Friday, April 21, 2017

The coveted Michelin star

I have a few pet peeves. Lately my biggest one is where people claim a local restaurant has Michelin stars when it does not.

For the record: there are no Michelin star restaurants in Vietnam. None. There are quite a few chefs who worked in a different country (like France), or helmed another restaurant elsewhere which was a Michelin star venue.  But when a chef leaves that restaurant, he can’t take or transfer the stars with him to a new place and call that a Michelin star restaurant.

Sure, you market yourself as a Michelin Star Chef - if you’re the exec, absolutely you should. Impressive on the resumé. But it comes across as misleading when you’re now working somewhere else and people talk about your new restaurant having Michelin stars just because you’re now working there.

There are two sides to this. 1. You’re banking on people being somewhat stupid and not knowing that the chef can’t take stars with him elsewhere,  and 2. You’re a marketing genius and using this to help bring people in.

This is coming across as snarky. It’s not meant to be. And neither am I jealous; I have no desire to work someplace to earn stars - but I’m also not that kind of chef. I have different culinary ambitions.

People are quick to point out that La Maison 1888 in Danang is Michelin starred - but it isn’t. It’s run by a chef who earned 3 stars for his restaurant in Paris.   Although I’m sure the restaurant is fantastic and superb and OTT, it does not have stars, no matter what people write (for example, see the misleadingly titled Top Five Michelin-Starred Restaurants in SE Asia).

The French restaurants here of late, including but not limited to the one where I used to work, are marketing themselves as having Michelin Star chefs at their helm.  In a lot of cases it’s not true - at my old workplace, the kid worked the salad station at a 1-Star restaurant - that doesn’t make him a Michelin Star Chef.  But the owner is banking on people flocking in droves to his restaurant because of his ambiguous marketing.

In Saigon, wine-paired dinners are all the rage; there’s at least one a week these days and I do attend quite a few for work, research, and pleasure. Not all are successful; I went to one last year where the food was just abysmal (thank God the wine, Yangarra from Australia’s McLaren Vale, was fantastic, but it still doesn’t make me feel better about having shelled out 2 M VND for the dinner). At times there also seems to be a huge disconnect between chef and sommelier, where the chef will do whatever the hell he wants and doesn’t really work on the pairing aspect. Or the somm spends 5 minutes thinking about it and phones it in. “Oh, fish? Yeah we’ll do white wine with that. Beef? Throw in any cabernet, that will do”.  That’s pretty lazy, and I know of one somm who does this constantly.  On my Facebook timeline I saw an upcoming event titled “Michelin Star Wine Dinner”, and of course they’re charging heaps of money for it. This grinds my gears. The event ought to be renamed to something else, even "Wine Dinner with a Michelin Star Chef" would do. But I can visualize what will take place: some deconstructed overthought dish strewn about artistically on a plate (perfect for Instagramming!) paired with some heavy French wine; men in suits and cigars guffaw and puff out their chests and take selfies tagged with “Me at the Michelin Star Wine Dinner with Chef So-and So!”. No. Too much money for food that’s lost its soul by being taken apart, analyzed, and curated by a chef who’s lost his way.  In cases like this the food is greater than the sum of its parts. Though I’m sure the wine will be excellent.

Although there are plenty of fantastic restaurants in Vietnam, I don’t know if I’d qualify any as being worthy of a Michelin star yet. After all, Vietnam is an emerging market; having woken up from a long slumber, it’s slowly and steadily catching up to the rest of the world, but there is still a lot of work to do.  Someone I once worked for told me that culinarily, Vietnam was 10 to 15 years behind places like New York or San Francisco, and I have to agree. But we’ll get there.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Winos of Saigon unite.

I attended a nighttime industry event last week. It was invite-only, and I was pleased to have been on the guest list (and thrilled that it was +1 so that I could drag Larry along). Many of my peers would be there, tons of F & B folks - that’s Food & Beverage for those of you not familiar with restaurant lingo -  loads of wine  distributors (who, inexplicably, are mostly French. The distributors, not the wine).  So we dressed up, me in heels I soon regretted about 15 minutes into the night, Larry in suit and tie, and set out to paint the town red.  Australian wine was being poured, and I know I wasn’t the only one the next day who had a rockin’ hangover.  All expats in the F & B business are winos. All of us.

