Vagabond Tales: The strange food of Vietnam

Apparently, there are no sharks left in Vietnam.

This is not a scientific fact. It’s based solely upon the opinion of my dive instructor in Nha Trang, a trendy resort town in southern Vietnam. While you may initially think this is a good thing, the sad reality is that sharks are one of the most threatened animals in the undersea environment and the vast majority pose no threat to humans whatsoever.

The instructor claimed he hadn’t seen a shark underwater in over 8 years, a fact which led me to speculate as to why. Was the water warmer? Had their food moved further offshore? Had he just not been looking?

The answer, it would turn out, wasn’t as much of a mystery as I was making it out to be.
“Because we eat them all” he nonchalantly mused. “Vietnam, Korea, China, eat all the shark. No more shark.”

While I knew that shark fin soup was a much sought after dish in the Far East, I didn’t think it had reached such dire levels where a trained professional who goes into the water actually looking for them hadn’t encountered one in nearly a decade.His answer did nothing to surprise me, however, as the Vietnamese are renowned for eating absolutely anything; sharks, dogs, birds, snakes, cats, starfish-it’s all just food. Of the Vietnamese, a Cambodian friend of mine once quipped that “the only thing with two legs they don’t eat is a human, and the only thing with four legs they don’t eat is a table.”

I ruminated over this as I examined an oversized glass vase in the dive shop which had been stuffed with dead snakes and black ravens. A curious sight to be sure, the dead animals were soaking in a brackish looking liquid I was informed was rice wine, the final product of which was meant to be an aphrodisiac so potent it aroused women to uncontrollable levels and kept men “strong” all throughout the night. Much of this information was gleaned from an elderly Vietnamese woman communicating solely in hand gestures, a somewhat awkward state of affairs concerning the subject matter.

Regardless, later in the day as I flopped backwards overboard at the outset of my dive, I soon would realize that the Vietnamese don’t just eat anything, but they also will eat anywhere.
As I mentioned in my Vagabond Tales column on roasting marshmallows over Guatemala’s Volcan Pacaya, one of my favorite aspects of global travel is the refreshing lack of liability found in many parts of the globe. This is why it came as no surprise when 15 minutes into the dive we found ourselves inside of a cave 60 feet below the surface, a place where most US based operators would never take beginner divers (though I am a PADI Divemaster, my two mates from New Zealand were only on their second dive ever).

For those of you who have read my blogger profile here on Gadling, you have an idea of what happens next. Navigating his way through the cave with four hesitant divers in tow, a large shellfish suddenly caught the eye of the instructor. Seeing as this is Vietnam and you eat whatever you can find, it obviously meant this was feeding time.

Giving us the signal for “stop and wait”, our instructor hastily grabbed a medium-sized stone from the sand bottom and crushed the mollusk in a Neanderthal-esque display of force. Then, like an orangutan sharing its meal at the zoo, he divvied up the flimsy white meat and offered us all to have a taste, which is how we found ourselves eating raw shellfish, underwater, in a cave, in southern Vietnam.

To answer the question of anyone paying attention, yes, eating underwater is hard, but it’s not impossible. You take a deep breath in, remove your regulator (which is never done outside of the skills test when you first get certified), place the food into your mouth, reinsert the regulator, and attempt to breathe and chew at the same time.

So yes, there are no more sharks in Vietnam, some Vietnamese eat dogs, and if they find a shellfish underwater, there’s a good chance they’ll eat that too.

**Disclaimer: The author does not condone multiple elements of this story, including, but not limited to, tampering with sea life while diving, attempting to eat underwater, removing your regulator under any circumstances, fermenting dead ravens to make sex juice, embarking on a $15 scuba dive in the first place, or discussing politics with a Vietnamese man who’s been drinking, which although it’s not included in this tale, simply serves as a general warning**

Want more travel stories? Read the rest of the Vagabond Tales here

Video of the Day: Yao Ming PSA about shark fin soup

We recently covered the controversy over shark fin soup, so no need to rehash that. However, we were interested in this video staring Yao Ming, arguably the most famous – and popular – Chinese national in the world. In the ad, diners decline to eat shark fin soup after witnessing just how inhumane it is.

