For breakfast this morning, a staple. Rice, the sticky kind, and chicken.
Let me describe it so that you want to eat it. In a bowl, glutinous rice from a tiered steaming pot is clumped, not one grain detached. Tender strips of white chicken flesh get arranged over the rice. Flavour comes in the condiments added just before serving. A commercially manufactured soy sauce with garlic and chili is drizzled over the chicken, which slowly trickles down through the sticky rice, giving irresistible umami. Then, in an inspired match common with chicken dishes in the north of Vietnam, fine lime leaf clippings are scattered to finish off the dish. Zesty herbal masterstroke is so often a defining characteristic of the cuisine here.
Now let me describe it so that you may not want to eat it. Firstly, ditto for the rice step. Shreds of dark flesh from the chicken are placed on the rice in this version of xôi gà. This is good right, as dark chicken meat is where all the flavour is at. However, attached to this dark meat is splintered bone and chewy sallow skin. That long piece of pointed cartilage along the leg, chopped pieces of knuckle, stretchy lengths of purple elastic sinew and odd bits of gristle and fat will also be the topping on the rice. The finishing touches of soy and kaffir lime are replicated here.
Fat Phương does it both ways. The former is what she dishes up to foreign tourists and the latter is what the locals get. And let it be said that the latter is generally what the locals prefer. Certain actions and sensations in the mouth that westerners would mostly eschew are all part of a day's eating for the Vietnamese. The concept of 'mouthfeel' (口 感 in Mandarin) encompasses a broad range of sensations in the mouth, some of which I have yet to acquire the skill set to master, including bouncy, slimy and strongly resistant. Renowned Chinese food expert Fuschia Dunlop has been known to refer to it as "the grapple factor". I am not so adept at gnawing, gnashing or tearing at my food. I don't like my teeth to bounce off things in my mouth. And I've mentioned my 'gag activator' in these pages several times before; that nanosecond when my palate sends an emergency message to the brain to either swallow or abort, now!
While I would stop short of saying that such feelings in the mouth are sought after by the locals, it does seem that they are willing to work their mouths harder. A case in point would be in the jointing of a chicken. While a western cook would cut at the joints, essentially along the length of the chicken, creating pieces of bird in accord with the western palate, a Vietnamese cook cleavers across, creating chunks of bird all with bone, nearly all with some "grapple factor".
All that aside, Fat Phương (in an entirely different sense of the word) is grappling with chickens all day long, extricating every last morsel from each carcass. In front of her work space, bird parts are neatly classified in lines and piles. Apart from the sticky rice option, the chicken is going into phở and other noodle soups, as well as súp, a viscous Chinese-style soup with corn kernels, wood ear mushrooms, coriander and the tiniest shreds of Phương's labour.
Whatever you order and wherever you come from, Phương gives good mouthfeel.
Phương Béo Xôi Gà
45 Mã Mây