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

Drynuary.

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

walking.

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.

Friday, December 9, 2016

“Other expats are all wankers” *

I’ve often talked about the expat community. You meet some great people, but occasionally get thrown in with others you wouldn’t be friends with back in your home country.  And you notice all the strange and ugly habits expats have. It’s a bit like living in a bubble: annoying expat habits seem to be magnified by 100.

I met a girl at an event where there was a large array of food on the buffet, including pizza.  She gave a quick glance down the food table. “Oh, pizza!”, she exclaimed. “Too bad, I can’t eat it. Gluten-free over here”, she added, pointing to herself with her thumbs.

“Oh, that’s a shame. But there’s other good stuff you can eat on the buffet.”

“Nah, I don’t care if it touches other food, so I just scoop off the cheese and pepperoni and eat that, then get rid of the crust”.

“Um. You should be careful with that”, I said, raising my eyebrows. I know enough people with celiac disease to know that the slightest bit of cross-contamination would result in some serious consequences.

“Oh, ha haha! It’s okay!”, she said, pleased with herself. “I don’t eat food with gluten cos gluten makes you fat”.



Doing happy hour at a favorite watering hole.  The expat next to me strikes up a conversation, as all expats are wont to do.  We start talking food, which is a pretty neutral and safe subject for me, much like conversation about weather.  Upon finding out I’m a chef, guy starts grilling me.

“So if I had to move to a desert island tomorrow, what would you make me today?”

“What, like last meal or death row meal? That’s entirely up to you. What foods do you crave?”

“Aw c’mon, you’re not playing along. What would you make me?”

“I’d make you whatever you want”.

“COME ON. You can do better than that. YOU’RE A CHEF”.

“I’m not entirely sure I understand this question then. Isn’t this about you, what you would be eating as your last meal before heading out to solitude? This isn’t about me or what I want to eat”.

He sighs, exasperated. “Are you a cook or aren’t you a cook? Come on, what would you make me?”

I'm a little confused by this point and starting to get irritated, so I just blurt out the one thing that comes to mind. “Uh… jambalaya”.

“PERFECT!”, he shouts. “That’s exactly what I was thinking of! So you can make jambalaya?”

“Well, yeah. I can make all kinds of different food”. I’m still a little confused though. Maybe he’s drunk?

“But you can make jambalaya?”

I try not to be too obvious with the eye rolling, but grit my teeth instead. “Yesss”.

“And what else would you make me?”.

Sigh.



Hop on a bus, run into an expat acquaintance I’ve met once before. Start talking a bit, fully aware that the English speakers on the bus are listening in on the conversation.

“I’m having trouble with learning the language”, I lament to the acquaintance. “I’m trying to do this online course, but I can’t easily remember vocabulary words.  I think I might get a tutor”.

Expat eyes widen. “You are actually going to try to learn Vietnamese?”

“Well yeah, of course”, I say, looking up at him with a surprised expression. “Aren’t you?”

He shrugs his shoulders and says rather smugly. “I’ve been here 15 years and never bothered to learn”.



Standing at a bar trying to get in an order. Expat girl next to me drops her phone on the ground. “Ooops!”, she giggles.

“Oh shit, is it okay? Hope the screen isn’t cracked”.

“No biggie, I’ll just get my parents to buy me another one”.

...

Then there's the expats who act all strangely when they find out what I do for a living.

On two different occasions i've had men become angry for, and I quote, "stealing" a job that they think should rightfully have been theirs since they're men.  I got the "How did you get that job?", by an incredulous American, who failed as a chef back home, came here to 'find himself', then moved back home when that didn't work out. "It's not fair, I even went to culinary school and you didn't".

The other one, a European chef, was upset that I was able to find chef work several times when he couldn't. We were at Oktoberfest, and I thought he was going to smash his beer stein over my head. "I've been looking for chef jobs, but nobody will hire me", he said, looking at me accusingly. "I had to get a job in a different field instead. But I want your job. How do I get your job?".

And not to let everyone feel left out, i've had a woman act the same way. She's not a chef, but the French-Canadian wife of a German guy who was transferred here for work. She seemed pretty upset about having to live here in general.  We exchanged business cards, and she was startled. "So your boss is Australian? And they hired you? Why?"

