Well, junk food has come to Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City). I knew it would. It started with fast food. Colonel Sanders came to town first and has become firmly rooted. It's a mark of higher status here to dine with the Colonel. Yes, you read that right. In a country whose annual per capita income is less than a thousand dollars, it's a feather in your cap to have your birthday party at, or catered by, "KFC Food Shop." The Korean-owned Lotteria burger chain came at about the same time. Burger King and McDonald's followed in 2014.
But it's gone beyond fast food. Bud and (sigh) Bud Light appeared around the same time, and with a marketing budget equal to the GDP of a small country. We've also got microwave popcorn, all kinds of chips and dips, every kind of soda-pop you've ever heard of and many you haven't, Indian sweets, Japanese crisps, Chinese things that go crunch in your mouth, all of those menacing munchables that have salt, sugar, fat and ill health as common denominators. And hot dogs. Locally made hot dogs, in fact!
Now, I never eat fast food. And I rarely do more than nibble a chip, sniff at a dip or politely refuse the others. But a hot dog, now, that's a different breed to me. Yeah, yeah, I know, nitrates and sodium, cow's lips and pig's ears. And sure, you don't want to see the things being made. But as far back as I can remember going to the movies, I can remember the snack bar where hot dogs were rolling on that tubular grill. Picnic equaled hot dog, ball game equaled hot dog, hot dog equaled childhood bliss.
Saigon is one of the culinary centers of the Earth. I have dined in some of the best restaurants anywhere, places serving some of the finest chow you could ever ask for. But when I want a dog, I gotta have me a dog. Mustard, kraut, maybe some relish or a pickle spear. Chopped onions are good, too. And while beer is my nectar, I like an ice-cold Pepsi with a dog. Mmmmm. And I can tell you that I had me a dog just before I sat down to write you this. It got my juices going, see?
So to get down to my story, I found out that Charlie Wong was selling hot dogs from a little old pushcart stand down on De Tham Street, in the backpacker district of Saigon. "He's just outside the little convenience store that sells junk food, deodorant and toilet paper to tourists," the report went.
I didn't know Charlie at the time, though I knew who he was. Expats here are often aware of each other even though they haven't met. Charlie is an educated man, of Chinese extraction via Malaysia and UK. He went to school with TV chef Jamie Oliver. He is owner of a proper sit-down restaurant somewhere in the city, but his fame is as the "Hot Dog King of Saigon," so called because he supplies his superior dogs to all the better movie houses in town. He set up his hot dog stand once a week as a hobby. He likes the street life, as I do. He likes to press the flesh with his customers. And he likes hot dogs.
So I was down in the district, teaching yet another bartender how to make a proper drink. It's easy to teach the ingredients and procedure. It's teaching them that pouring short is not in their long-term interest. They might skim a few pennies per drink that way, but they'll gain more in tips when regulars know that they can expect an honest, or even a generous, pour. This operating philosophy is repeatedly borne out in my regular watering holes where I have to ask for extra tonic in my gin & tonic. So I was pressing this point at the Cyclo bar on Pham Ngu Lao Street when the dire dog deficiency struck. Hadda have a dog! I remembered the reports of Charlie Wong. I headed for De Tham Street.
And there was The King, tending to a three-foot by four-foot pushcart. The top half was glass, and held the dogs skewered onto a rotating spit, just like the county fair or the amusement park. Charlie wore a long white apron and one of those white paper hats, like in a Happy Days soda shop.
"You're Charlie Wong," I said. "I've heard about you."
"I know you, too" he says. "I've seen your picture in Asia Life magazine. Hot Dog?"
"Yeah. Regular size. Mustard and kraut."
He plucked one off a passing skewer. He deftly slipped it into a bun, slathered it with yellow mustard and dressed it with pungent kraut. He expertly wrapped half its length in white paper and handed me the finished product. I bit into that puppy and the juice burst in my mouth, and the mustard sang on my tongue while the kraut crunched between my teeth and gave up its tangy goodness. I tell you, I was lost in Dog Heaven for a few bites. I was about to tell Charlie how good it was when he said, "I read one of your books."
"Oh? Which one?"
"The Fire Never Dies."
"Like it?" I inquired between bites.
"Parts. Especially interested in the story about your romance with the woman named Fatima at Penang, Malaysia. You even wrote about the oxtail soup you had at the E&O hotel."
Ahhh, Fatima and Chef Lim's oxtail soup. In fact, a painting of Fatima graces the cover of the book Charlie had read. It was my first doomed romance, a lifetime ago. She was a Muslim Malay and I was a young G.I. And nothing could go wrong with that affair but the ending, which was completely beyond her control and mine, and was preordained the moment we met.
