Outside of Sapa, Vietnam, May 2014
Along the 15 kilometer trek to a hilly homestay in Northern Vietnam, our 4’8″ Hmong guide, Li, insisted that 11 other tourists and I did not need to stop for water and that we would slow the whole group down by taking too many photos of the rice terraces.
Li was a tad hardcore. After all, she and other Hmong guides probably cruised that route at least twice a day while wearing what amounted to shower slip ons. So when Li told us she had news, and we better gather around to listen, the twelve of us did. Right away.
“There is a crazy dog in the village. It has killed four people,” she announced as she sat cross legged in the traditional Hmong black leg warmers on the cement patio floor of the homestay abode we had finally reached.
“Is she talking about a rabid dog?” I asked my friend Debbie in a hushed tone so I wouldn’t get reprimanded. Seriously? And I had been worried about the mamma water buffalo that seemed irritated when I inadvertently cut off her baby on the rice terrace trail.
“Do not go into the village. If you walk in the village and the dog bites you, it is your fault not mine. I tell you now,” Li said.
Li repeated her liability disclaimer and then informed us that the medicine for a crazy dog bite is expensive at $200,000 dong (about $100) and that she was not responsible for paying the fee. I think, for all of us, the cost wasn’t as much of a concern as was getting to the hospital in Sapa. It had taken the better part of the day just to get to our current location. And now that we were here, the open homestay, which, granted, was set on a hill, seemed fairly accessible to any deranged man, woman, child or creature on the loose and roaming the village.
But actually, as a former English teacher, the first thought that went through my mind after hearing Li’s news was: we need Atticus “One-Shot” Finch, beloved father and the ultimate ethical lawyer of To Kill a Mockingbird, who, as a reluctant sharpshooter, ended up killing a “mad dog” stalking the streets of Maycomb, Alabama. He even accomplished this feat without wearing his glasses. This was a coming of age moment in the story for his son, Jem, who realized his “feeble” father actually had a talent and the courage to face anything.
The second thought that ran through my mind was: this is the perfect opportunity to make s’mores! Since nobody was going anywhere.
It had been my intention on this trip to not only introduce s’mores to Southeast Asia, but also to win the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese with graham crackers, chocolate and roasted marshmallows.
So why not break out an American campfire favorite when hunkered down at a Hmong dwelling set among descending rice terraces near the Chinese border? At the time, I couldn’t think of a much better way (other than drinking loads of alcohol) to pass the time while trying to fend off an insane canine.
It also was time to make the s’mores because the supplies could only take so much more transport in the heavy heat of Vietnam. So far, two packs of graham crackers, a package of six Hershey’s chocolate bars and a bag of marshmallows had made it in my luggage through Ho Chi Minh City, Hoi An, Hue, Hanoi and now a remote mountainous area of Northern Vietnam.
In Hoi An, I had even tested s’mores out with Silk, a Vietnamese friend who had arranged the entire itinerary in Vietnam for Debbie and me. Really, Silk was the primary reason I brought the ingredients. Before we left for Vietnam, she mentioned she was going to cook traditional Vietnamese meals and show us how to make fish sauce.
Trying to think of something quintessentially American, or rather North American, that didn’t involve actual culinary knowledge and wasn’t a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, I decided on s’mores. These classic treats have been part of the ritual of camping for every American kid for nearly a century. In fact, the Girl Scouts credit themselves with the creation or at least the first recording of a s’mores recipe. According to the Girl Scouts official blog, Loretta Scott Crew included the recipe in a 1927 publication, Tramping and Trailing with the Girl Scouts.
Roasting the marshmallow on a stick over a fire is the most important part of the process. One might choose to go with a marshmallow lightly roasted and tinged with a golden brown exterior or there is also Cajun style if you want it blackened and crispy.
It appeals to everyone’s inner pyromanic when the marshmallow ignites in a sugar fueled flame. A charred bubbly pattern on the puff usually results. Of course the best part is placing the marshmallow on a slab of chocolate positioned in the middle of a graham cracker and then putting another graham cracker on top, smooshing the melty gooey innards of the marshmallow.
