I should offer a prize for guessing correctly what exactly is in this picture. When we first arrived in Chau Doc, in the northern Mekong, we were perplexed and utterly transfixed by these obscenely glistening mountains that were to be found in stalls all over the night market. Context and smell told us there was a fish component but what else was going on? We remained in the dark until the next morning, when all became clear at the morning market. Before I get there, though, a little about Chau Doc. It’s one of the bigger cities on the Mekong and the last major stopping point before the Cambodian border. As a result, it has the slightly rakish demeanour of the border town (although it’s a ways to the actual border) as well as a substantial Khmer influence in its food and culture. Although there is a tourist market on the waterfront, I didn’t see any actual tourists there, and most of the town had a real provincial feel – urban but not especially concerned to be cosmopolitan. We felt nicely far from home.
In the morning we went up the local ‘mountain’, which all the guidebooks list as a major attraction. Now let’s be clear here: it’s not a mountain. I’m Scottish, Mr Lemur is Chilean and so we know mountains when we see them. Sam mountain is a hill. Nonetheless, given the flatness of the delta landscape around it, it makes for a pretty amazing view.
We sat at one of the viewing platforms on the mountain top sipping a well-earned* glass of iced coffee, then it was back down to town for breakfast in the market. I asked our Vietnamese guide, Anh, what the fish-mountains were and she explained they are mam, fermented and/or salted fish that is a speciality of Chau Doc and can be made in dozens, possibly hundreds of different forms. The popular type above is river fish fermented with strands of green papaya. So are all the giant mountains of mam Close Encounters-style representations of Sam Mountain in the medium of fermented fish? As we walked around the market we saw various configurations of the mam mountain, some with bigger fish, some with crab, some studded with chilies and many with papaya.
I was massively curious about the stuff and so was very pleased when one stall-holder offered me some of the papaya mam to try.
You might think fermented fish with papaya would be a challenging taste sensation, especially on its own, first thing in the morning, but I can report that it was surprisingly delicious. The funkiness of the fermented fish was cut by the sweet papaya, and somehow the way the ingredients had melded together like any Southeast Asian dish on the principles of balance. Salty, sweet and sour were in harmony and honestly, I could have eaten the stuff down with a spoon. I seriously considered buying a bag to take home but Mr Lemur looked at me sternly and asked what I was going to do when fermented fish leaked all over everything we’d bought in Thailand. Sigh.
We moved on to more conventional breakfast eating, which the market had aplenty. We had some of these hot hot hot semolina cakes, one plain and the other stuffed with tiny roasted bananas.
Then I found a stall with roast pork, which smelled so divine. I think there was supposed to be more to the dish than being given a chunk of pork on a stick, but communication problems ensued and pork on a stick was what I got. Regardless, it was some of the best, stickiest, tastiest pork I’ve ever eaten so I can’t really complain. Except I wanted MOAR PORK.
Finally, we grabbed some stick rice rolls stuffed with coconut and beans.
Chau Doc market was more specialised than Vinh Long: it had lots of fruit and vegetable stalls, to be sure, and also a huge section with clothes, jewellery and other non-food items. But we kept coming back to mountainous piles of mam, which is only right for a town that lives and breathes on the river.
*Well-earned because we got up very early, not because we hiked up the mountain. That would be crazy talk. Obviously we drove. I know I rode a bike but let’s not get over-ambitious here. I walked down the mountain…