Enough chemicals for one night

By the time I returned from grocery shopping with Kat and Sean this afternoon, I was somewhere between light-headed and seriously low on blood sugar. A quick rummage in the fridge turned up real honest-to-goodness yogurt—the real kind, with fruit, sugar, and calories.

After I ate it, I settled down at my desk to fire off some emails. Jeff came in with a dinner idea, just as I was finishing giving Gareth the details he needed for a script I've been begging him to write for me. "Why not try the new Vietnamese place?" Jeff suggested. "Okay," I said. "Give me a sec, and let me finish giving Gareth the information he needs to write this script."

After that, a shave on Jeff's part and a momentary hunt for keys on my part, we headed out. We tiptoed into the restaurant an hour before they closed, and settled in at our side table in the mostly-deserted restaurant. A quick scan of the room indicated that Anglos were in the minority. (In Huntsville, this is usually a good sign; the blonde Anglo types tend to stick to the Americanized restaurants.)

Somewhere between the drinks, the appetizer, and the free-flowing conversation, my headache began to lift. With its absence came my curiosity—no, not the three fellows stuffing down pho as fast as they could cram it into their mouths—but, instead, the music.

You'd expect something at least vaguely-ethnic when eating at a Vietnamese restaurant, no?

Do orchestral versions of Beatles tunes count? What about orchestral versions of "Auld Lang Syne" and the theme from The Godfather?

I tried making sense of that while chomping on my appetizer. Didn't work very well. Not at all. Someone in Vietnam has apparently found a way to cross Barry Manilow, Paul McCartney, and James Horner, and the resulting combination is quite frightening.

When the waitress finally refilled our drinks, I found myself wanting to ask her to please ease up on the psychedelic ingredients in the pho. It's a good restaurant, I suppose; they have both ticklingly-warm and slightly-incendiary hot sauces available for the diners. I availed myself of both, and was eventually forced to admit to my spouse that maybe I'd overspiced mine a bit (the runny nose and watery eyes were a definite tip-off).

But the wafting, slightly-psychedelic music made it all better.

On the way home I found myself craving—of all things—coffee. Which I almost never crave. Since coming back from Arkansas, I've had a vacuum-sealed packet of Turkish coffee waiting for whenever my next coffee urge would be.

Not tonight, though; I think the wafting psychedelics and the capsaicin from the Vietnamese restaurant were enough chemicals for one night. If my craving coffee isn't enough of a sign, I don't know what is.


Eh, I'm a victim of the "my parents are first generation immigrants who owned a Chinese restaurant and I worked there as a waiter" syndrome. In Chinese/Vietnamese restaurants, you almost never hear "Chinese" or "Vietnamese" music playing, unlike in Japanese restaurants. It's generally classical or soft jazz in Chinese/Vietnamese restaurants. I think it is because Japanese restaurants are generally a wholesome experience (the decor, the food, everything tries to create a pseudo-Japan experience), whereas the concept of Chinese food or Vietnamese food has already become so Americanized that those kinds of restaurants no longer bother to create that kind of experience. Kind of sad, huh?

Very sad, actually. I mean, not to be flip or anything, but it strikes me as being just as out of place as...oh...playing soft jazz at a barbecue joint. It's just...wrong. Then again, I'd love to find out what real Chinese food is like -- not the Americanized version, which is all we're able to get around here.

Real Chinese food is an excellent experience. I got some one time when we finally hunted down a real, honest-to-god Chinese restaurant in Chinatown up in Boston. I don't think I remember the look of the food being all that different, so much as the taste was so foreign. It was extremely good, but it took me a minute to really get used to the new taste. I highly recommend the experience if you ever get a chance.

I've had authentic Chinese food -- authentic in the sense that it was an actual Chinese person making it. A friend of mine cooked some . . . thingies . . . for the chinese new year, and they were okay. Took some getting used to the taste -- I wouldn't say it was horrible. She said that they weren't very good because she wasn't a very good cook. I don't know if that's true or if she was just being modest. From seeing what she cooked for dinner on a regular basis, "authentic chinese food" is fried cucumber, onion, mushrooms and tomatoes in this extremely pungent, thin vinegary sauce with lots of oil and salt. Sometimes celery. Just pick any two or three of the above vegetables, but it has to be fried in a lot of oil, with a sauce that has to taste like slightly rancidy soy sauce combined with MEGA-VINEGAR. It's an aquired taste. It's not as bad as kim-chee (turnip or cabbage steeped in "smelly and potent spices", according to my friend Shane, who likes it because he grew up eating it (his mom is Korean)) or that rotten fish (literally!) sauce which flavors *everything* in Vietnamese restaurants (the ones in Vietnam, anyway). (Obviously, I've never actually had the rotten fish sauce, but I've heard enough about it so that I never, ever want to try it.) So maybe there's a difference in other cultures too between restaurant quality food and food you "just eat". Most of the time, I "just eat" stuff that would never, ever fly in a restaurant, and I suspect it's like that in foreign cultures too. For what it's worth, I don't think that my Chinese friend liked any American food she ever tried, so maybe American food is an aquired taste also. I think there's something about putting tons of oil in whatever it is you're cooking though. Authentic Kenyan food is fried cabbage in a lot of oil, with beans and rice or ugali (really thick pasta-y stuff that has the consistancy of play-doh) or chapatis (oily fried bread things) and only salt for seasoning, if that. Authentic Ethiopean food is slightly more varied in ingredients, but still uses a ton of oil. But it also has a huge amount of really hot spices which don't have english names and are entirely unlike any kind of hot spices you've had ever. If you go to an ethiopian restaurant in the states, and you recognize the hot flavor, then they aren't using real ethiopian seasonings.

Hey, hey, no denigrating the fish sauce! That stuff kicks serious ass. Then again, I'd probably eat anything labeled 'seafood'... (I never understood what my stir-fries were missing until I picked up some fish sauce in Atlanta.) It's funny that you mention some of this, though. I've often caught myself asking the question "What is 'Southern' food?" and realizing that I don't have an answer to that question. But if I had to pick one dish that reminded me so much of home, I'd have to say it was my grandmother's soup. It wasn't like anything you ever got in a store -- it had spaghetti bits and various vegetables and some beef and a thinnish broth -- and it tasted so much like home that i asked her to make it for me for Christmas while I was in college. What we grow, what we cook, what we spice it with, and how we eat it says a lot about the area (both geographically and culturally) we live in. I just find that sort of thing fascinating. Always have. I just wish I could figure out how to make my grandmother's soup. She's told me for years and years that if she could ever figure out the recipe, she'd gladly give it to me. Oh well.

I don't even know that you can call one set of foodstuffs distinctively "Southern", either. I'd fairly say that New Orleans and Memphis are both Southern cities, but they're certainly known for different foods ... :)