Someone I used to work with showed up about halfway through the night, and I could tell by the way he was furtively glancing around, his awkward bursts of animated conversation, and his inability to stand still that he was on something. I went to fetch him an empty wine glass, god knows why though I guess since I once worked with him I felt obligated to try to smooth the rough edges he was creating; indeed he was emanating spiky and intense vibes.  When a server came around to pour some wine, he looked at the label and barked out, “Is that all you’ve got? Don’t you have anything better to drink?”. Pretty rich, I thought, trying to conceal my shock, considering the event was free for us and the wine was decent. I glanced over to one of my friends who helped organize the event. She giggled awkwardly and said there was some Penfolds being served in the lobby. “Penfolds?”, he inquired. “Nah, I hate Penfolds. I guess this will have to do”.  I tried to avoid him the rest of the night, but we all ended up doing an after party at a nearby favorite watering hole. Since he and I have many mutual acquaintances in common, obviously he showed up, having refueled on whatever substance he had previously inhaled and was now bouncing off the walls.

While still at the event, with wine continuously pouring and people getting happier by the minute, I started chatting with a guy who looked kind of familiar to me but could not place. Though I’m not good with names, I never forget a face, so he and I spent a few minutes trying to figure out where we knew each other from. When he told me he’d been here a number of years and is part owner of  such-and-such restaurant group, I remembered him.

“We met at my boss’s house”, I said, an evil grin slowly forming on my face. “We exchanged business cards. You said we should meet up for drinks and discuss business ideas. So I emailed you… and never heard back”.  Full on evil grin at this point.

“Uh… Oh yes hahaha yes well… I never emailed you back?”, he said nervously. His own smile disappeared, and I kept grinning.

“Nope. Never. Isn’t it sad that everyone in this town exchanges business cards with promises of getting together, but turns out it’s all pomp and circumstance and it’s just a game to see who’s got the best looking business card? Oh, and by the way, mine are fantastic”.

“But I promise you I’ll email you back!”, he stammered. “I really do! I am indeed interested in discussing ideas with you! I’ll get right on it next week!”

“Okay. I’ll patiently wait for your email then",  I said, smiling sweetly, then turning away to talk to a friend.

I haven’t heard from him of course.

Friday, April 7, 2017

Saigon living: Japonaiserie.

ramen with all the toppings.

Never watch cooking shows while you're making dinner, or else you start craving what's being made on the screen and lose taste for what you're actually cooking. This happened to me last night while watching Samurai Gourmet while making a Thai hot and sour fish soup.

Of course the soup was really good, and I did eat it. But I was really craving ramen like nobody's business after watching “The Demoness's Ramen” (episode 2), so this morning I was first in line for my favorite little ramen joint way back in the 15B Le Thanh Ton hem in Saigon’s Little Tokyo. They open at 11:30 am, and I was shopping beforehand but arrived too early. No matter. I stood out front and mooched wifi off the izakaya across the way, and was soon joined in line by a Japanese fellow who had a cross body bag made out of car seatbelts. Pretty soon afterwards he and I were perched on two of the 8 stools with steaming bowls of ramen in front of us. Bliss. By 11:42 all 8 seats were taken, and a line had formed outside.

A buddy of mine says there's another excellent ramen joint somewhere in that set of hems that I need to try out, but every time I walk around in there I get lost and can't find it. I even get lost trying to find my dry cleaners, which has a teeny tiny shopfront somewhere back there.

you too can have a grilled salmon head for a little over $4 USD.