Long story short about Charlie's reference, in the course of the affair there was a dinner at the grand old E&O (Eastern & Oriental) hotel, a holdover of British Empire and oozing history and romance. It was also my first oxtail soup. Callow country bumpkin that I was, I had never had anything quite so expertly and professionally prepared. I think I had never had anything so delicious. And this in the midst of an affair never so intense or exotic.
I still had a mouthful of hot dog when Charlie mentioned Fatima, and Lim's oxtail soup. Memories long dormant flooded into my mind, into my heart, and into my mouth. I could suddenly see Fatima standing beside me, wearing her signature red sarong, long black hair cascading down her shoulders. And despite the mustard, kraut and all else, I was tasting Lim's oxtail soup. And I was tasting memory. And I was tasting the island of Penang. And I was tasting love. I was tasting all that's good in life.
I swallowed what was still in my mouth, then began to wrap up the remnants in the white paper. When you're tasting memory it's best not to not taste anything else. The Hot Dog King of Saigon, seeing this, asked if there was a problem with the dog.
"No," I said. "And no disrespect to your dog. But I'm thinking about that oxtail soup, and all that went with it. I'm still remembering that soup 35 years after the fact. If I'm alive 35 years from now, I doubt I'll remember this dog, but I'll still remember that soup."
"Yeah," he says. "I remember the soup, too."
"How's 'at?" I ask in confusion. Charlie doesn't seem old enough to remember a soup served at the E&O so long ago.
"My dad made that soup for you."
"Chef Wong Lim. He was executive chef at the E&O at that time. And that was his secret recipe. He developed it over some years until it was perfect. I remembered it as I read your story."
"Six months before you arrived in Penang, Queen Elizabeth and Prince Phillip stayed at the E&O and my dad served them that same oxtail soup. From his reports, I'd say they liked it almost as much as you did. Of course they didn't have the seasoning of a star-crossed romance."
Suddenly, the remnants of my hot dog seemed awfully humble, and yet important. I had been brought to a living connection with one of the most beautiful nights of my life by a cheap sausage. By a hunk of junk food. I didn't know whether to throw it to the curb or freeze-dry and frame it. So I took it home. And I ate it. But despite the mustard and the kraut, all I tasted was oxtail soup, love and excitement. It's a bad pun, but a link was a link this time.
King Charlie gave me a very rich gift after that dog on De Tham Street. He sent me his late father's secret recipe for oxtail soup; the same as enjoyed by Queen Elizabeth and Phillip, me and many others. I now share it with you.
Chef Wong Lim's Oxtail Soup at the E&O Hotel, Penang
2 Oxtail (Portion into 2-inch round)
Blanched in Hot Boiling water, drain dry
5 big onions (chopped - rough)
5 cloves of garlic
300 grams ginger slice
5 tbsp meat curry powder
2-3 pandan leaves
5 star anise (bunga lawang)
2 inches of cinnamon
5 tbsp flour
Pepper & salt to taste
1 tbsp brown sugar
Spring onions (garnish)
Fried small onions (garnish)
5 liters water
1. Heat up the saucepan, Pour in some oil, Fry the ginger, onions till fragrant or light brown.
2. Add in flour, cinnamon, star anise, curry powder and stir fry till brown
3. Pour in water (aa 5 liters)
4. Bring it to boil, making sure all ingredients are well mixed and dissolved in water
5. Add in the oxtail and cook for 2-3 hours at low fire (till soup thickens and oxtail is done)
6. Add 1 tbsp brown sugar
7. Add salt to taste
8. Garnish oxtail soup with celery, spring onions and fried small onions.
9. Pour the soup into an empty coconut shell on which you cut a slit on the top of the coconut
10. Wrap the whole coconut in foil.
11. Steam the whole thing for at least 8- 10 hours.
12. Bring it out and serve
Richard Sterling has been honored by the James Beard Foundation for his food writing, he holds the Lowell Thomas Award and the ForeWord Award for travel writing, and he has appeared three times on Amazon.com bestseller lists. He currently resides in Battambang, Cambodia where he is completing his first novel, a historical romance of French Indochina on the eve of WWII. See more at RichardSterling.me.
A Dollar and a Dime in Vietnam - Richard Sterling
The Life of a Backpacker in Asia in the 1970s - Kevin Kelly
The Sexpat Ripples in Cambodia - Richard Sterling
The Guilt Café in Vietnam - Kirsten Koza
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