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“What’s the deal with…”: lemons/limes

Installment #1

This is to be my first of what I imagine will be a lengthy series on the things that make no sense to me with a Seinfeldian title but lacking quite seriously in  90’s clothes, soup Nazis, or anyone named Costanza.

For a girl from a cold place, Hanoi is a mecca of fresh produce and tropical fruits. I spent years in Madison carefully buying the produce in-season and on-sale. The crisp apples from local farms in sturdy white paper sacks at the farmer’s market, the wooden case of organic clementines from the Willy St. Co-Op, the splurge on a pint of strawberries that disappeared all too quickly despite my attempts to limit the number of times I grabbed a few from the fridge.

Now I binge.

I eat a dragon fruit for breakfast, slicing and eating it at my kitchen counter, marveling at the fact that nature made fruit so oddly colored. I buy a kilo (2.2 lbs)  of mangosteen – the most mythical of tropical fruits, in my opinion – and eat them in a day, making excuses to myself about the relative weight of the rind vs. edible core. The mango tastes unlike anything found state-side, the avocados are cheap and plentiful (though only available from roving bicycle vendors who sell nothing else, and thus are slightly more challenging to locate on a whim). Even the bananas, a fruit I don’t normally glance at in the U.S., even they are fragrant and delicious, nothing like the GMO monstrosities at home.

American fruits (well, fruit from temperate climates like the US) are more expensive here. Apples, blueberries, cherries, these cost big money in Hanoi. $10 or $15 per pound…not unusual. And so they should be, importing fruit from New Zealand and Canada and California is likely an expensive enterprise.

But one weird fruit situation that I have noticed – the feature of todays “what’s the deal with…” –  is the limes. Well…the lemons. Both.

The word for lime is chanh. They’re smaller than American limes (shock!), less limey, and more generically citrus-y. They’re definitely green and definitely lime and definitely delicious. They cost about 50 cents for 8, and are available… everywhere. A bowl of quartered limes sits on every street food table in this city. But there are NO lemons. If you want the super sour yellow thing, there are a few import shops that carry them. Imported. $2/lemon.

59_lim_lem_wedges_sIt’s not that I don’t appreciate the lime, I do. I love it. I love citrus in food, that tartness is a flavor that makes everything better for me. The plethora of limes in Hanoi do not go unappreciated; my bun bo hue (chay), khoai tay chien, heck even my mi xao rau. But the lemon…or lack of lemon…it doesn’t make sense. I don’t understand. Why no lemons?! In VN they grow several varieties of orange, kumquat, clementine, pomelo, grapefruit, and lime…how has the lemon been skipped? Some restaurants and bars, in an attempt to appeal to the international crowd, use the imported yellow version interchangeably in drinks and so forth, where recipes call for lime. Bleh.

I love lemon hummus. The chickpeas are cheap and local, but I’m stuck paying [relatively] big money for the precious yellow version. It’s a bummer. What’s with this? Vietnam has missed an iconic citrus.

Silver lining? I like a limey gin & tonic.


3 replies »

  1. Love this story….also drank my share of limey gin & tonics in my early years. I love to read your writing. I really like the insertion of Vietnamese words…helps us here in the US get closer to your life over there!

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