The izakaya hole-in-the-wall across the way from the ramen place is only open at night, and it's delightful. I've never sat downstairs; the first time we went we were ushered upstairs where I guess the overflow counter seating is, and the place does fill up. A couple of tables for larger groups (4 to 6 people) are also up there since the downstairs can't accommodate them. When I say it's delightful, I truly mean it. There’s a TV blaring Japanese commercials from the 1980's, so on occasion you'll see Gregory Hines, or Gene Hackman with a cranium full of hair hawking beer. One time when I was up there, an older Japanese gentleman kept sending shots of Jack Daniels down my way. Unwilling to be rude, especially since he kept grinning at me (my top heaviness probably had something to do with it), of course I drank them - never mind that brown liquor and I broke up ages ago and any attempt at reconciliation has ended with unhappy results despite my praying to all the porcelain gods. He eventually fell off his stool and was gently picked up and walked home. But that's the kind of place this is: grilled innards and salmon heads, Sapporo on tap, walls lined with customer-owned bottles ranging from sake to bourbon, and a friendly arm to guide you home should you need it.

Seems kind of funny that I move to Saigon only to fall in love with Japanese culture, but I'm okay with that.

Today: 91° Mostly Cloudy
Đường Chu Mạnh Trinh 14/11C, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Girls, girls, girls.

Last year I ran into an acquaintance in the Phnom Penh airport, someone I met when I first moved to Saigon but hadn't seen in a while. He makes regular trips to Cambodia as he's in the midst of setting up an English school. We small talked a bit, then at parting he mentioned he wanted to talk to me about a "lucrative deal" he had in the works that I may want to be a part of. 

An email came a few days later, and he explained that he was looking for silent partners to help him buy an existing operating bar in the central backpacking/beer drinking area of Phnom Penh. He broke down the costs. Utilities. Taxes. Alcohol. How much money the current bar takes in a month. Salary for a Western gentleman to manage the place. Payments (read: bribes) for local government officials. Renovations for a couple of apartments above the bar, and salaries for 23 "girls"... and it finally dawned on my pea brain that he wanted me to be part owner of a brothel.

The closing sentence in his email stated how he was looking for like-minded souls looking for a bit of adventure. Amused, I politely declined. Can you imagine? Ms. Tart, Brothel Owner. My parents would be so proud. 

Fast forward to this week, when I found out his marriage is on the rocks because his third wife (a stunningly beautiful Vietnamese woman half his age, also mother of two of his children) caught him having affairs with several prostitutes in Cambodia. 

I'm still a bit confused that he thinks I'm a like-minded soul. Looking for adventure? Sure... but not that kind of adventure. 

Friday, March 3, 2017

potato, potah-to.

During my first few months living here, I played with a computer program to learn Vietnamese.  Unfortunately I didn’t learn much (I have serious trouble remembering vocabulary words, something that never happened to me before while learning another language).  But I couldn’t figure out why nobody understood a word I was saying.  It wasn’t until a Saigonese friend told me she didn’t like to visit Hue or Hoi An because she could not understand the locals before I realized that, like everywhere else in the world, Vietnam has different accents.  Complete ignorance and stupidity on my part.  After all, there are distinct accents in the US, and even amongst the Southern states there are subtle differences if you pay attention. When I lived in Savannah, Georgia in the late 1990s I noticed how the local drawl was vastly different than the Mississippi accent that my great aunts Ima Lee and Lula Mae had.   I’m not making this up; my Dad’s side of the family are as Southern as Southern can get. I have ancestors named Mattilu, Axom, and Cerena (Serena, Selenia, or even Cerenia, depending on the census taker of the time).  And don’t even get me started on my Mom’s family; the lovely sing-song accent of my Provençal side of the family is about as un-Parisian-sounding as you can get.

So all the Vietnamese online language programs, the Pimsleurs, Rosetta Stones, and Instant Immersions? They’re with the Hanoian accent.  There are certain words that are used in Hanoi which aren’t used down south, such as vàng, the Vietnamese word for ‘yes’, which the Saigonese don’t use. I asked a friend if there was a word for ‘no’ (I thought it was không), and she said, “Used in what context? You don’t just say ‘no’ ”.  Apparently không is Hanoian as well.

I’ve heard that a lot of the Grab bike drivers are from the Mekong Delta, which is why they don’t know the lay of the land in Saigon. And I’ve also heard that most of the taxi drivers are from Hanoi. After I abandoned my self-studies, I’ve tried to learn things the Saigonese way.  I assumed that cab drivers didn’t understand me because I’m a westerner, but it didn’t occur to me that it was because I was now giving them an address with a Saigonese accent.

