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The Thy Tracker (continued)


May 15–23  Peranakan  24–25  27–29  Sireh  30a  30b  30c–31
Malaysia: Melaka June 1–2, Kuala Lumpur 3–4, Penang 6
Vietnam: Saigon 13–16  19-20  22  26  27 30
Nha Trang July 7a 7b, Hue 14a 14b, Hanoi 19–20
India: Pondicherry 31, Bangalore August 2–4, Kerala

NHA TRANG, VIETNAM (continued)

[photo: basket_boats]
As the sun rises, a fleet of these basket boats will bob their way to shore with the night’s catch.

Villagers use large, round baskets to shuttle the short distances between the beach and their fishing boats. Four to five people can sit comfortably around on the flat edge. The baskets are surprisingly sturdy, and an ancient lacquering technique keeps them watertight.

In a fishing village on an island near Nha Trang, I prepared to splurge on an extravagant meal of fresh seafood. First, though, I had to choose my entrées. Floating 100 yards from both shore and restaurant were narrow, wooden walkways with nets suspended between them. Fishing boats had stopped by earlier that morning to drop off the best of their catch.

As I walked around the nets, young men pulled them up to show me what was on the menu: crabs, squid, cuttlefish, lobster, eel, and more fish then I could ever identify. The boys recommended ca mu, a wild grouper with succulent, firm flesh. They picked out for me the smallest one they could find. Although the fish was big enough to feed two or three generously, I still couldn’t resist pointing at a couple of the local “swimming crabs” and a spiny lobster as well.

[photo: lobster_boy]
After my thumbs-up, the boy dropped this spiny lobster into his bag.

Two boys pulled me to shore on a raft, along a weathered rope anchored near the door of the restaurant. Frequent kicks and flips from my basket of seafood reminded me how fresh lunch would be.
When I climbed the stairs to the dining room, better described as a platform on stilts, the proprietor poured my catch onto a scale. She prodded the grouper back onto the tray every time it jumped off and noted its weight in a smudged notebook. Then, she told me what she planned to cook for me. The grouper, she said, would be best steamed on a bed of mung bean noodles, mushrooms, and tomatoes. Half the lobster she would grill, and half she would stir-fry with ginger and scallion. As for the crab, there’s no better way to eat them than steamed and dipped in the classic mix of lime, chile, and salt.

I did have one choice. Did I want lobster wine? I nodded, not quite sure but certainly curious. After taking away all the seafood, she returned to my table with the lobster, a small knife, and a glass half full of distilled rice wine. While the cooks began preparing my dishes, she performed the ritual: a quick stab with the knife into the lobster’s underbelly; a stream of thin, milky white liquid (“lobster blood”) directed precisely into the glass; a stir of the potent cocktail; then a mad dash back into the kitchen to cook the lobster as close to death as possible. I sipped the lobster wine from a tiny ceramic cup that was barely bigger than a thimble. It tasted like ocean water, clean and salty, but with enough kick to make me very happy very quickly.

The swimming crabs emerged first. Tiny things, they are, compared to hefty Dungeness crabs. Their bodies are about the size of my palm, and their skinny legs look rather unpromising. But inside their thin shells, these crabs have a surprisingly generous amount of sweet, moist meat. An unexpected treat, when I opened the female crab, was a large mass of brilliant orange, rich, nutty roe and thin lobes of tender meat surrounding the egg sac.

The spiny lobster and the grouper dishes arrived at nearly the same time. With this much food—a banquet-sized table completely covered with platters and accompaniments and dipping sauces—pacing is key. Fortunately, I had nothing else planned for the day, so I sat and ate the rest of the afternoon away.

Next: Hue, Vietnam >

July 2001