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  • My Vietnamese stumbled out as I tried to order. I pointed to the spotted brown and beige eggshells and muttered something along the lines of “em muốn trứng,” regretting my choice of words mere seconds later because there was probably a better, politer way to order quail fetus. The jaded middle-aged lady sitting behind the baskets of quail eggs and snails looked at me, chin down and eyebrows raised in that skeptical expression that only women of a certain age can make. I was all nerves and jelly-legs when she took her machete-like knife and motioned towards me to take a seat at the little blue plastic table aside her food stall.

    She sharpened this knife on the concrete ledge behind her stall as the eggs boiled atop of the makeshift gas stove tucked behind her table. Her stall was prime property in Hanoi, down a little alleyway next to the stock exchange and across from the goldenrod opera house. Young professionals gathered in this alleyway in their white oxfords and patent leather pumps. Teenagers would occasionally zip by on their electric scooters. She peeled off a stem of lemongrass and began cutting through the stalk with the quick, defined strokes produced by years of muscle memory. Next came the ginger, its skin peeled off and its pale yellow flesh diced in seconds. A woman came over and brought her some trà đá, a lime green glass of iced tea. She did not take a sip until she finished her delicate work.

    Once boiled, the eggs were placed in a bowl atop a plastic platter decorated with a floral pattern, the type of pattern old women adore. The eggs shared space with a bowl of mint leaves and a small dish of her homemade sauce. That bowl of sauce was where that lemongrass and ginger disappeared into, along with a heady mix of vinegar, fish sauce, sugar, and chiles combined in a way that so perfectly puckered the mouth in contrast to the creamy egg. I smiled and said “cảm ơn,” not sure whether to call her a chị or a cô. (She was probably a cô.)

    Somewhere within myself might have existed the girl who eagerly visited the 4H booth at the State Fair in her hometown every year to hold a newborn chick in my hand and stroke its yellow feathers as its claws scratched at my palm. Somewhere within myself I might have remembered the wall behind that exhibit displaying the embryonic stages of an unhatched chick’s development into the nestling I held in my hands. Somewhere within myself I might have recalled the brown and beige eggshells, smaller than those of a chicken, sitting underneath a heat lamp to imitate a mother’s quivering body. But this girl sitting on a plastic blue stool too small for the frame of her adult body did not falter when it came time to ingest nascent, feathery quail fetus.

    I developed a method for opening the eggs. I would slowly crack the shell as I rolled it between thumb and forefinger, before pinching the outer membrane and letting some of the embryonic fluid drip down into the tray. I would peel the tiny shards off the skin like a clementine before popping the freshly revealed quail fetus into the sweet sauce. I picked up a mint leaf and threw it in the mixture. I grabbed the miniature spoon - much like a spoon used for caviar but made of much cheaper materials - and lapped up the quail fetus, sauce, and mint leaf. A quick bite would throw me into a daze. The tender yolk melded with the bright flavors of mint and the succinct crunch of lemongrass. The egg white interspersed with grey veins - that germinal cellular structure that could have, one day, sprouted into a feather if not for the cruelty of my omnivorous nature - oh, that glided between my teeth before my molars pierced its smooth surface. That pattern of cracking the shell, peeling it, dousing it, eating it, one quail fetus after another - it became a routine as everyday and vapid as using my middle finger to smooth out an unruly eyebrow hair, a routine I practiced until the basket was empty and I paid 20,000Ð (95¢) for the experience.
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