In my exploits around Hanoi, the merchandising of coca-cola - whether it be point of sale signage, massive billboards or astutely arranged cans or bottles in ma and pa grocery stores and tea stands - is unlikely to turn my head. Old and cynical, I believe that I am impervious to advertising. Even if the said corporation were to start marketing to tetchy middle-aged bookish types with an ad campaign set in a hermitage, I would not be swayed. I remember a long dead great-uncle warning me "that stuff'll make your toe nails curl up." But as a hungover degenerate in my early twenties, I did drink it to generate a burp. These days, corporate evil and health implications aside, I just don't like the stuff.
Unless the can has a chicken jammed into it, legs sticking out stiff as two pokers.
Gà tần, which has origins in China, is a snack of chicken steamed innovatively (on the streets of Hanoi, at least) in a soft drink can with a concoction of medicinal bits and pieces purported to improve blood circulation and relieve other ailments. Goji berries, ý dĩ seeds (Job's Tears), lotus seeds, angelica root, ngải cứu (artemisia or mugwort) and dried Chinese apple are amongst the hodgepodge in and around the bird in the can. The only liquid added before steaming occurs is a half shot of rice wine.
Yet when the contents are expertly extracted from the coke can, a tonic soup is present in the bowl. Medicinal in a pleasant way, the bitterness from the artemsia combines nicely with sweeter flavours seeping from the fruity bits. While this is mildly of interest, I'm not that desperately in need of a cure.
Give me what is attached to the bones!
The gentlest probing with chopsticks brings the flesh away, an act which strikes my tastebuds with a desperate sense of anticipation. My mouth knows how this birdmeat will feel. The accompanying dipping paste of salt, squeezed kalamansi juice and fresh chilli adds power to every delicate mouthful.
As I savour this classy snack, each bone sucked dry and disposed of in the plastic bin under my table, the proprietor quite surreally is cleaning his pet bird's cage and stocking up its supply of seed and water. I feel all wrong, like I need to join the proprietor's wife, whom all the while has been chewing an almost unmanageable gobful of betelnut. A mildly dazed intoxication would surely take the edge off what is before me.
The image transforms into horror when the pet bird somehow grasps in its beak a rubber band and proceeds to tilt back its head for a gradual slow-motion swallow. I screech "My God" and point, the proprietor half reaches into the cage before realising it's pointless and the wife is laughing so hard that the betel-juice is oozing down her chin.
I realise I have to pay and get out. The culinary experience has been sublime, the goings-on around me; abstract and disturbing.
Đoàn Quý Gà Tần
12a Hàng Cót