Missing the Old, Embracing the New: A Food Adventure

 | Teaching House Nomads Blog

It’s inevitable: at some point living overseas, it’s going to happen. You will miss home. Living overseas can be absolutely exhilarating, and it can also be filled with profound loneliness. Especially if you’re like me and you have decided to be an expat on your own in a culture very different from yours.

This is how I found myself down a rabbit hole in the lonely recesses of my brain after 6 months of living and teaching in Ho Chi Minh City. As America was celebrating a holiday, it was just another day in HCMC, another day of polluted air and noisy traffic. In addition to missing the holiday celebrations at home this weekend, I was also missing some important family gatherings. My mother’s birthday and my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary were in full celebration back home. My whole family was celebrating these occasions with food, drink, photos, laughs and togetherness, while I was by myself in Vietnam thinking about them and what I was missing.

ESL teacher Sherry Ott told her story trying the exotic fruit Durian during her time teaching English in Vietnam
This strange, spiky fruit is infamous in Asia amongst Westerners.

The one thing I have learned about being an expat is you can’t let yourself go down that rabbit hole long, and the best way to combat homesickness is to embrace the newness of your new home instead. I needed a cultural adventure so I decided to finally tackle one of the things in Asia that you can’t avoid. It has a smell so pungent they ban it in many countries and cities – durian.

I’m a fruit person – I love it, I crave it, I must have it! One great thing about living in the sweltering Vietnam climate is the fruit is plentiful year round. I walk through the markets and my eyes pop seeing so many different kinds of colorful fruit. Vendors walk the streets daily selling whatever is in season. It was now durian season in Vietnam, and locals seemed to be pretty excited about it, so I figured that maybe I should be excited about it too. After all, I couldn’t really live and travel through Asia without at least trying it.

I had a mission – I would try durian.

My Durian Accomplices

I decided to enlist the help of my local friends, Tuyet and Lee, who gush about the goodness of durian. I was secretly hoping their excitement would be infectious and my taste buds would also salivate in excitement. This soccer-ball sized fruit is mainly found in SE Asia and it has quite a stinky reputation. You smell it before you see it. Even though it’s banned in public in Singapore because of its strong odor, it’s everywhere in Vietnam; there are no rules. You can eat it, sell it, and transport it wherever you want. The markets have the familiar smell of durian wafting through them now. It’s not at all a pleasant smell; in fact, it smells of rotten eggs.

Securing the Fruit

One great thing about living in the Vietnam climate is the fruits are plentiful all year round
Off to the market to buy my first Durian!

Tuyet, Lee, and I decided to make it a full day eating adventure, just what the doctor ordered for curing my homesickness for the weekend. We went to the local market to pick up food for a Vietnamese feast. The market trip was smelly, chaotic, motorbike-flooded, and sweaty; a true local Vietnamese market. Lee and Tuyet made stops at their regular stalls talking to their friends and introducing me. I’m pretty sure I was the only foreigner in a 1-mile radius of that market – and that made me happy. We visited with the vegetable lady, the shrimp lady, the fish lady, and the fruit lady. Plus, we stopped and picked up a few lotus flowers too so they could have me try the seeds which were surprisingly tasty. I love to explore markets and new foods; and it’s even more fantastic when you have people with you who can speak the language and say, “here, try this.” I was soon embroiled in the sights, sounds, and smells of the market. Family celebration – what family celebration?

Our last stop in the market was to pick up the star of the show – the durian. Durian is like the superhero of fruit. Not only does durian have a protective smell force field, but it also has a protective armor in its hard pointy outer layer, ensuring no one in his or her right mind will get close to it. I left the choosing up to Lee and Tuyet, and soon we were lugging back 3 heavy durians to their apartment.

The Plan

We would save the durian for dessert – the best for last according to Tuyet. The rest of the afternoon was spent cooking up a massive meal of fresh fish with mushrooms and chilies, shrimp cooked in coconut milk, and clams in lemon grass and coconut. It never ceases to amaze me what can be produced out of a small, simple Vietnamese kitchen with 2 gas burners. One of the things I’ve come to love about the Vietnamese culture is that cooking is a respected process, similar to cooking food in Italy. Everyone joins in, it takes hours of preparation, and it’s a social gathering. I had completely forgotten about my homesickness as I sat on the floor and cleaned vegetables and talked to Lee and Tuyet about their lives in Vietnam. The process of spending a whole morning from 7AM to 1PM shopping for, preparing, and eating food is normal here.

Cracking the Case

ESL teacher Sherry Ott wrote about her first time trying Durian in Vietnam
Getting to the fruit of the durian is tricky business.

Dinner was finished and now it was time for the real adventure to begin. We laid down newspapers on the floor and 3 bowls with the durian. Tuyet had to show me how to open the durian without getting impaled by its outer shell. She helped me get a crack started and I placed my thumbs in the crack and started to pry it open. It pulled apart easily exposing the pale yellow fruit inside. Strangely, I didn’t notice the repulsive smell that much, once again proving to me that over time you can get used to anything — even living as an expat alone in a foreign country.

Since I felt as if I had gotten past the smell hurdle, I thought the eating part would be a breeze.

I was so wrong.

I took one look and realized it looked like a human organ, like a yellow liver. Silence of the Lambs came to mind, and I had sort of lost my enthusiasm for the fruit. The brain is powerful, just seeing the shape of the fruit gave me a negative reaction. Tuyet showed me how to gently get the fruit out of its shell with a spoon without mushing it; delicate was the word of the moment. To my surprise it was then that I realized the fruit did not have a solid consistency. It was soft and creamy like a stick of butter that had been sitting at room temperature for a while.

I took a bite and wasn’t sure if I should chew or swallow due to the consistency. It was like eating creamy frosting that had a vegetable and fruit taste. I once saw a description of it as “French custard passed through a sewer.” That seemed a little extreme, but it wasn’t too far off.

Expat ESL teachers can try exotic, tropical fruits when they are working abroad, teaching English in tropical countries
Me with my prized fruit.

The Verdict

I didn’t hate it, but I didn’t necessarily like it either. Lee and Tuyet laughed at me as I analyzed each bite as if I were tasting fine cheese and wine. I eventually got through the liver sized creamy frosting concoction and it did seem to get better as I ate more. I think my brain just eventually switched off and I ate instead of thinking about what I was eating.

But more importantly this little durian mission completely took my mind off of what I was missing back in the US. In fact, I started to get excited about being able to share this wild eating tale with my friends and family instead of missing my friends and family. After all, there would be many other family gatherings, but I can only try durian for the first time once.

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