Under heavy gray skies, a steady drizzle bounces off the conical rice hat of a roadside chef—she is sitting in front of a cauldronful of embers and ash, tending to an array of pork skewers. As we take a seat next to her, she turns them one by one, revealing an irresistible caramelization on the coal-kissed sides of our lunch-to-be.
Once the grill is tended to, the woman prepares our meal, stacking ingredients onto a large plastic tray: peeled garlic cloves and chopped chili, heaps of fresh herbs, thin rice paper wrappers, and a bowl of what looks to be hoisin-peanut-chili dipping sauce. Then, she grabs a handful of skewers from the grill and loads us up.
A few moments later, I have a messy spring roll resting in my fingertips. One bite later, and then two, I've stopped mid-chew to look at Tyler is disbelief. There must be some secret ingredient! Whatever is in this sauce, or however this meat was marinated… it has elevated this deceptively simple dish into something transcendent.
How is it possible that anything can taste this good?
Twenty skewers and countless springrolls later, our satisfied groans mark the end of this euphoric meal. Whatever magic came together to create that symphony of flavor slowly disperses, and soon I'm back on earth, sitting in a tiny plastic chair by the side of the road in Vietnam, with a bit of herb stuck between in my teeth.
Intent on being able to to recreate this dish, this experience, at home, I practically beg the woman to tell me the secret of her culinary alchemy. Alas, she has no idea what I'm saying. Instead, she smiles and goes about her business, unaware that she has just served me one of the best meals of my entire life.