Saturday, July 15, 2017

a day in the life.

Pharmacies in Vietnam openly sell a variety of stuff you would need a prescription for back in the US, and usually fairly inexpensive too. For example, you can buy a 10 pack of generic Valium (diazepam) for a dollar. I think for heavy duty narcotics you need some kind of necessary documents, but not being a pill popper I'm not 100% sure on that. My trips to the pharmacy are pretty rare, and usually as a last resort for a sleep aid due to my chronic insomnia, or for a probiotic.

Sometime last week I popped into a pharmacy nestled on the ground floor of an office building to grab a probiotic or Imodium (pharmacies tend to run out of stuff, so I'll take what I can get), as the stomach was telling me a tale that day. Except I couldn't get in the door, as it was blocked by two American backpacker girls wearing the ubiquitous “elephant pants” that are so ridiculously hideous yet seem to be part of the Required Backpacker Uniform in SE Asia. I swear, some backpacker blogs out there must have lists and visual aids of what one needs to look like when one is traveling. All these kids look the same, no matter what nationality. For both men and women, the elephant pants are a must. Shoes optional, but dirty feet required. The tiniest of tops with barely any straps to hold it up, but for women a dirty lacy bra must be showing (in fact I saw one girl who didn't deem it necessary to wear a top at all and just had a bra on. This isn't Miami Beach, folks. This is a working, bustling city. Fortunately for her, she did have the body for it). And for men, a man bun is absolutely required. No ifs, ands, or buts about that last one.

So these two chicks were blocking the way into the pharmacy and couldn't give a rat's ass that they were doing so. One was squatting down and pointing to something in the glass case. When the other finally moved out of the doorway, she still cockblocked my passage to the counter. So I had to wait. And then they both glanced back at me, confused and embarrassed, and it became clear they didn't want me to see what they were buying. It was a pregnancy test.

I don't know why in this day and age people still don't use condoms. They're sold everywhere, right next to the register at all Circle K's. A Vietnamese friend told me that the Vietnamese are embarrassed to buy them, so they have unprotected sex anyway, including herself. When I gently berated her (my motherly side coming out), she said she knows her partners are “clean” because they come from good families. I lectured her heavily on that bullshit. And to see two Western backpacker kids buying pregnancy tests makes me shake my head. Wrap it up, people. Life isn't a dress rehearsal for something better.

The girls purchased what they needed, then finally scooted out of the way. I promptly forgot about them… until about an hour later, I was walking down the street and spotted them on a street corner happily eating ice cream cones. Whatever outcome of the test they wanted must surely have been in their favor.


Last night I went to the grand opening of a concept store. The GM is a friend of mine, and graciously invited us.  Everyone was in a good mood (free flow wine will do that).  There were passed apps, which I snarfed down happily. I was busy talking to some friends of mine, when a large drunk man with a big red face popped his head into our little group.

“Where you from?”, he demanded of my friend Susan.

“I’m Canadian”, she said.

“Oh, you’re from Canadia?”.

“Ha ha. Canada. Yes, I’m Canadian”.

“So where are you from?”, he said, turning his attention to my male friend. “You from Canadia too?”

“Yes I am, actually”.

“Surrounded by Canadia! And you? You look Irish”, he said, now focusing on me.

“I’m not, actually. I’m French”.

“Nah, that face says 5 different people”.

“Uh well I do have a French nose..”

“Too many words there, honey”.


“Where are you from?”

“I was born in San Francisco, but I grew up in…”

“Too many words. Just tell me where you’re from, don't need an explanation. You from Canadia?”

“Uh, dude”.

“Cos you look Irish, sweetie. I’m from Scotland”.

“You don’t say”.  I saw that Susan and my other friend had quietly extricated themselves from the group and found some free chairs to sit on. Jealous.

“Yeah, SCAWTLAN. Not Canadia. That where you from? Canadia?”

“No, San Francisco”,

“What? Nah, look at that face!”, he said, his finger wagging ever so close to my nose. I may have snarled, and would have bitten him had he come any closer. I ought to wear a pin that says Please Don’t Feed The Animals.

By that point Larry got himself into the conversation so I very quickly sidestepped out and took a deep breath.  Dealing with expats can be tiresome.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

just another night out.

I went for drinks the other night with a couple of women, one I’d met before and the other was new to me.  They have been living in Vietnam for at least half a dozen years.

We talked about a bunch of random things, but then, as seems to happen a lot, the conversation turns to food. Most times it’s without my direct doing. People find out you play with food for a living, and questions start coming left and right.

“So you must know the best addresses then”, said the French girl. “Where do you buy your produce?”

“Right back here, actually”, I said, pointing out the window of the café where we’d ensconced ourselves. “On Ton That Dam, near Bitexco Tower. I go to the same vendors every day. Three sisters run the stall”.

“A street market?”, questioned the other girl.  The French girl looked doubtful. “You buy your groceries off the street? But how is that clean? Is it organic? I only buy organic”.

And here’s the part that annoys the crap out of me. You packed up your whole life to live an adventure in a foreign land, and you refuse to do anything not geared towards expats. They buy their shiny, perfect vegetables in shiny, perfect air-conditioned stores.  I took a deep breath before replying, “Nothing in Vietnam is 100% organic”.