"Uh, what do you mean, 'why'?", I said, narrowing my eyes.

"Forgive me if this sounds rude, but why did they hire you? Why didn't they hire an Australian chef instead?"

"Why don't you ask them? they're standing right over there", I said, pointing to my boss and her husband. trying to find a way to extricate myself from this conversation.

"Oh you think i'm being rude, don't you. I just think it's odd, that's all".

"I don't think it's odd at all. I can cook very well, and they like my food. That's why I got hired".

She smiled politely, so I took my cue and walked away.

The next day she sent me a LinkedIn connect request.  Go figure.



* Title borrowed from another expat during a Twitter conversation about how annoying expats are.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Never burn bridges.

Never burn bridges in this town.

The Saigon expat community, though large, is actually quite close-knit. Many new people I meet are a friend of a friend of someone I already know. This is especially true of the food and hospitality community.

Since my current job, which I love, allows me a considerable amount of free time, myself and a few other expat chefs have been asked to do some consulting at a concept store and bistro in District 2. It won’t be much, maybe once a month, but enough to keep their menu fresh, to do some training for the kitchen staff, cross-training with other chefs, and work on the occasional theme dinner and/or pop-up.  And I’m all about theme dinners.

I went for an initial meeting with the owner, a really lovely French-speaking woman who’s been in Vietnam for over a decade.  She’s the good friend of another good friend, so obviously I’ve heard nice things about her and her concept.  We were having an animated conversation when I happened to mention the French restaurant where I worked with the hellacious Volatile French Chef.  She gasped. “Oh! I interviewed him for our Executive Chef position”.

I quickly glanced behind me towards the kitchen. Shit, was he there, lurking? Ugh. I never want to see his smug face again. “Oh, uh…”

She smiled. “No, don’t worry, he’s not here. I didn’t hire him after all”.

I breathed a sigh of relief, and my face must have had the most priceless expression, because she continued. “To be honest, I had a great interview with him. It lasted for hours. He told me all about his life, and I felt I wanted to hire him. He made me feel comfortable, that he understood my vision. I felt he was being so honest and truthful with me. He had a good resumé. And after he left, I asked around. It wasn’t good feedback at all.  But don’t worry, he’s no longer in Saigon. He went to Mui Ne in April, met a girl, came back to marry her in June but that fell through almost immediately, so that's when he interviewed here.  But left again and is in Nha Trang”.  Mui Ne and Nha Trang are beach resort towns several hours away.

“You have done yourself a big fat favor not hiring him”, I said. “I’d tell you some of the things he did, but you may not want to know. It’s pretty bad”.

“Oh?”, she asked, raising her eyebrows. “You can tell me”.

So I did. I didn’t get into all the gritty details, but I did mention the physical and verbal abuse of myself, the staff, and the owner’s wife.  She was so pleased to have dodged the bullet on that one.

So it pays to not burn bridges, especially in this town. I’ve maintained great relationships with most of the people I’ve worked with here, including my first boss, which is good since he and I will probably be working together in some capacity during a food festival next year.

And people like Volatile French Chef, he’ll keep screwing up and have to keep moving further and further away, as he’s done nothing to fix his attitude or reputation.  But that gave me quite a scare, thinking he was standing behind me or hiding in the kitchen during my meeting.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

I'm afraid of Americans.



Thanksgiving night, we dressed up in our Sunday best and sallied out to dinner. My Vietnamese oven isn’t capable of roasting a whole bird (it’s a rather wee countertop thing that turns off after an hour, so you have to keep jumping up and running over to turn the dial again), so eating out was our best option.  This year a lot of restaurants and hotels were offering Thanksgiving meals (drinks included) at decent prices, and that cannot be beat. Last year I didn’t see any special deals, not that I was looking - I mean, I didn’t move to SE Asia to not soak up the culture - but this year, the city and its people have totally embraced Thanksgiving and the absolute horror that is Black Friday.