Yao, of course, is the dominant center on the NBA’s Houston Rockets. That’s when he’s not nursing the injuries that caused him to miss 77 of 82 games last season. In fact, he’s missed 168 games over the last five seasons. Perhaps he could have used some of the shark fin’s alleged medicinal and virility-enhancing properties. What? Too soon?

California’s proposed shark fin ban stirs up debate over global politics of culinary delicacies

As a former longtime resident of Berkeley, California, I’m no stranger to the concept of eating-as-political-act. Well, there’s a new food ethics issue on the block, kids, and while it may smack of the current, all-too-pervasive epidemic of food elitism, it’s really more about ecology, animal welfare, and the politics of eating–especially with regard to travelers, immigrants, and adventurous eaters.

California, never a state to shy away from bold ethnic cuisine, hedonistic gustatory pursuits, or activism (especially when they’re combined) is currently debating the future of shark fin. Namely, should the sale and possession of said shark fin be banned, making the serving of shark fin soup–a dish with strong cultural relevance for the Chinese–illegal?

A recent post on Grist draws attention to this culinary quandary, which addresses the increasingly dicey future of sharks versus the growing demand and profit shark fin offers fishermen, importers/distributors, and restaurateurs. A bill has been introduced into the California legislature to ban shark fin, which would have certain impact upon the state’s various Chinatowns, most notably San Francisco’s because it’s the largest as well as a profitable tourist attraction. There’s concern that the ban might infringe upon the cultural heritage and economic livelihood of the Chinese community–an ethnic group that makes up a large portion of California’s population. Or, as one Chinatown restaurateur in San Francisco commented, “People come to America to enjoy freedom, including what is on the plate.” Well. If only it were that simple.

[Photo credit: Flickr user laurent KB]Shark fin soup holds an important place in Chinese culture. This delicacy is a sign of the host’s generosity at banquets, and is believed to have virility-enhancing and medicinal properties. It has no taste, nor much purported nutritional value; the cartilaginous fins merely add a gelatinous texture. But hey, here’s a hilarious factoid I just found on Wikipedia: eating too much shark fin can cause sterility in males, due to high mercury content.

According to Sharkwater, the site for filmmaker Rob Stewart’s award-winning documentary about shark finning and hunting, shark specialists estimate over that 100 million sharks are killed for their fins, annually. Shark finning refers to the practice of cutting the fins off of (usually) live sharks, which are then tossed overboard to die a slow death or be cannibalized by other sharks.

While shark finning is banned in North America and a number of other countries, it is unregulated and rampant throughout Asia (most notably, the Pacific and Indian Oceans, but international waters are unregulated, which leaves a large gray area for finning to occur). The key issue with shark finning, aside from cruelty and waste of life, is its impact upon the food chain. As the ocean’s greatest predators, sharks are at the top of the chain, and without them to consume the food that normally make up their diet, things get out of whack. Other species proliferate, and endanger other species, and so on, which ultimately wreaks havoc upon marine ecosystems.

California isn’t the first state to take on the ethics of shark finning. Oregon and Washington are considering legislation, and Hawaii’s ban takes effect on June 30th. The bigger picture, as pointed out by Grist writer Gary Alan Fine, is that this isn’t the first time food politics and culinary delicacies have caused a ruckus, and it won’t be the last. He reminds us of the Great Foie Gras Fight of 2006, when Chicago banned the sale and serving of what are essentially fatty, diseased duck and goose livers. Chicago finally overturned the ban due to monumental protests, but California has banned the production (not the sale) of foie gras starting in 2012.

Foie gras is a specialty of southwestern France, but it’s also produced domestically in several states. Foie gras is an important culinary tradition and part of French culture. The animals are fattened by force-feeding (“gavage”) several times a day. In the wild, geese do overfeed prior to migration, as a means of storing fat. The difference is that their livers double in size, rather than increase times ten.

