Dê vốn thật thuộc về việc lễ,
Để hòng khi vào hạng tư văn.
Để dành khi tế thánh tế thần,
Lại có thuở kỳ yên kỳ phước.
* * *
We goats by nature go with sacraments
Yes, we come in when scholars hold their rites,
When men must plead with saints or gods,
Ask them for peace and happiness.
(The Quarrel of the Six Beasts, an anonymous poem
published in the late 18th or 19th century)
Dê hấp tía tô (goat steamed in perilla leaves) at Hương Sơn Quán in District 2 is a dish that could make even the smitiest of gods bump up a harvest
For nearly a year, the exuberant Mr. Sinh has painted vivid portraits of Hương Sơn Quán as a kind of pagan pleasure dome.
Every Friday, he joined crowds of blissed-out businessmen gathered under the restaurant’s lacquered bamboo roof to gorge on goat cooked 22 different ways.
Promotional girls clad in golden cocktail dresses served beer and critter-infused rice wines designed to power customers through the menu.
The only thing the place lacked, it seemed, was a vomitorium designed to make way for more goat.
I had developed a taste for goat (spiced and stewed into the stratosphere; served over rice in Styrofoam) at Caribbean holes in the wall, but the experience Sinh described sounded like something out of the Old Testament.
Goat farming has risen exponentially in Việt Nam since it began to boom as the meat evolved as a “cold” food suitable for females to a drinker’s dinner.
Fearing a certain hangover, I deferred for nearly a year, until Mr. Sinh’s cashed my numerous rain checks on a particularly stormy Friday.
We crowded in to a small beat-up taxi and zipped under the river and down muddy alleys as Mr. Sinh launched, Bubba Gump-style, into a catalog of goat preparations.
There was grilled goat, steamed goat or goat hot pot.
There was stir-fried goat, goat udder porridge and curried goat.
His wife was partial to the tiết canh dê (a pudding made from raw goat blood), but he assured me that it would all be sold out by the time we got to the place.
“If you’re interested, we’ll have to go get some in the morning.”
“It’s very popular.”
We arrived, at six, to a packed house.
The driving rain was barely audible amid the crash of beer mugs and the loud, post-workweek chatter that filled the open restaurant and trickled out into the hot, wet night.
Glowing red-faces bobbing in a sea of short-sleeve button-up shirts.
Steam rose from every tabletop, where goat simmered atop chemical stoves.
There was nowhere to sit, so my colleague and I stood in the cigarette smoke, humidity and goat steam, dodging waiters and eying other people’s dinners before a table opened.
We hovered hungrily over the owner (Mr. Hương from Hà Tĩnh) swept away the bones, napkins and lime rinds left by our predecessors.
Throughout the course of the meal, he would appear like a sommelier, proffering a new platter of fragrant herbs or piquant dipping sauces to make up for any deficiencies in the meat itself.
I never actually saw the full menu, Mr. Sinh (who was on a first name basis with the entire restaurant) ordered our meal while I was washing my hands.
We whetted our appetites with pieces of broken rice crackers dipped in a tongue-tingling mix of the house’s chao (fermented tofu) and chili paste.
First up was xí quách or goat stock bones, which did not appear on the official menu.
“This is dish number 23.”
“Just for VIPs.”
A steel platter of boiled skulls and spines was set atop a burner.
The grey eye gazing out at us like something from an Edgar Allen Poe poem was scooped out and sucked up by Mr. Sinh who held that it would improve his own vision.
The spine proved somewhat cumbersome, like a spiky meat corn cob.
After a bit of fruitless gnawing, I gave up.
I can’t admit to having enjoyed much more than a tender morsel of jaw muscle, which seemed to have distilled all the effort and power of the world’s greatest grazer into a perfect flavor pill.
The grilled goat ribs proved far too fatty (even for a consummate chewer like myself) and the metal stovetop that accompanied the neat medallions of meat rendered them somewhat flat and flavorless—a problem Mr. Hương solved with a basket of mustard greens and soy sauce steeped in chilies.
I remained somewhat unimpressed, until the revelation of the final dish dê hấp tía tô (goat steamed in perilla leaves) an offering that would move even the smitiest of Gods to pull back on the pestilence or bump up a harvest.
Mr. Hương had buried ribbons of goat thigh under a pile of lemongrass and chopped perilla and set it to steam.
After about ten minutes, Mr. Sinh pulled the top off the steamer and the fragrant mulch materialized in a puff of peace and happiness.
As we made our way through the dish, the rain cleared, a cool breeze blew and everything seemed somehow better.
By CALVIN GODFREY
Source: Thanh Niên News