Cholon and Cochin-China 8

Vietnamese cooking, like most aspects of Vietnamese culture, has been strongly influenced by the Chinese. By comparison it is provincial, lacking the range and the formidable ingenuity of the Pekinese and Cantonese cuisines. But there are a few specialities which have been evolved with a great deal of dietetic insight. The best known of these is Chà Gió, with which we were served as an entree. Chà Gió consists fundamentally of very small, highly spiced meat-rolls, which are trans¬ferred easily enough with chopsticks from the dish to one’s plate. But this is nothing more than a preliminary operation, and many dexterous manipulations follow. Two or three kinds of vegetable leaves are provided as salad, plus minute spring onions. A leaf of each kind is picked up and – this is not so easy – placed in superimposition on one’s plate and gar¬nished with an onion, ready to receive the meat roll in the middle. And now comes the operation calling for natural skill, or years of practice, since the leaves must be wrapped neatly round the narrow cylinder of mincemeat. The Cha-Gio, now fully prepared, is lifted with the chopsticks and dowsed in the saucer of nuoc-mam at the side of one’s plate, from which, according to Mr Houghton-Broderick, an odour resembling that of tiger’s urine arises. The total operation takes the non-expert several minutes and involves as many contretemps as one would expect. On this occasion, the Europeans soon gave up the struggle, throwing dignity to the winds, and dabbled happily with their fingers. A spirit of comradeship was noticeable, a democratic kinship born in an atmosphere of common endeavour, frustration and ridicule.
When travelling I make a sincere effort to throw overboard all preju¬dices concerning food. Consequently after a brief period of struggle I had already come to terms with nudc-mdm, about which almost every writer on Indo-China since the first Jesuit has grumbled so consistently. I felt indeed that I had taken the first steps towards connoisseurship, and it was in this spirit that I congratulated the Governor on his supply which was the colour of pale honey, thickish and of obvious excellence. Nudc-mdm is produced by the fermentation of juices exuded by layers of fish sub¬jected to pressure between layers of salt. The best result as in viniculture is produced by the first drawing-off, before artificial pressure is applied, and there are three or more subsequent pressings with consequent deteriorations in quality. First crus are allowed to mature like brandy, improving steadily with age. The Governor told me that he thought his stock, which he had inherited, was over a hundred years old. All the fierce ammoniacal exhalations were long since spent, and what remained was not more than a whiff of mellow corruption. Taking a grain of cooked rice, he deposited it on the golden surface, where it remained supported by the tension – an infallible test of quality, he said.
After the Cha Gio came a flux of delicacies, designed undoubtedly to provoke curiosity and admiration and to provide the excuse for enormously prolonged dalliance at the table, rather than to appease gross appetites. The Vietnamese picked judiciously at the breasts of lacquered pigeons, the sliced coxcombs and the tiny diaphanous fish, while the Europeans ate with barbarian forthrightness, finding their chopsticks useful to illustrate with fine flourishes – since shoptalk had crept in – the feints, the encirclements, the annihilation. The Governor had been pre-sented with a remarkable lighter, an unwieldy engine, which commanded admiration by producing flame in some quite unexpected way. How this was done, I have forgotten, but I know that it was not by friction on a flint. Throughout the meal he could hardly bear to put this away and fiddled continually with it between the courses, while his guests stuffed themselves with the rare meats he hardly touched. For me there was an allegory in this scene.
The night of the return to Saigon I went with Vietnamese friends for the second time to the Vietnamese theatre. The first visit had been an appalling fiasco, although cruelly funny in its way; a pathetic attempt at a Wild Western musical, inspired perhaps by reports of Oklahoma. It was acted by fragile, slant-eyed beauties in chaps, wearing ten-gallon hats and toting six-shooters; their cheeks heavily incarnadined in representation of occidental plethora. The cowboys had coloured their top lips and chins bright blue to suggest a strong Western growth of beard. Provided with guitars which they were unable to play, they shrilled a strident Oriental version of hillbilly airs, which someone in the orchestra accom¬panied on some Vietnamese stringed instrument, punctuating the lines with a vigorous clashing of cymbals.
This second experience was a great improvement. It was a traditional play describing the tragic courtship by a Chinese Ambassador of an unattached medieval Empress of Vietnam. The costumery was the most gorgeous and obviously expensive I have ever seen. There was none of the dreamy symbolism of Cambodia and Laos in this performance. The acting was literal and never relapsed into ballet. When, for instance, the Ambassador and his rival the Chief Mandarin fought a duel, the fight was meant to be a real one; a dazzling display of traditional swordsman¬ship, and not a set pas de deux with each performer releasing symbolical thunderbolts. The culminating point was reached when, with a mighty cut, the Ambassador’s arm was hacked off. Much blood flowed, some of which the Ambassador staunched with his handkerchief which he tenderly presented to the Empress. Afterwards, holding his severed right arm in his left hand, the Ambassador acted an energetic death-scene, lasting half an hour, finally expiring, still upright, in the arms of his followers. The dramatic high spots of the scene were accentuated by an orchestral supernumerary on a special perch who beat a cymbal.
Extreme despair at the Ambassador’s fate was registered by all the company, including the Empress, hurling themselves to the ground and then performing a kind of frantic gyration. This was the moment when the curtain should have been rung down, but unfortunately it stuck half way. The orchestra had worked up to a deafening finale, with the cymbals man lashing out as if fighting for his life and the human Catherine wheels whirling, with peacock feathers and brocaded panels flying in all direc¬tions. And then the cast had had enough. Leaping as one man to their feet, the Ambassador still clutching his arm, they caught at the edge of the curtain and pulled it down. It was an exciting performance in the zestful tradition, I thought, of an essentially Northern people, whose culture had remained completely uncontaminated in their long sojourn in the South.

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