Take, for instance, the letter D. There are two Ds in Vietnamese: Đ (with the line through it) which has a western D sound; and D which is pronounced like a Y in Saigon and Z in Hanoi. If I get in a cab and gleefully exclaim, “NWIN YOO!” (I have a tendency to gleefully exclaim when I attempt any Vietnamese), 98 percent of the time the driver will turn around and look at me like I’m from Mars.

“Uh, Nwin Yoo?”, I then say, with a distinct question mark at the end. This is also a no-no. That changes the tone of the word, transforming it into a completely different word.  Cab driver blinks, doesn’t say anything, so I fish out my phone and pull up the address to show him.

“Ah, NWIN ZOO!”, cab driver inevitably says, happily.

“Zoo?”, I say puzzled.

“ZOO. No ‘ZOO??’ Yes ‘ZOO’.”

“Okay, you’ve lost me”.

“NWIN ZOO. We go. Ha ha ha ha!”.


And off we go.

One day I’ll get the hang of this language.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

My big Vietnamese kitchen.

My workspace.

A lot of apartments geared towards expats come partially or fully furnished.  This is kind of great if, like me, you moved here with two suitcases and one carry-on, as you don’t usually have to buy anything to get yourself settled (afterwards - yes - when you want a few creature comforts of your own).  The Airbnb where we stayed the month of October 2015 was fully furnished but in a really odd way - gobs of fake, dusty orchids and a kitchen rich in chopsticks, mismatched Tupperware, but not much else.  My current apartment is thankfully devoid of the crappy fake flowers. There is a zebra-striped couch along with matching armchairs that I think are quite hilarious, and will one day use for some kind of bizarre photoshoot.  And in the kitchen drawer can indeed be found about 50 pairs of chopsticks.  The kitchen also came with a set of chipped sea green dinnerware (4 plates in different sizes, a few “assiettes creuses” as the French call them, kind of like a wide shallow bowl, about 15 or 20 small bowls and dishes good for food prep, and a few oblong platters).  A 3-ring gas burner (built-in), though only one of the rings works properly; another shoots out foot-tall flames, and the third barely puts out a smoke signal.  Two fridges (these aren’t the huge American sized ones but are larger than a dorm fridge; we use one for beverages). A water dispenser. Inexplicably, a large quantity of wine glasses (this was, after all, once the home to the Chilean consulate, and I’m going to go with my made-up story that the glasses are left over from rowdy Chileans having raucous bacchanalian events).  There were a couple of things I had to buy, like an electric kettle, some basic utensils, pots and pans. But we got lucky; the kitchen came with an oven.

As far as I know and have observed, standard Vietnamese kitchens don’t have an oven. Vietnamese cooks don’t use them, don’t need to use them in their everyday cooking. They buy their bread out, as well as their baked sweets. The Airbnb listed an oven in the apartment description, when in fact it was a wee little toaster oven (I did use that thing for all its worth though, cooking whatever I could shove into the damn thing).  Since I do a lot of prep at home for my job, I use our countertop oven several times a week. The only quirky thing about it is that it’s set on an hour timer; if you’re braising anything, you have to jump up when you hear the timer ding and run over to turn the timer dial which turns the oven back on. This thing is my workhorse and I hope I don’t cause it an early death.

We also have a microwave, but I have never used it. Back in the US, one of the only things I used the microwave for was to melt butter and chocolate together.  Since my current microwave sits atop one of the fridges and would require me to stand on a chair to properly use it, I just use a double-boiler on the stove for my melting needs.

There is an air-conditioning unit in the dining area, but seems moot to run when I have the oven on, so I open the window and the door leading to the terrace to let the breeze flow through. It’s still hot though, but not as hot as it would be if I kept the window and door shut.  Last Friday while I was busy in the throes of food prep, some friends of friends were passing through Vietnam and came up to the apartment to say hi.  I wasn’t exactly prepared for visitors - sink full of dishes, laundry and unmentionables hanging to dry out on the terrace, etc.  But the house smelled wonderful as I was roasting peppers, sautéing eggplant and simmering tomato sauce with heaps of basil for caponata, so the visitors were welcomed with a face full of good smells as well as a blast of heat.  One of the wives, and Italian-American with a thick New Joyzee accent, took a good look around my workspace.

