Does ideology influence taste? I mean, as in how food tastes? by mattsteinglass
July 24, 2008, 12:37 am
Filed under: Environment, Food, Vietnam

My friend and natural-born journalist Kay Johnson is in town for a few days and this provided an excuse for the whole former DPA/Time gang which Kay headed up when she was based in Hanoi to go out for some fine bun cha for lunch. Bun cha is probably the world’s finest and freshest pork meatball dish. Here’s a video shot by a tourist at the seminal Hanoi bun cha restaurant, Bun Cha Hanh Manh:

Basically, you get a bowl of pepper-spiced grilled ground-pork patties and sliced bacon in a broth flavored with vinegar and fish sauce. You add thin rice noodles (bun), and sliced chili and garlic to taste. You put a bunch of fresh herbs and greens on top; generally you’ve got a heaping plate of basil, lettuce, and a series of Vietnamese herbs that don’t have names in English (one is a fuzzy purple lemony leaf, one is a twisted green coil like a baby vine pulled off a twig, and so forth). You take a pork patty with some bun and fresh greens between your chopsticks and pop it in your mouth. It’s delicious. Bun Cha Hanh Manh is particularly spectacular and was written up in ecstatic terms in a culinary piece on Vietnam by the NY Times’s R.W. Apple shortly before his death.

Now, however, every time I eat bun cha, I’m thinking about carbon footprints. A bowl of bun cha is an extremely concentrated dose of meat. Afterwards, you feel a mild drowsy buzzing sensation for up to two hours as your guts try to work through all that pork. And that kind of heavy meat dish is starting to have very negative connotations for me — fatness, sweating (particularly in Vietnam’s 35-degree heat and relentless humidity), and pointless environmental waste. The last few times I’ve eaten bun cha, I’ve actually felt the taste weighing more heavily on my tongue. It no longer seems like a fresh, exotic treat; it seems like an exercise in accelerating climate change, and instead of falling into the category “charming Vietnamese tradition,” it’s starting to fall with swarms of motorbikes, SUVs, and ugly billion-dollar resort complexes into the category “misguided visions of prosperity which Vietnam aspires to as part of modernity but which are actually destroying the country”.

So I’m wondering: is my superego actually penetrating my tastebuds and souring them with guilt? What is the neural pathway here? And if I cut back to sustainable bun cha consumption — say, once every three weeks — will the taste come back in all its former glory?


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