I’m not the pickiest eater, but for someone who loves traveling, I’m not the type of person who would dig into an unfamiliar dish. I know that food is one of the best ways to experience a culture, but it wasn’t until I started exploring more places that I learned how to appreciate new flavors. I’ve always been choosy on what I put in my mouth, and my taste for food is also a little snobbish – for instance, I’ve only liked greens when I became older (I grew up in a household full of meat lovers), and tea is something that I’m still struggling to like. Traveling by foot and seeing a destination is one thing, but exploring culture through taste and unfamiliar flavors is a whole new realm. This was something that I’ve learned during my short visit in Ho Chi Minh City – a city bustling with life, colors, and great food.
I’ve heard a lot of people rave about pho and how delicious it was. For those of you who are not familiar, it’s actually a steaming bowl of noodles, swimming in fragrant broth, and peppered with herbs mixed together with your choice of meat. Long before my trip, I’ve already told myself that I must eat authentic cuisine from the places that I’m about to visit, but a part of me is still thinking of running back to my comfort zone… if all else fails.
During my first day in the city, I took a tour around the city with a guy named Nim, and I ended up eating at a small pho place called Pho Kim, located in an alleyway in District 1. It was a rainy day and we were running in plastic ponchos as we went around the city, so a hot bowl of soup was definitely a perfect meal to recharge. Nim ushered me inside the shop which was then brimming with locals eating lunch. A noontime show was playing on a small television and everyone was busy slurping down their noodles as they comfortably sat on plastic chairs. Nim told me that he brought me here because he wanted me to taste what a real pho is – a home cooked meal prepared in front of you, served in a small diner and experienced with the locals. He said that many restaurants serve pho in fancy presentations, but nothing beats experiencing it authentically. I agree.
I sat down in front of Nim and chose Beef Pho. The store was managed by a small lady who cooks and prepares the food for the visitors. You could see her scooping out the soup from a huge casserole, putting fresh noodles to the bowl, and picking up the veggies from a huge plate and placing it into a small saucer for serving. A waiter brought our meals, balancing the bowls in a small tray, and by the time that the fragrant flavors hit my nose, I knew that I’d like what I’ve ordered. Heck, I actually loved every bit of it.
Nim assisted me and put all the veggies in my bowl (I was only supposed to take a few, but what the hell). I took a sip of the soup, and as soon as it hit my taste buds, I pretty much felt like I was floating in delight. The broth was not as strong, and the flavors of the lemon grass, cinnamon basil, and cilantro mixed well with each other. The texture was good too — it had the crunch from the bean sprouts, complementing the smooth rice noodles. There was also a kick of spice from the Sriracha sauce and it was perfect in every way. It was as if each flavor was slow dancing in my mouth. I never really liked noodles, except for that cheap pancit canton from home, so this was an unexpected yet delightful realization. Eating pho was like falling for that guy that you swore was never your taste. Eating it was like falling in love, each spoonful embracing my taste buds and making it happy. I went outside that place enthusiastic. I was smiling and, as silly as it sounds, a bit proud of myself. By then I knew that I would never let my fears stop me from taking risks when it comes to food. From that moment on, I promised myself that tasting a destination will always be a priority. So long, picky eater version of myself. So long, fearful Jhanz who never liked jumping into the unknown.
If you tell my younger self that I’d end up eating a meal with a stranger in a street food type of diner in a different country, I wouldn’t believe you. My mom is someone who’s very protective of her kids and I wasn’t even allowed to eat street food when I was young. I eventually got over her protectiveness and ended up eating whatever I wanted, but it took a lot of time. Well, it took a small leap of faith, a trip by myself in a different country, and some guts to go out of my comfort zone before I realized that food is something I shouldn’t be afraid of. If anything, it thought me that something out of the usual wouldn’t kill me. Maybe in some cases, it might, but I suppose, for now, I’m happy to say that I’ve learned how to appreciate food even more. I’d like to bring my traveling to the next level and experience places through all my senses — seeing, hearing, smelling, feeling, and, most importantly, tasting.
Me devouring a bowl of Pho after I got back to Manila. I am obviously obsessed with Pho after my trip.