“So this is where you work? Aren’t you hot?”

“You get used to it”. I was wearing a tank top and miniskirt, my standard home cooking attire; unless I’m cooking an event, then it’s a proper chef coat and the works.

“I can’t believe you cook professionally out of this kitchen”, she said, looking around, spying the cracked and uneven countertop and giving it a good hard stare. “You don’t have any equipment. And this isn’t a very big space”.

“It’s pretty big for Vietnamese standards”, I said, feeling the need to defend Vietnamese kitchens. “Traditional Vietnamese kitchens, the ones I’ve lived in anyway, aren’t big and usually have two-burner stoves and no ovens. This one’s not modern, but then again that’s why we chose this apartment. It’s pretty quirky”.

This is considered big?”, she said, looking around. “Wow.  But doesn’t your boss have a kitchen for you to work in? Like a modern one that’s big? With professional equipment?”

“Their home kitchen? Well yeah, and it’s modern. But I don’t spend my day there if I’m prepping for an event. I prep here then bring it over”.

“But how do you get there with all your stuff?”

I shrugged. “Just hop in a cab. It’s not expensive and they live nearby”.

“You take a cab with all your food? How strange”.

“Well what else am I supposed to do? Hop on a motorbike juggling Tupperwares?”

“Haha!”, she finally cracked a smile. “I guess I can see your point”.

And my point is, you don’t need fancy equipment and loads of counterspace to get the job done.

Equipment-wise, sure, I’d love a KitchenAid mixer. I’d kill for one. And an ice cream maker. But I make do without. Recently, I did break down and buy a small handheld Philips mixer, since I got tired of whisking egg whites and heavy cream by hand. Having said that, I believe any cook worth their salt ought to know how and be able to whip egg whites and cream by hand, and do it without (much) whining. That, my beloved and much used mortar and pestle, the hand-crank pasta roller, and the juicer with blender attachment are the only luxuries I have in this kitchen, and I’m perfectly fine. Somehow, I manage to make pretty damn good and quality food out of here.

View from the dining area showing the open door to the terrace, my meager cookbook collection (what I could stow in my suitcases), and the crooked cupboards. I love it.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

the monk.

Yesterday started off innocently enough. I got up early to head down to Ben Thanh Market.  I know I’ve said it’s a tourist trap, but occasionally one must make one’s way there, especially when one is looking for a specific item that nobody else in town seems to carry.  One of my Twitter buddies swears the best spice vendor in all of Saigon has a booth there though I’ve yet to go pay them a visit because I know I’ll go hog wild and buy some of everything they offer.  Yesterday I was on the hunt for duck livers, quite a bit actually (about 500 grams worth, around 1 lb) since I got it in my head to make a pâté for an upcoming event, and I’d been told by a reliable source that I could find livers from a certain vendor at Ben Thanh.

Duck livers and a kilo of chicken livers procured (total price a whopping 30,000 VND - about $1.30), I set forth on the way back home. Friday morning traffic was in full swing. The usual cacophony of motorbikes revving, bus turn signals pinging,  truck honking. As I was coming up to the intersection of Nguyen Du and Nam Ky Khoi Nghia, near Independence Palace, I looked up to see a Buddhist monk right smack in the middle of the intersection. Hard to miss him in his saffron yellow robes. He was crossing the street, going up Nam Ky Khoi Nghia, and I realized with horror that the signal had not yet changed so traffic was still flowing at full speed. The monk crept through the intersection at a snail’s pace, slowly putting one bare foot firmly down on the pavement from heel to toe before raising the other foot up to bring forward. I thought for sure he would get hit by a car or bike, but miraculously he didn’t. Traffic flowed around him, like a school of fish, and not one single person honked. It was so surreal.  I stood on the edge of the sidewalk, clutching my bag of livers with my jaw hanging open and noticed a group of tourists on the other side of the street with comical expressions on their faces. One of them lifted a camera to commemorate the surrealness of the moment, and for a nanosecond I thought to do the same but decided against it. Sometimes when you accidentally peer into a person’s soul, you feel awkward snapping a picture for your Instagram feed.