After a server poured us some wine, I noticed a low din that was slowly getting louder and louder.  I turned around to look. We were one of the first reservations (5:45 pm) but by 6 the place had filled up… with Americans. It took me a minute to adjust to the accents. Except for a small, small handful of people (I’m talking 3), all of our friends are Australian, French, or Vietnamese (or Canadian, or Macanese, or Cambodian; you get my drift). I work for Australians, so I’m used to that accent… but I’m no longer used to hearing the American accent.

I looked at Larry. “Dude. This is kinda freaky”.  He looked around, amazed at the crowd, “Yeah… It’s weird”.
“Who are these people? Did they come out of the woodwork?”
“I don’t know, but there’s a lot of them”.

The more alcohol poured, the louder the voices. Nasally, drawling. Haw-hawing.
“Do I sound like this when I talk?”
Larry laughed. He’s from New York and speaks in a forceful New Yorkese. “I never thought about it”. He shrugged his shoulders.  “I guess so”.
“God, that’s ugly. What an ugly accent we have”.

More wine being poured all around, including for us.  Americans getting drunk in the background, including us.


“I’m afraid”, I wailed loudly.  “I’m afraid of Americans.  Where are my Aussies when I need them?”
“Not celebrating Thanksgiving”.
“Bullshit. They’re drinkers. They can drink me under the table”.

I went up to the buffet and got caught in a stampede of Americans. I quickly snatched some food haphazardly, tossed it onto my plate, and practically ran back to the safety of my seat.  It felt as though we were on a field trip to another planet. We were one of the last tables to leave, as we waited for a large group of about 20, who were seated near us, to vacate the premises.  The din slowly quieted down.

“That was horrendous”, I said in the taxi home. “Thank God for food and booze. I need a shower to cleanse myself of my sins”.
“What sins?”
“I dunno, but I feel all grody now. Too many Americans”.

Here’s hoping you all had a peaceful, restful Thanksgiving.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

visions of flying coffee-smoked ducks in my head


bar notes.


I don’t know about you, but I’ve been burying myself in side projects. Or at least, spending a lot of time doing research and homework for projects.  I am full of ideas, big, small, unrealistic perhaps, but in my Alice brain they are attainable to me. A lot of my ideas stem from innocent conversations with friends.

A couple of weeks back, I was having a cocktail at a favorite watering hole when I remembered I was out of coffee beans, so I ran next door to the café where I used to work to grab some.  Just my luck they had finished roasting beans that day, and I inhaled deeply, my nose pressed to the bag, as I slowly walked back to my drink.  My friend Jerry smiled at my goofiness (for I am indeed quite goofy).

“Have you ever used coffee in food?” Jerry asked, picking up the bag from where I'd set it on the bar and giving it a good long appreciative whiff.

“Yes,” I replied, my eyes getting wide with food memories flooding back. “In the South part of the US, we use coffee to make a gravy for ham. But we call it Red Eye Gravy.  And you can use the ground coffee in a rub for steaks. Rib eye steaks work well”.

“In Vietnam, too, we use coffee for meat”.

“You do?” I said, shocked. I nearly fell off my barstool in excitement.  “I didn’t know this! Tell”.

“We use it for duck. In the Mekong Delta, in Cần Thơ region.  My grandmother is from there”.

My eyes got as big as saucers, and I eagerly pulled out a notebook and pen and started scribbling. “Tell me more. What do they do?”

“So you must dig a hole and put the duck in the hole”.

“Ooh! They do that in Argentina”.  Damn, why didn’t I bring that Francis Mallmann book with me when I moved here?

“They do?” his face lit up. “Yeah so you wrap duck in banana leaf…” . Jerry spent the next 5 minutes describing what to do.  After the meat is smoked, you discard the skin and roll up the meat with veggies in a rice paper wrapper, tying the roll with a thin piece of spring onion. Per Jerry, the key is to smoke the duck in the leaves discarded from harvesting rice.  “You must use rice leaves. Not the same if you do not. Not the right flavor”.

My mind blurred with visions.  Where could I dig a hole near my house? I could dig up the planter bed out on the terrace, but the landlady would have a fit.  What about the newly empty lot next door, I could dig a hole there before they restart construction, no one would ever know…  Jerry interrupted this flow with a firm, “But you can’t just dig a hole anywhere. It has to be Mekong Delta, and it has to be Cần Thơ, it has to taste of countryside.  Otherwise, it’s not real. It’s not countryside”.  Me, scribbling on my notes: Smells like countryside. Can’t do this anywhere but countryside. 

