show here. The combination of flavors was bold, complex, and totally unfamiliar: truly Ancient Roman. I could taste each ingredient separately. First came the sweetness of the dates and the punch of the asafetida, then a tea-like bitterness from the rue, a hint of coriander and cumin, and the bite of black pepper at the very end. (The only flavor that seemed to get lost was the mint). It was overpowering on its own, but in small quantities balanced the milder flavors of the duck and the leeks quite nicely. I could see why a strong-tasting sauce might be necessary on a strong-tasting meat like flamingo.

I may never know what a real Roman flamingo tasted like, but now I have some idea. Next time I’ll try using fresh herbs and whole seeds and a bit less asafetida (or more mint) in the sauce. Overall, a surprising and interesting dish. VII out of X.

POST SCRIPTVM: This was my first time eating a duck’s head, and it was AMAZING. Especially the brain. Now I know what Elagabalus was talking about.

POST POST SCRIPTVM: FELIX IDES MARTIAE, everyone. What better day to post my first ancient recipe?