When the light changed and I was able to cross the road with no issue, I quickly caught up with the monk, still moving at a snail’s pace, and glanced over at him as I passed. He was clutching a large bowl to his chest and seemed to be staring not directly ahead but at a point a few feet in front of him, completely immersed in his own self, and not troubled with the world around him.

I’ve read about walking meditations and begging bowls, but it didn’t appear that he was begging. He reminded me of Catholic pilgrims on the Chemin du Calvaire, walking barefoot up a rocky slope (such as the one in Cap d’Antibes near my cousin’s house) so as to feel closer to God. I would have liked to quietly follow him to see his progress but the livers needed refrigeration, so I silently wished him luck and veered off towards home and pâté making.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

"we're hiring!"

Out for drinks the other night, I noticed a familiar face, though it was out of place.  The particular establishment where I’d parked myself at the bar has a sister location (with different concept) down the street, and occasionally at either place you’ll see a manager or a bartender from the other location swinging by to borrow a keg or bottle of spirits of some sort.  But this time it appeared that they had borrowed a server for the night.

I waved at her; she smiled and came over to say hello. “What are you doing here? You haven’t defected, have you?”, I joked.

She laughed. “No, they’re just short-handed here. Lots of people quit”.

Later I was talking to one of the managers who brought up the personnel shortage.  “People quit for Tet so that they can go home to their families. And now I have a hard time hiring anybody because when I call to schedule an interview, they tell me they’re still on vacation from Tet and they don’t want to work yet”, she explained.

I didn’t know what to say to this so I just blinked and kept my mouth shut.  My initial reaction was incredulous.  In the US when someone calls you - regardless of the industry or job - and you say you’re still on vacation and can’t be bothered to come in to interview, you’ll never hear from the hiring manager again.  But here things are different. Lots of kids in hospitality and the F & B industry have skills and can speak English moderately well. And loads of places are hiring. Off the top of my head, I can name seven Western-style bars and restaurants in Districts 1 and 2 that are actively looking for personnel (and there are more; these are just places that I frequent or where I know the owners).

But Tet ended two weeks ago.  I find this “I’m still on vacation” excuse to be flaky.  As someone who has hired and fired before, this lame reasoning comes across as laziness. But maybe that’s just me, and it’s yet something else I need to adjust in my cultural perceptions.

Monday, January 30, 2017


hot and sour clam soup; chopped crunchy vegetable and spicy prawn salad behind, with modified nuoc mam cham.

So I participated in Whole30.

And I’m not going to bore you with the details of what I ate every single day, which is why I didn’t post about it throughout the month.  At the end of December when I mentioned to a few people that I was going to do this detox, most of the responses were incredulous. “But why? Why deprive yourself?”, was the main feedback I got. Let me tell you why.

December, and let’s be frank, November, were full of holiday spirit, in all definitions of the word. My boss hosted various lunch and dinner parties, and I spent a lot of my free time imbibing and eating pretty much everything in sight. Hey, it’s Christmas, that’s what we’re supposed to do, right?  In the beginning of December, I noticed a few days of indigestion, but firmly pushed it out of my mind as I didn’t have time to think about it. I kept cooking, and that included a lot of baked things, chocolate, crazy Australian desserts I’d never heard of before (something called a White Christmas which is basically melted white chocolate with everything sweet lurking in your pantry chopped up and folded in), and a lot of wine. Right after Christmas I got a serious bout of food poisoning, which really incapacitated me and laid me flat and miserable for a few days. At the end of the month, feeling slightly better yet still very shaky, I decided something had to be changed.  Fortunately, a group of friends and friends-of-friends Stateside were embarking on a month-long Whole30 “diet” (I really do hate that word, it suggests negativity when there’s nothing negative about Whole30), so Larry and I decided to join them.  We all kept track of it and each other via a newly-created Facebook page because misery loves company. (I jest. I’ve not been miserable).

