Monsieur and I were floating about on a junk in Ha Long Bay, the Unesco wonder site that is a maze of jagged islands and floating fishermen’s villages, when we encountered a tasty condiment on the lunch table. It appeared with a plate of cucumber slices with floral edging, an indicator of Vietnamese cuisine’s obsession with carving fruit and vegetables into fascinating shapes. Next to the cucumber plate was a little dish of greyish powder. Our guide, Han, helped us prepare it by grinding some black pepper onto the powder and squeezing a wedge of lime over it. Now the dipping dish contained a watery grey sludge with black specks, but Han was adamant that this “Vietnamese spice” would be delicious once we dipped the cucumber into it.
I love cucumber, but Monsieur isn’t a huge fan, and that was about to prove a good thing. Chopsticks ready for some culinary action, I tentatively dipped a piece of cucumber into the grey stuff and was pleasantly surprised by the taste. Mmm, this was good! A bit salty, but not overpowering, with a je ne sais quoi about it and that limey citrus tang. Monsieur was suspicious. He tried a couple of pieces before putting his chopsticks down and waiting for something a bit more cooked to appear. Meanwhile, I polished off all the cucumber and most of the dipping sauce.
For the rest of the day I kept wondering what that spice was and where I could buy some to take home to the Epic Kitchen Cupboard, but there were so many other distractions that it was only when we were back in the car en route to Hanoi that I remembered to ask Han.
“You know that dipping mixture that we had with the cucumber, Han?”
“Yes,” he replied
“Well, what was it exactly? I’d love to take some home with me.” I continued.
Han’s face lit up, obviously pleased to have impressed a tourist with something so simple.
“It’s MSG!” he said, “You know it? Mono sodium glutamate.”
Hoping that Han hadn’t noticed my involuntary flinch, I quickly changed the subject.
My next thought was of my mother, who’s bound to freak out when she hears that her beloved daughter has almost single-handedly eaten an entire dipping dish of MSG. Gazing out the car window, I tried to forget my error and what physical effects it may have, watching instead the stream of workers cycling home, the girls’ ao dais flapping behind them.
The following morning I woke at 3am and couldn’t blame it on jet lag. Nope. My mouth was parched, tongue stuck to the upper palate, and my stomach was gurgling in an ominous fashion. I gulped down an entire bottle of water, eager to rid myself of the MSG dry horrors. For the rest of the trip I’d be keeping an eagle eye out for the evil grey spice.
Obviously, we couldn’t control MSG going INTO our food in Vietnam, not when other people are preparing your meals for you, but on the occasion when we asked for salt and pepper, we often received that grey powder in the place of salt. Now that we knew what it was, we could avoid it.
The MSG presence is one indicator that while tourism is big in Vietnam these days, sometimes they still don’t understand what the tourist might expect or need. That will come with time, I’m certain. In the meantime, if you’re travelling to Vietnam, take some little sachets of salt in your luggage. Vietnamese cuisine doesn’t use salt, nor does it use soy sauce and the omnipresent fish sauce can be a bit overpowering for some; delicious, yes, but you have to get past the smell first. We also found that the Vietnamese are keen to serve fries with almost any meal, so if you don’t fancy your fries with a sprinkling of MSG, make sure you have one of those salt sachets to hand.
Click here to read an interesting article by Alex Renton about the pros and cons of MSG.