“Oh yes it is!”, cried the French girl triumphantly as though she knew something I didn’t, the other girl nodding her head knowingly. “The Organik shop in Thao Dien is 100% organic”. (Thao Dien is the expat-heavy area of District 2 that I fondly refer to as Miami).

“No, it isn’t”, I continued. “A woman I know who works for an appraisal firm researched this and went to Dalat to investigate the farms.  Keeping an organic farm is expensive.  At most, some of the farms are sustainable and what we’d call ‘naturally grown’ but even then the term ‘natural’ is ambiguous…” and this is where I stopped because I realized I’d completely lost them along the way.  Deer in headlights looks from my two companions.

“But what about Veggy’s?”, the other girl asked, naming a store that’s been around since the 1990s.

“Nope. They might say they are but they’re not. But I won’t shop there unless I have to. The owner is unpleasant”.

“So you won’t shop there because of him, but you’ll shop on the street? And his stuff is organic”.

“No it isn’t”.

“Well, he says it is”.


Thing is, the farms and sellers here can call their vegetables ‘organic’ without any repercussions, because no one is going to come after them. I don’t know if there are any laws regarding the naming conventions, and if there are I’m sure the government doesn’t care. They’ve got bigger issues to deal with.

Then the French girl turned to me and said, smiling sweetly, “I meant to ask you something, but I don’t know if you’ll find it offensive.  You work for Australians. Why on earth did they hire you?”

I was taken aback. “Excuse me?” Holy hell, are we rehashing this again?

“Well forgive me for saying so, but you’re not Australian. You’re half French and half American. There are lots of Australian chefs here with no jobs. Why didn’t your boss offer them a job instead of you? Seems the natural thing to do, right?”

“My boss likes me and my food, and I’m good at what I do. That is why she hired me”.

She laughed. “Can you imagine a Frenchman here hiring a chef who wasn’t French? That would never happen”.

“Well my boss happens to be more open-minded”.

“But it would never happen. It would be blasphemy!”

I left soon after.

Monday, May 15, 2017

The housekeeper.

Back in the fall of 2015, whilst browsing through real estate agents ads and rental sites, I noticed all the listings geared towards expats had variations on the same theme:

“Cleaning six times a week. Wash twice a week. Change bed once a week.”

“Serviced Apartment to Rent! Cheap! Cheap!”

“Comes with cleaning services 3 times a week.”

Etc, etc…

When we came to sign the contract for our current apartment, I mentioned something about not needing a cleaning lady. After all, I’ve cleaned up after myself and other people my entire life, and it seemed stupid to get a cleaning lady now, especially as I wasn’t working at the time. Our real estate agent, Dan, was sitting across the table from me, with Lan (the cleaning lady) standing behind him. Dan was confused.

“Apartment comes with Lan. She clean, she do laundry. Three times a week. She can iron too, if you buy an iron”.

“But we really don’t need her”, I protested, feeling awkward. It just seemed ludicrous to have a cleaning lady when we are perfectly capable of cleaning up after ourselves. Do expats have a reputation for being lazy? (silly question - yes, we all do. Another story for another time).

Dan relayed this information back to Lan, who looked at us, baffled. I stared back across at them, feeling foolish. In my attempt to not appear like a lazy, eccentric expat, in trying to save Lan from having to work so hard and to give herself a break, I had unintentionally offended her. So I took a deep breath and tried to backpedal. “Fine, okay, she can clean”.  Crisis averted. They both smiled, and we went about with our contract signing. A friend later told me it’s considered rude to not have a cleaning lady, as that cuts someone out of a much needed job.

And I must say, Lan has been a Godsend.  She’s more a housekeeper than cleaning lady. I believe (but have not confirmed) that she’s related in some way to our landlady, who lives in Hanoi.  Lan comes to the building early every morning, Monday through Saturday, between 7 and 8, and I can hear her sweeping and mopping the downstairs entrance hallway and the American chiropractor’s office on the ground floor. She cleans the three upstairs apartments on alternate days. She orders our bottled water and gas tank refills (for the gas stove). She sticks around and keeps an eye on deliverymen and the handyman when we're out. She collects rent - it’s a cash society here, so we hand over a massive wad of bills, which she gratefully takes, flashing us a huge smile before trotting off somewhere with it - presumably the bank, probably her own home though. The first time we paid rent I felt like we were conducting a drug deal. Massive wad of cash rolled up and tied with brown butcher’s twine. We giggled like idiots while handing it over to Lan.

When Tet rolls around, we give her a customary envelope of cash, which she gratefully takes. And this year we also gave her one of those massive baskets full of goodies (usually exported cookies and candy) that are all the rage here around the time of the lunar new year (they’re called “hampers”, probably because that’s the Australian term for “basket full of goodies”, though it only reminds my American pea brain of a mound of dirty clothes).  This basket was bigger than she was - she’s a tiny, fierce little thing about 4 foot 10. I’ve no idea how she got it home, balanced on her motorbike, but I’ve never seen anyone as happy as she was when she saw that thing. Our apartment seemed to shine with cleanliness a bit more that following month.

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.