Sharing this with a new Vietnamese friend seemed completely logical. However, for a moment, I thought perhaps s’mores had already arrived in Vietnam since the country offered just about everything you could buy in the US (I had also brought Oreos, thinking they would be an alien American treat, but that plan was thwarted the minute I saw a 14’ x 48’ billboard with an effusive Vietnamese teen admiring Oreos just outside the Ho Chi Minh City airport.)
However, after showing Silk a marshmallow, which she held for a minute while turning it over and sniffing it, I knew the little puffy pillows of corn syrup, sugar dextrose, modified food starch, water, gelatin, natural and artificial flavor and tetrasodium pyrophosphate were a completely new phenomenon in Vietnam.
While a campfire wasn’t an option, especially in the soggy Hoi An humidity that still dominated at 8 p.m., Silk did have a gas burner in her kitchen. And it turns out that chopsticks make the perfect roasting utensils. Silk fired up her gas burner and Debbie and I showed her how to put the marshmallow on. Silk’s daughter Billie jumped up and down, sensing something monumental was about to happen.
Again, every kid has a streak of pyromania, and this seemed true with Billie who clapped her hands once the marshmallow caught on fire. I almost felt like I should try to juggle it with another fiery ball of sugar on a chopstick. It was a quick moment — no slow roasting, but the effect was the same.
Debbie got the graham crackers ready and the melted chocolate, which in its state was actually like spreadable frosting. We told Silk to squish the crackers together and try it. She hesitated a moment and took a bite. Deb and I waited for her reaction. She paused and then with a sticky white marshmallow bit stuck to her lip, she nodded and said with a gooey mouthful. “It’s good.”
Billie turned the sandwich over and over and took a bite as well. While the sandwich part seemed to be a hit, the flaming marshmallows were the true sensation. We proceeded to torch a few more to the delight of Billie.
Despite experiencing success in Hoi An, I wasn’t sure what our Hmong family would think of the concoction. Li, who was leaving, approved my request to make s’mores, so I knew I had overcome at least one obstacle. Our hosts Sa, with her one month old baby at her side, and Hang, her husband, came in to the earthen kitchen to watch. Debbie, my faithful photographer and assembly forewoman took out several graham crackers and spread them with melted Hershey’s.
Meanwhile, I asked for a chopstick and ripped apart some marshmallows that had fused together. The cooking pit in the middle of the dirt floor was perfect for the task. Hang stoked the low fire, and I held the marshmallows out. Without an open flame, the marshmallows took a bit longer, but they began the transformation, turning golden brown.
Since Debbie and I were the only Americans in the group, several of our tour mates came in curious to check out the process. Sylvia, from Barcelona, was the first to request a s’more. Soon Lior from Israel, who was constantly hungry, wanted one. Even Cesar, our somewhat smug French companion wanted to try the American offering that would, of course, never compare to a French patisserie. But he wanted to give it a go, and perhaps that was because his attempt at buying opium from Li’s mother (another story) did not pan out.
Wanting to impress Sa and Hang, I gave Sa the first s’more. Much like Silk, she smelled it and hesitated before taking a bite. While she didn’t finish the s’more, she smiled and said, “It’s good.” Then she handed the rest of the s’more to Hang.
The true test were Sa and Hang’s teenage sons who had been sweeping in the corner of the room. I held a s’more out for the younger one, and he shook his head. Sa said something to him in their Hmong dialect, which I can imagine went something like: “You WILL eat this strange sticky sandwich from this American woman who is our guest. Do you want me to take away phone privileges?”
The son slowly approached and held out his hand. He turned the s’more over and over, examining its construction. Then he finally took a bite. Again a delayed reaction. Finally, a crooked crumby smile. He nodded, and then the next time I turned to look at him he had devoured the s’more.
Even the grandmother of the family sat down to sample one. I half expected her not to have teeth, but that assumption was dispelled when she laughed while trying to figure out how exactly to eat the treat.
After the s’mores, we all moved on to the larger living room to drink rice wine and listen to music. Hang shut and locked the main door. The s’mores, in my opinion, were an excellent distraction from wild imaginative thoughts of a rabid dog foaming and prowling about a remote village in Northern Vietnam.