“Mắm tôm” or Shrimp paste is popular in many parts of Asia including Vietnam. As a matter of fact, it has long been in the list of “worst smelling foods in the world”. I know what some of you may react to this dish: “Ewww”, but come on. one of the reasons why you travel is to see (hear, smell, taste, feel) the world in all its diversity, isn’t it? So why not give “mắm tôm” a chance?
Besides, to you, shrimp paste may smell like a rotten animal, but to many locals, it is an aroma that makes their mouth water only thinking about it. After two or three times, trust me, you may feel pity if refusing to try this seemingly gross local food.
“Mắm tôm” is made from shrimps and salt. The typical aroma comes from an enzyme which is available in the intestine of shrimps. Actually, “mắm tôm” smells exactly like the smell of the mustard-colored stuff in shrimp heads. The fermentation may take from six months to one year before mắm tôm can be served, normally with “nộm” sweet and sour grated “rau muống” water morning glory, “cà pháo” egg-plants, “thịt chó” dog meat and of course, “bún đậu mắm tôm”. You can surely guess, “bún đậu mắm tôm” comprises of noodles “bún”, tofu “đậu”, shrimp paste “mắm tôm” and, last but not least, odoriferous herbs “rau thơm”, which is optional but they will make the difference. “Rau thơm” can be basil “rau húng” or cockscomb mint “kinh giới”.
It is not difficult to find a street vendor that offers you this food. You will notice that the vendors do something to the shrimp paste before giving it to you: they will add a few drops of a fresh lemon or satsuma “quả quất” and then some boiling oil from the same pan they are using to fry tofu. You will have to mix the whole thing well until the bowl is full of soft tiny white bubbles, which is how they make the smell less strong . Dip a piece of tofu, some noddles and a basil leaf into the sauce and eat them all together, you will feel heaven (my mouth is watering!).
However, it shouldn’t be a big deal if you don’t like it first time but remember when I had my first bite of durian, I almost threw up. Guess what, now I’m really in love with this fruit.
A dish of “bún đậu mắm tôm” in the street often costs from VND20,000 VND (US$1), quite cheap, which is one of the reason why I love street foods. Of course, the vendors will always give you two options: “mắm tôm” or fish sauce “nước mắm”. But, you know, there must be some reason why peole call it “bún đậu mắm tôm” and never “bún đậu nước mắm”. Last thing, you may want to prepare some pieces of chewing-gum to have after eating this very special food.
I hope that after reading this, instead of referring to “bún đậu mắm tôm” as “one of the weirdest foods”, you may want to recommend it to your friends as a special feature of Asian cuisine.