Kelly scrolls through a list on her phone. “The Internet says you should eat bland foods after food poisoning. You know, like bananas, rice, applesauce, toast. Give your stomach a rest.”
We are sitting in Hoi An, only a day after my disastrous food poisoning episode in Saigon and I still haven’t eaten anything. In the U.S., when you’re sick the convention is to eat chicken noodle soup. Vietnam’s national comfort food is com ga, which literally translates to chicken rice. It sounds like the perfect meal for my tender stomach. After Googling a few options, we settle on one of a few restaurants recommended for its excellent version of com ga, the Mermaid Restaurant.
The heaping plate of rice and chicken is placed before me. I squeeze a lime over it. The tender, white breast meat parts easily under my fork tines. The rice, almost yellow from steaming in chicken stock, is rich and complex. The lime and cilantro give the dish a certain brightness.
The next day, excited by our success at the Mermaid, we decide to try another restaurant favored by the local, Com Ga Ba Buoi. It’s a small restaurant just down the street from the Mermaid. Com ga is the only dish served so it must be good. When we arrive, the restaurant is already full with people washing down their com ga with corn milks. The plaster on the walls is cracking and flaking away. The only relief from the heat is one ancient fan mounted to a wall.
Kelly walks to the back of the restaurant where a man is bending over a mountain bowl of yellow rice. He nods and disappears through a side door.
Here, instead of being surrounded by other tourists, the entire restaurant is packed with Vietnamese workers and teenagers. Our plates are placed in front of us, again, heaped with steaming yellow rice and chicken, but this time I notice something else – organ meat. Atop my rice lies a diminutive liver and even smaller set of kidneys sitting innocently like a cherry on a sundae.
It’s no secret that tourist restaurants change – even assassinate – dishes in an attempt to cater toward foreign palates, but my tender stomach flips at the thought of eating a tiny chicken heart. This is the first time that the divide between tourist food and local food has seemed so cavernous. One person’s comfort food is another person’s adventure in organ meat, I realize.
I begin to pick out everything that even veers slightly away from the safe, white breast meat. Kelly mixes everything together and digs in like the locals around us. This com ga is better than the dish served just a block away. I take comfort in finding a common ground here, of stepping outside my comfort zone to someone else’s, to knowing my limits, to being here anyway.