What gavage does involve is inserting a tube or pipe down the goose or duck’s throat. Research indicates the animals don’t suffer pain. That may well be true, but there are many reports of gavage gone wild, in which fowl esophagi and tongues are torn. I haven’t been to a foie gras farm, although I’ve done a lot of research on the topic, and have spoken with journalists and chefs who have visited farms and watched gavage. I’ve yet to hear of anyone witnessing visible suffering or acts of cruelty (including nailing the birds’ feet to the floor, something animal welfare activists would have us believe is standard practice). Does a lack of pain mean it’s okay to produce and eat foie gras? I don’t know; I’d be lying if I said it doesn’t bother me conceptually, but I also think it’s delicious. That’s why I want to visit a farm; so I can make an informed decision for myself.

Foie gras aside, the humane/sustainable aspects of commercial livestock production, foraging, or fishing usually come down to the ethics of the producer, forager, or fisherman, as well as regulations and how well they’re enforced (if at all). Sometimes, as with shark finning, there is no humane aspect (although to most of the fishermen, they’re just trying to earn enough to survive).

But there are also cultural differences that dictate these issues. The Philippines has long been under fire for its mistreatment of dogs destined for the dinner table. I don’t condone animal cruelty in any form (which is why I want to see gavage), yet we must also realize that pets are not a traditional part of that culture. How are we to resolve these issues, which in their way, are similar to human rights issues such as clitoridectomy, or child brides? Is it ethical for us, as Americans/Westerners/industrialized nations to dictate cultural changes that have profound and ancient meaning to others?

But before we get our panties in a bunch about foie gras and how other countries treat their food animals, we need to change the way our industrial livestock production system works (click here for an excellent article by food journalist Michael Pollan addressing this topic in response to the Chicago foie gras ban). Am I a hypocrite for saying I’m invested in animal welfare, when I eat foie gras or the carne asada at my local taco truck? Yes, I am. But I also believe we need to pick our battles, and do our research. You can’t save the world, but you can do your best to offset negative impact whenever possible.

In my case, I won’t purchase any endangered or non-sustainably farmed seafood. But I’m not going to give up eating at my favorite ethnic dives because the meat isn’t sustainably-raised, since I get a lot of pleasure from dining at those places. I’m also a food journalist, and I believe it’s my job to eat what I’m assigned to eat, unless it is an endangered species.

In exchange, I refuse to purchase meat for home consumption or cooking classes that hasn’t been raised in an ethical manner. Am I better than you for doing this? I doubt it, but it’s something I feel very strongly about, and it’s my way of offsetting the rare occasions when I eat foie gras for work or pleasure, or for indulging in a burrito binge or other meaty ethnic feast.

Those who advocate the right to eat whatever they wish have said that the government has no place on their plates, be it for ethical, health, or environmental/ecological reasons. Yet still we rage on about the politics of importing, producing and eating things like Beluga caviar (illegal), milk-fed veal (range-fed is a humane alternative), raw milk cheese, and god knows what else in this country. And we judge and despair over the consumption of cats, dogs, sea turtle meat and eggs, horses, and other “cute” animals in other (usually desperately poor) parts of the world.

I’ve said it before: rarely is anything in life black-and-white. And so it is with food. To me, meat is meat. What matters is how that animal is raised and treated before it is dispatched, and how and who makes these types of decisions. If there is any question of pain or ecological imbalance in the equation, I wholeheartedly agree with banning it, assuming other alternatives–be they substitution, more humane harvesting or production methods, or quotas–have been explored.

As a traveler, I’m frequently disturbed by the inhumane (to my American standards) aspects of food sourcing and preparation in other countries. Yet I still have empathy for other cultures when they’re forced to stray from their traditions, whether for tourism, ecological, or other reasons. It’s a thorny issue as to whether we should live and let live, or protect natural resources and animal welfare in countries not our own. I believe we should make the effort to be responsible travelers, whether we do so on an organized trip, or independently. If we don’t look after the planet, cultural relevance, tradition, and the pleasures of the plate aren’t going to matter, anyway.

[Photo credits: shark fin soup, Flickr user SmALl CloUd; foie gras, Flickr user claude.attard.bezzina;remaining photos, Laurel Miller]