Food has been scarce in Vietnam at times. When rice was rationed, cassava, salt and peanuts were prominent in a diet far from nutritious. Meat would have existed more in people's dreams than on their plates. Crops were ordered destroyed and pests, floods and drought did it naturally. Millions died. Even this past decade in some provinces and remote areas of the country, and indeed for the urban poor, rising food prices have been a cause for concern. Natural disasters are a constant threat to food security.
On the surface, though, particularly in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, the streets are a smorgasboard. For the current moneyed class of urban Vietnamese, perhaps just one or two generations removed from the hunger of wartime and post-war famine, there is a lot of catching up to do. The protein and fat deprivation of previous generations is more than being made up for. The recent western sensibilty to move toward a diet less built around meat is not in evidence in Vietnam.
In fact, one could say the exact opposite is occurring, a case in point being the bit tet (beef steak) breakfast phenomenom.
A cast iron sizzle plate none-too-subtlely shaped like a cow has a heavy slug of oil applied to it before being placed on a ferocious gas flame. When the oil starts spitting, a thin steak the size of a male hand is slapped on, cooked briefly on one side and turned over. A misshapen ball of pate is rolled on to the steak and an egg is cracked into the remaining space, cooked almost instantaneously by the boiling oil. The last minute of cooking happens under a metal lid, which is lifted in a flourish by the waiter at the table.
Delivered on a greasy wooden platform, the sizzle plate is a hazardous presence on the table, initially because it spits and oozes oil, and then as it retains it's capacity to burn if mistakenly touched during the meal.
The standard accompaniments are sad bit players on small plates, in stark contrast to the rather visceral, threatening appearance of the main fare. White bread rolls (banh my) and thick cuts of potato chip are appreciated to soak up the juicy oil, while the fresh pickle of carrot and cucumber and the salad of lettuce and tomato tend to clutter up the table, picked at only occasionally.
Of course, this is a Vietnamese interpretation of something western, something American I guess. It's a breakfast of excess, a kind of death knell to the survival on starch diet of the past.
Perhaps the locals are saying that "we, too, can eat like you."
Beef Steak Nam Son
188 Nam Ky Khoi Nhgia
District 3, HCMC
(open from 6am - 10pm)