So now I’m obsessed with heading over to Cần Thơ and getting someone to slow smoke a coffee-rubbed duck for me. I don’t think I’ve lived until this moment happens.



On days where I’m cooking for more than just a few, my clients hire someone to help serve, clear, and help me out in the kitchen.  Ly and her family are from Saigon; Ly is very sweet, completely capable, and I never have to tell her what to do.   On one occasion when I had Ly helping out for a lunch function, I had a Keralan-inspired curry working on the stove, and was messing around with tamarind pulp.  Tamarind is not something I’m used to working with; I only used it a couple of times in the US, and that came from an already processed jar found in an ethnic store.  But here, it’s aplenty (my urban street has tamarind trees growing along it). And there I was, getting frustrated, trying to scoop away pulp from the big black seeds, when Ly swooped in to save the day.

“I show you what my mother does,” she said, pouring a bit of steaming hot water in my bowl of tamarind pulp.  “You put water, you use a spoon, and you stir. Stir a lot. Then, the seeds come out automatically”.

And sure enough, the more I stirred, the more the seeds dislodged themselves from the pulp.  Such a small kitchen trick that maybe a lot of Westerners know about, but I certainly didn’t. It made my life so much easier that morning, and will in a future project I'm not going to discuss yet as it's growing in the dark of my brain and on the back of a bev nap.

The curry was great too.  I may share my recipe one day.

on the left, tamarind pulp. on the right, hello seeds.


Sunday, November 20, 2016

chinatown.

We met Grace on the corner of Châu Văn Liêm and Nguyễn Trãi streets, on the edge of Saigon’s Chinatown.  Grace’s family on both sides are of Chinese descent, and she regularly visits a pagoda to pay respects and pray.  Given our affinity for this kind of stuff, we eagerly agreed to accompany her, and she leapt at the chance to show off part of her heritage and daily life.

We walked to the nearby Chinese Buddhist temple of Chùa Ôn Lăng, which I believe is dedicated to a female bodhisattva and goddess of the seas.   Grace bought bottles of cooking oil from a vendor outside the pagoda, then showed us the ritual of praying at all the altars and pouring out a bit of oil in each of the lit lamps as an offering. Any leftover oil we had would be donated to the temple, who then give it to older devotees who can’t afford to pay for any offerings.

Afterwards we went to a chicken and rice eatery, appropriately named Cơm Gà Đông Nguyên (com = rice; ga = chicken).  All the cooking is done outside, and the dining room is up a flight of stairs in a white tiled air conditioned room.  As we sat eating plates of chicken with rice cooked in chicken broth, pork with crispy skin, a black chicken soup in medicinal herbs, and pork tripe, the highly entertaining conversation gravitated around food and Grace’s family.

“People here kill chicken by wringing neck. But my father, he do different”, she said. “He give them vodka”.

Me, suppressing a laugh. “Your Dad gets the chickens drunk?”

Grace nodded solemnly. “Yes! He feel bad for chicken. Everybody kills chicken by wringing neck and he don’t want chicken to be scared. He get chicken drunk, then he wring neck. Chicken die happy”.

Larry and I burst out laughing.  “Well”, I said, drying away tears of laughter with the back of my  hand, “I bet the meat tastes better since it’s tenderized”.  Grace nodded. “Yeah, my father, he thinks so too”.

She then talked about her grandfather. “My grandfather, he eat the same thing every day. For 86 years! He eat white porridge for breakfast. White porridge for lunch. And dinner, he eat regular food, but also a bowl of white porridge”. She added, “He never sick”.

“White porridge? Like congee?”, I asked.

“Yes”.

“Wow”, I said. “Bland white porridge is the key to good health! I best get on that”.

“Yes. And then one day he go to hospital and he die”.

“Wait, what? He’s dead? Your grandfather is dead?”

“Yes. They not have white porridge at hospital”.

Never a dull moment in Saigon.