Beautiful Phu Quoc Island is a fishing village-turned-tourist-attraction famous for Vietnamese fish sauce and equally fragrant dead jellyfish-speckled beaches.
Admittedly, I came here with romanticized notions of an undiscovered region, but as one travels, you come to grips with the fact that most things have already been discovered and sold en masse. Well, everything except the fish sauce, which Vietnamese Airlines have banned visitors from transporting outside of the country due to a legitimate fear of stinking up planes.
But despite the stinky ban and a solemn investigation into the missing Malaysia airlines flight (in the island's waters) a few days prior to our arrival, Phu Quoc was as rowdy as an MTV Spring Break special.
As my boyfriend and I scooted our sunburned asses around the island, I became increasingly pissed at the menus of the local beach shacks. Spaghetti bolognese? Salisbury steak? Herring? Fucking herring? With Russian Jewish roots, the stinky fish is part of my culinary soul. I know my great grandmother's pickled schmaltz herring recipe by heart, but I just didn't think herring fit the tropical gestalt of Phu Quoc. I assumed locals were catering to the swarms of Eastern Bloc retirees.
Feeling dissatisfied and cheated, we scooted around the island some more and decided to return to our hut on the beach. As we stopped on the side of the road, we heard a gruff yell from a restaurant across the highway. An old man cat-called us with the names of seafood parts like a used car salesman. It was about time for a drink, so why not entertain a feisty grandpa across the way? I tip-toed into the establishment, where we were the only ones, save one patron eating a plate of fried rice in the corner. The place looked like a dystopian, shipwrecked disco club, but that was probably fueled by ABBA, which was playing relentlessly on the speakers.
By the time our waiter had come over to take our order, the old man had returned, cigarette dangling from his mouth. At this point in the exchange, "Dancing Queen" had played five times. Phu Quoc is known to produce rum, so we ordered a round for the table. The chain-smoking owner doubled as a bar-back, so he poured our drinks while our server let us know that he had hamburgers and French fries.
I perused the seven page menu because I am a masochist, and I spotted herring, again. This is the dish I needed to order.
In broken English, Nip, the owner, informed us that he was originally from Saigon but moved to Phu Quoc ten years ago to open up this restaurant. His head chef, Hien, learned how to cook from her mother and Chinese neighbors.
We returned a few times over the course of a week, hungry to learn about the local cuisine. My boyfriend, a professional kitchen intruder, asked Nip if he and the chef could teach us how to prepare some dishes from the island. As we figured out the menu, Thahn recommended the herring salad, again.
The next morning, we arrived at 9 AM and walked into the kitchen, where the air was sticky and thick with heat. Nip sat us down with a beer, turned on the ABBA mix again, and with our non-existent Vietnamese and his English, we drew pictures and exchanged food vocabulary while we waited for the chef to return from the market.
Chicken = gà, beef=bò and egg=trứng.
Chef Hien, a petite woman, led us into an open space inside the kitchen with sinks on the ground, an electric burner, and a huge cauldron full of bubbling pork broth. She unpacked the goods: fresh herbs, rice paper rounds—moist and thin as gossamer—and glistening, silver filets of herring. We got to work and together, we mixed fish sauce, sliced spicy chilies, sugar, garlic, and lime juice to make a sauce as ubiquitous as ketchup in the states, nuoc cham. Nip sliced the onions with his motorcycle helmet on and cigarette dangling from his mouth. Hien arranged the raw herring on a platter, then mounds of dried, grated coconut onto the filets, garnishing the dish with fresh mint, basil, cilantro, whole chilies, and crushed, roasted peanuts.
We prepared the rest of the menu, which consisted of pork and taro spring rolls, items that were carried over from Hien's Chinese neighbors. There was also tomato and pineapple fish head soup. I was extremely humbled when Hien shook her head at my spring roll assembly techniques, but I couldn't blame her. The result looked like an overstuffed joint. Naturally, I was moved off onto the task of cleaning and gutting the fish. The kitchen was enveloped in a steamy, stinky bomb of fish sauce.
When the cooking came to a halt, we all sat down together for the meal. It started by wrapping the herring salad into the rice paper rolls and whole leaves of lettuce, dipping judiciously into the nuoc cham.
I ate in silence, ashamed of doubting the sincerity of this island, but so happy to have met these people, and sorry that I had ever doubted the underdog of all fish.