Bun dau mam tom: its worth a try
When talking about the street food culture of Viet Nam, one can’t forget to mention “bun dau mam tom” – noodles with tofu and shrimp paste.
Vietnamese dishes seek Asian Records
Shrimp paste or “mam tom” is popular in many parts of Asia including Viet Nam. As a matter of fact, “mam tom” or shrimp paste has long been in the list of “worst smelling foods in the world”. I know what some of you may react to this: “Ewww”, but come on. One of the reasons why you travel is to see (hear, smell, touch, taste, feel) the world in all its diversity, isn’t it? So why not give “mam tom” a chance? Besides, to you,” mam tom” may smell like a rotten animal, but to many local people, it is an aroma that makes their mouth water only thinking about it. After two or three times, trust me, you may feel pity for those who refuse to try this seemingly gross local food.
Basically, “mam tom” is made from shrimps and salt. The typical aroma comes from an enzyme which is available in the intestine of shrimps. Actually, “mam tom” smells exactly like the smell of the mustard-coloured stuff in shrimp heads. The fermentation may take from six months to one year before mam tom can be served, normally with “nom” sweet and sour grated “rau muong” water morning glory, “ca phao” egg-plants, “thịt chó” dog meat and of course, “bun dau mam tom”. You can surely guess, “bun dau mam tom” includes noodles “bun”, tofu “dau”, shrimp paste “mam tom” and, last but not least, odoriferous herbs “rau thơm”, which is optional but they will make the difference. “Rau thom” can be basil “rau hung” or cockscomb mint “kinh gioi”.
It is not difficult to find a street vendor that offers you this yummy dish. You will notice that the vendors do something to the shrimp paste before giving it to you: (s)he will add a few drops of a fresh lemon or satsuma “qua quat” and then some boiling oil from the same pan they are using to fry tofu. You will have to mix the whole thing well until the bowl is full of soft tiny white bubbles, which is how they make the smell less strong. Dip a piece of tofu, some noodles and a basil leaf into the sauce and eat them all together, you will feel heaven (my mouth is watering!). However, it shouldn’t be a big deal if you don’t like it first time. Remember when I had my first bite of durian, I almost threw up. Guess what, now I’m deeply in love with this fruit.
A dish of “bun dau mam tom” in the street should cost from VND20,000 VND (US$1), quite cheap, which is one of the reason why I love street foods. Of course, the vendors will always give you two options: “mam tom” or fish sauce “nuoc mam”. But, you know, there must be some reason why people call it “bun dau mam tom” and never “bun dau nuoc mam”. Last thing, you may want to prepare some pieces of chewing-gum to have after eating this very special food. I do hope after reading this, instead of referring to “bun dau mam tom” as “one of the weirdest foods”, you may want to recommend it to your friends as a special feature of Asian cuisine.