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Layth Yousif stumbled drunk into a Hoi An restaurant and experienced the best spring rolls of his life. If only a well-known British chef hadn’t ruined the moment.
Cooking is not difficult
I was in Hoi An, Vietnam. I had just drank a lot of Vietnamese produced lager called Bierre La Rue. In advertising terms it was a crisp clear lager. In budgetary terms it also had the added bonus of costing 25p per bottle. It culinary terms the beer made me hungry.
I stumbled out of the bar, past the occasional cyclo driver. The corner I stood at scanning the street for a restaurant was made dramatic by having a preponderance of women in hats holding baskets lit dimly lit by disinterested street lights. The fact the women ambled past yellow buildings complete with blackened walls and cracked roof tiles also made the drama appear ageless. We could have been in the 1850’s or 1950’s – the scene gave no immediate clues.
Fortunately Hoi An is well versed in feeding good natured drunks who require food. An advert in a window of an eatery with lacquered timber said: “Internationally acclaimed restaurant”. It turned out that the diner had been featured by a famous English Chief” (who shall remain nameless) on his TV programme.
The sagacious local owner with his mock severe scowl brought delicate translucent spring rolls called cha gio whose finely curled glass noodles and colourful strips of sliced vegetables looked like the insides of a particularly diaphanous tropical fish.
The vermicelli, chopped onion and mushroom may have sounded plain, but to taste buds craving flavour they were anything but. It seemed criminal to slather them in soy sauce, an action I undertake even when sober normally.
“You like” said the owner, more in way of confirmation than inquiry. He knew they tasted bloody good.
He then brought the local speciality, Cau Lao, thick noodles with spicy pork slices and crispy squares of pork crackling. It was as hearty as it was delicious. The fresh savoury flavours were arguably the best food I had tasted in a Vietnamese food serving establishment this side of the collection of Vietnamese restaurants in Hackney. Certainly amongst businesses that offered a roof at any rate.
Of course being Hoi An (and the décor being heavy wooden lacquer) the owner ostentatiously produced the book containing Western customer comments. I wasn’t sure whether he wanted me to peruse the observations at my leisure, or write my own and pass it on to the next table as quickly as possible.
I focussed on words rather than food for the first time in the place. The comments ranged from the easily pleased North American sounding: ‘Great meal. Period’; those suffering from acute exclamation mark overuse: Lovely food! Fantastic!’; a surfeit of overenthusiastic endorsements and exclamation mark overuse (‘excellent! absolutely marvellous’). Hidden amongst the banalities were the downright pedantic. Where you could almost feel the writer’s teeth grinding (or were they mine?): ‘the food was of a consistent high quality yet for me the pork was slightly overdone’.
I noticed comments from the producer of the aforementioned British Chefs TV Programme. Just in case the reader wasn’t aware of that fact, the writer had kindly provided the name of the chef and the programme in such a blatant piece of aggrandising self-promotion as to put me off the show for life.
Or at least until I came across it on an obscure cable channel whilst I was drunk and channel surfing late one night many years after. I can’t recall the exact words used in the comments book, but like the Chef himself, & his TV programme – and the restaurant with the best spring rolls I’d ever tasted – it was insufferably smug.
Follow Layth on Twitter @laythy29