The premise of Whole30 is that for a period of 30 days you immediately eliminate the following items from your diet: alcohol, dairy, gluten, rice, all grains, soybeans (includes soy sauce and tofu), peanuts, all legumes (from lentils to chickpeas to peas and beyond), corn, sugar in any form except for fructose. I may have forgotten a few things. After 30 days, you slowly reintroduce each item (the Whole30 creators have a specific order they recommend) and see if you have any gastrointestinal issues with it. This is a great regimen if you have some weird allergies and you want to pinpoint if a food item is the culprit. Also, contrary to popular belief, IT’S NOT THAT FUCKING HARD. Half of the friends and friends-of-friends pooped out a week or two in because they just couldn’t handle it.  The only difficulty we ran in to is that we live in Southeast Asia, and what are the common foods found here? Rice and soy and tofu.  And as I began to discover, as I scoured restaurant menus, recipes, and started asking a lot of questions and generally being That Pain In The Ass Restaurant Customer, is that a lot of Southeast Asian cuisine has sugar in everything.

Even pho isn’t safe (a real pho has rock sugar in the broth). Nuoc mam cham, the spicy fish sauce/lime juice dressing mixed into every Vietnamese salad and served as a dipping sauce for everything? Palm or white sugar is added. It’s actually kind of scary how much hidden sugar there is in Thai and Vietnamese cooking.

Because of the Christmas holidays and Tet (Lunar New Year) my boss has been traveling, so I’ve had a lot more time at home which enabled me to cook for myself -  this was the perfect month to try this thing out.  I jumped into recipe changes immediately.

I ate a lot of soup. this one is potato leek, blended, then topped wiih crispy bacon. Bacon makes everything better.

The next question I heard from people was, “What can you eat, since you’ve eliminated pretty much everything good?”.  All vegetables. All tree nuts (cashews, almonds, etc). All meats and seafoods. Eggs. Good fats, such as avocado (unfortunately not in season here though can be found at exorbitant prices for a rock hard specimen), olive oil, coconut oil, clarified butter, aka ghee (butter that’s been melted and the fat solids removed). Spices. Salt. Fruit - but only in moderation, since it does contain fructose. I began experimenting and replacing sugar in recipes with fruit purees and juices (for example, as I learned from Luke Nguyen, coconut water is a great replacement for sugar in nuoc mam cham (that fish sauce/lime juice dressing). I’ve been using a small teaspoonful of tamarind paste in mine because it’s what I have on hand and is easy to get here. In the US it would be hard to find - not to mention expensive - so I’d use dates and mash them up a bit. I found myself using a lot less sweetener than I had previously. And I got used to no milk and no sugar in my coffee, though that one was a toughie (I’ve replaced milk and sugar with a dollop of coconut milk instead. Took a bit of getting used to, but now I really enjoy it).

I must admit there have been a few faltering moments. A picture floating around on the interwebs of a salted chocolate tart had me gnawing at my knuckles late last week.  A couple of weeks back I inexplicably craved ice cream like nobody’s business, even though I rarely eat ice cream (though do make fantastic ones). I thought I’d miss bread since it has always been my favorite food, but I don’t. There have been two times where I really, really wanted a glass of wine.  And last night, Day 28, we decided we needed some. With what is going on politically in the US, I’m surprised we didn’t cave on the wine earlier. So some wine was imbibed, also a small bit of really excellent Marou chocolate, and I’m back to normal today. I’m not drinking tonight.  And on the plus side of all this, I’ve lost 7 lbs and exercised every single day.

I’m slowly going to reintroduce foods, but at my own leisure. I’m not going to go all hog out like some of the friends and friends-of-friends did and sit down to a pizza dinner with pasta appetizer covered in mounds of parmegiano, cheese and bread and chocolate-covered sugar bombs for dessert, with wine spilling everywhere (I have a vivid image of a scene from Caligula in my head). That’s not smart anyway; imagine what you're doing to your stomach? Just the idea makes me cringe.  I’ll eat bread again, and I do look forward to a very nice, very tasty glass or two of red wine towards the end of this week. And I leave you all with a variation on a Thai recipe for hot and sour clam soup. It’s stupid simple, has minimal ingredients, and is sometimes all you need when you want something good and light and detoxing.  The caveat is you must like sour and spicy food.

