Birthday dinner in the dark
For the last few years, Heart Guy and I have taken to celebrating my birthday in Vietnam.
Birthdays are about celebrating the “newness” of life. Every year therefore, we try to experience something new, be it a part of the country we haven’t visited or a cuisine we haven’t tried. One year, we squatted at a roadside grill in Ho Chi Minh city for my first taste of kerb side cooking. Another year, we took the train to Phan Thiet for sea-food fresh off the boats coming in from the East Sea. Last year, we took a van up the mountains to the Buon Ma Thuot plateau and feasted on regional game and vegetables..
This year I had only two days so we stayed in Ho Chi Minh City. But as always, we found something new to experience. We went to eat at Noir – Dining in the Dark, an 11 month old startup.
The blurb says that Noir is a social enterprise seeking to provide careers in food service for some of Ho Chi Minh cities estimated 4000 visually impaired persons while giving sighted people an opportunity to interpret the world from a non-sighted perspective. The culinary journey offered by Noir, 13 courses in pitch dark, is meant to offer an experience that’s mind-altering.
The restaurant is located at the end of Alley 178 off Hai Ba Trung Street, one of the most charming alleys in District 1. The entryway and lobby are beautifully decorated, with high ceilings, old-fashioned floor tiles, a carefully curated mix of modern and art-deco furniture and whimsical knick-knacks and sensitive lighting accented by strategically placed candles. In short, it’s a feast for the eyes!
But after our welcome drinks, all this visual stimulation is slowly stripped away. First, we’re offered blindfolds and asked to fit simple shapes into a jigsaw board, a task most toddlers can do before they’re two. Well, with our blindfolds on, most of us don’t do very well at all. Mind shift #1.
Next we’re introduced to our visually-impaired host, who leads our party in a crocodile file into a pitch black room. We move forward in tiny steps. Turn left, turn right, our host instructs us. I am nervous. I open my eyes wide but can’t see anything. Cloth brushes against my face. I worry about stepping on my host’s heel. Others worry if the room’s clean. Will there be insects we can’t see crawling around? And then, before we can worry anymore, we’re at our table. It’s probably taken less than five minutes to get here. But now, I wonder, how will I get out again if I need to use the bathroom halfway through the meal?
We’re to call out if we need anything, our table waiter says. He tells us his name. Then he tells us where our cutlery is, where our drink will be placed. I inch my hand across the table to look for Heart Guy’s hand. He sure sounds a lot farther than he is. We murmur to our friends about the strangeness of it all. Then we fall silent. Somehow, it’s hard to talk when we can’t see everybody’s faces.
The food arrives. There are 5 appetizers followed by 4 mains and 4 desserts. We aren’t told what any of these dishes are. We’re to guess.
We struggle to identify exactly what we’re eating. Without the anticipation that comes from knowing what we’ll be eating and without visual stimulation, our tastes are blunted. We are a disappointed that we’re not experiencing the greater acuity of taste and the increased ability to detect more subtle fragrances that the blurb promises. My own sense of hearing has become more sensitive. But that only makes me annoyed with the loud group at the table in front of us. We are all becoming a little grumpy that, without sight, our culinary journey is proving less exciting than we expected.
After an hour plus the darkness becomes almost unbearable. It’s irritable not being able to see anything with our eyes wide open. It’s discombobulating trying to converse with our eyes closed. And yet, silence doesn’t seem like an acceptable option at a dinner party. When it comes time for coffee we opt to have it out in the lobby where we can see.
“I will never take my eyes for granted again,” I tell the friend who was sitting next to me the moment we get out into the light. She laughs. “Yes, me too,” she says.
We would find it difficult to be blind, we agree.
But it’s not just the eyes that determine how we perceive, we realize later when we’re shown the exquisite pictures of what we’ve been eating. Quite a lot of it has to do with how we think once we’ve identified and categorized our food. For example, I discover that I don’t actually like the taste of stuffed pumpkin blossoms. More than anything, it appears I’ve been enamoured by the idea of them. When I can’t see that I’m chomping down on said stuffed pumpkin blossoms and haven’t been told that’s what I’m eating … well, it seems I just think they’re rather tasteless bits of soft-centred crisps.
So, another birthday, and another door of perception opened as we shut our eyes.
It’s something definitely worth doing, even if it turns out that it’s more difficult to appreciate the exquisitely prepared food in the dark.
Thank you very much Noir for facilitating the whole evening of learning. And, as a sometime resident of Ho Chi Minh City, thank you very much too for what you’re doing to improve the lot of at least some of the blind in the city.