There is a Vietnamese tradition that an important person or guest is given the head of the animal being served during a meal. I am very proud and honoured to say that I have been served the heads of many fish, chickens and ducks over my time in Viet Nam and I couldn’t be more grateful to all my very gracious hosts.
The thing is, for a long time I had exactly no idea what to do with all these animal heads in my bowl.
Was I supposed to eat them? There usually some cheek meat in the heads of some of the larger fish, but not on the smaller ones, or on the chickens. I’d tried nibbling the sides of the chicken heads but I didn’t get very much from my efforts.
Should I just admire them for a couple of moments and then set them aside? Honestly, those heads took up valuable real estate in my bowl, space that I could have filled with delicious rice noodles instead.
Then I finally figured out just what to do with these heads.
I sometimes have a problem when I sit down to a meal hosted by Vietnamese people, because I was raised with the idea that you should eat everything on your plate and my hosts were raised with the idea that you should fill your guests’ bowls when they are empty. You can’t even refuse these extra servings because that isn’t how this game is played. If you turn away from your empty bowl for a moment, you’ll turn back to see a lovingly hand-peeled prawn or another piece of tofu that you will feel compelled to put into your mouth. This leads my hosts and I into a vicious cycle of overfeeding and overeating, and I end up hobbling away from the table to find a safe place to undo the top button on my pants (who am I kidding? I take off my pants entirely).
Enter the animal head! I just keep it in my bowl and eat around it, when I’m full I just dress up the head with a bit of leftover rice and some vegetable so it looks like I have a full bowl of food that I just can’t eat. And there you have it – food decoy to stop the onslaught.