This is a starter course. If you want more, if you want to make it the only dish you eat at that one sitting, by all means get more clams and use more broth.  I suppose if you wanted to add rice or rice noodles to the end product you could, but I wouldn’t, and won’t.  This serves two people.

the only thing it didn't come with were the giblets. I want giblets, damn it!

The broth: for this, I use some chicken parts I have lurking in the freezer. This last batch I had some chicken feet and a backbone from the last roaster I bought then spatchcocked (chickens here come with head and feet attached. Not so in the US).  Put that in a pot and add about 6 cups of cold water. A couple cloves of garlic that you’ve smashed with the flat end of your knife to remove the skin. A thumb-sized knob of ginger that you’ve also bruised or smashed lightly. You can also add some spring onions that are dying in your crisper drawer, but you don’t have to go out and buy anything special for this. Bring to a boil, then let simmer and skim off any funky grey bubbly bits that come up. This is a very quick broth, so 20 minutes to a half hour will do. Strain through a fine mesh sieve (or use cheesecloth if you’ve got any handy - I don’t since it’s not a common item found around these parts).

When you’re about 5 minutes out from eating, get the rest of your ingredients nearby and ready. Bring the broth back to a simmer, hopeful you’ve washed out your original pot or used a clean one.  I’ll assume you’ve gone through your clams (about a pound for two people - use steamer clams if you can find them) and chucked out the opened ones (rule of thumb for clams and mussels: chuck if open before cooking; chuck if closed after cooking).  Add salt to the broth to taste (how much is entirely up to you).  Gently dump in the clams.  Using a ladle, remove them as they open and put into a larger serving bowl (they’ll pop open wide when they’re cooked - about a minute or two, but they’ll vary).  When they’re all open, pour the broth over them into the serving bowl. Tableside, add freshly squeezed lime juice to your own bowl and one tiny whole bird’s eye chili that you’ve bruised ever so slightly.  If you want to, you can sprinkle over some fresh cilantro (coriander) leaves. And that’s it. I could eat this every night, and in fact have two nights this past week.

Monday, December 12, 2016


It’s raining in Saigon. Again. We’re supposed to be out of the rainy season, but I don’t mind it. December seems to be a few degrees cooler than the other months, and the rain brings the temperature down a bit more.

Tonight, while walking back from dinner through the streets of Đa Kao, it was pleasant enough for me to wear a sweater (not a heavy one, but at least something long sleeved), and the rain misted down gently as I circumnavigated some of the near-empty side streets and hẻms on my way home. In high school, one of my great friends was a kid named Andrew who lived with his mom on Quai de Bourbon on the Ile Saint Louis, in two rooms with uneven flooring, high ceilings and hand-painted support beams.  The stone stairs on the way up to the apartment were polished to a shine and worn down by the thousands of feet that scampered up and down them over the centuries. I never met Andrew’s mom; she seemed to be away on business trips a lot, so a few of us would gather at his place in the evenings to get stoned, lean back on the couch cushions, and watch the lights from the passing Bateaux Mouches flicker off the colorful ceiling.  I remember one particular evening emerging from the humid and sultry Pont Marie métro station into the cold misty rain, pulling the lapels of my oversized and massively shoulder-padded green Loden coat more snugly around me (this was the late 80s; oversized and shoulder-padded came with the territory).  The streets were deserted and I wore sunglasses even though night had fallen hours earlier, sunglasses in the rain because I thought it might be a fun thing to do. It was.

I like walking around at night. You see everyday objects and landmarks in a whole new light. Things seem more mysterious. Trees and leaves on the bushes appear more vibrant, more alive, as though they would come to life in the shadows when you turned away, as if they bore secrets. Walking through Đa Kao, I notice more French Colonial structures normally hidden and unseen by loud and colorful daytime commerce. Sidewalks are once again accessible for walking since the motorbikes normally parked every which way have gone home with their respective owners.  The smell of fried shallots wafts across the street from a tiny restaurant, and the open-fronted cafés are sparsely populated with young people.  I walk slowly through the mist with my massive black golf umbrella, seeing flickering lights in windows, wondering what people are watching on their televisions. I could walk these streets all night, except I’m tired from a bout of insomnia brought on by a celebration with too much wine with a good friend last night. I need to go home and lie down.