Flirting with foreign menus
Ordering food in a new destination can sometimes be frustrating. You know, when there’s no translation, and the letters on the menu reveal absolutely nothing about the contents of the dish. I have spent most of my adult life cursing the so called ‘tourist menus’, you know, the type they give you in restaurants that tend to have all sorts of flags from around the world on display. But I tell you something. Some fifteen years ago, the words ‘palak paneer’ had me wishing for a translation. (Or maybe even just the tiniest, tackiest picture). It took me one week in India before I realised that ‘palak paneer’ was indeed a safe bet. Spinach & cheese – you can’t go wrong with that.
On a more recent trip to Vietnam, we spent the last six days of our holidays on the island of Phu Quoc. By now we had mastered the chop sticks (our daughter used them more like stab sticks, but nevermind…) and we knew our pho ga (chicken soup) from our cute little chả giò (spring rolls).
However, the food on Phu Quock Island was different to everything else we had tried in Vietnam. It is richer, tastier and spicier. And there are neither chicken soup or spring rolls on the menu. The island itself produces peppercorns and that beloved Vietnamese fish sauce called nouk nam. The stuff is fermented, and some days when the wind blew north, the smell of rotten fish would linger. However, the taste is rather good. And combined with the peppery fish they cooked on the beach, it is a cuisine in its own right.
We stayed in a bungalow (17$ per night) at My Lan bungalow complex the Eastern side of the island. This is the less developped side, and as opposed to the Western side where the resorts are covering pretty much the whole coast, the Eastern side is still full of virgin beaches and plenty of lush vegetation. It is a place where tourism is still taking its first wobbly steps, and consequently, it is a place where the menus are hilarious. Pork on the side, for instance, is a dish I hadn’t heard of before. Could it be spare ribs? Maybe, maybe not. We decided to give it a go.
The restaurant at My Lan consists of a small kitchen, a handful of aluminium tables scattered in the sand, an oblivious yet charming staff and possibly the best ingredients I’ve ever come across. But pork on the side..? We were intrigued as our hunger was gradually building up. Ding, our friendly waiter, showed up with our Tiger beers, plates and cutlery. No food in sight. He re-appeared with a small metal dish, into which he poured coal. Aha! Pork on the side is a bbq’ed dish, we assumed. And rightly so. After a ceremonial wait while the coals turned from black to grey, Ding sat down on the deck chair nearest our table. He barbecued juicy pieces of what we assumed came from the pork’s side. Could it be pancetta, I asked myself. And in our 117th futile attempt to get Ding to translate ‘Pork on the Side’ for us, he simply pointed to us, to the bbq, to the meat and to himself – Pork on YOUR side, he smiled.
The conclusion? ‘Pork on the Side’ is a dish consisting of pork being bbq’ed to perfection by your side! Mystery solved! A great big cheers to Ding and My Lan and their truly entertaining and unique menu. May it long live before some know-it-all foreigner decides to correct it.
We stayed at My Lan on the southern end of Bai Sao Beach, Phu Quoc Island. T: (077) 399 0779 F: (077) 399 1010