Sunday, December 20, 2015

How To Speak Australian

So at my fancy new food job, when i'm not prepping for an event (such as the big weeklong event kicking off on Christmas Eve that has occupied all of my time) I sit in an office with a bunch of other people and work on recipe development. Most everyone in the office speaks English, so it's made me quite lazy with attempting to learn new Vietnamese words.  My boss grew up in Australia, and there's another Australian guy in the office, so the type of English everyone speaks is Australian-ish. In trying to adapt, I've had to make some changes to my food vocabulary.

Cilantro = Coriander

I know from watching Nigella Bites episodes years ago when it first aired on the now-defunct Style Network that the British use the term "coriander" to describe what in the US we have always called "cilantro" - except in French it's coriandre and in Spanish it's cilantro, so mass confusion all around.  I've had to frequently catch myself in conversations with my Vietnamese Sous Chef on this project when I notice the blank look on his face as I begin to utter "cilantro".  This one is an easy change, though, and it's already infiltrated my vocabulary quite nicely.

Eggplant = Aubergine

Aubergine is the French word for eggplant, so this one is been a no-brainer for me to assimilate into my vocabulary.  Same goes for:

Zucchini = Courgette

Same word in French. Easy peasy. I've got this. Right?

Not so easy:

Squash Blossoms = Pumpkin Flower

Earlier this week while reviewing a potential menu item with my boss and talking about sautéed squash blossoms, I looked up from my notes and saw the look of horror on his face. "Squash blossoms? You eat those?", he said, incredulously. Which in turn caught me off guard. He's probably one of the best known chefs in Vietnam and he's never heard of of squash blossoms?

"Well, yeah everyone in the US eats those," I responded. "In Italy they stuff them with cheese and fry them".

As I'm talking, he's googling images and his expression clears up.

"Ah! pumpkin flower! Okay I get it".

"Pumpkin flower?", I blurt out.  "That's what you call them?"

"Well yes.  'Squash blossoms' sounds disgusting".

"Right. I'm never going to get this".


Bell Pepper = Capsicum

Capsicum is the latin word for pepper. Another term they use freely at my work kitchen is sweet pepper. The problem I have is that this one is a tongue twister for me. Capsicum capsicum capsicum.  Lorem ipsum. Try saying that three times fast.


The Metric System versus American Bullshit

Ah, my old friend the Metric System. I learned this while growing up in France. This is the only system that makes complete sense.  Everything is easy to figure out. For example: 1000 grams equals 1 kilo,  and 1000 milliliters equals 1 liter.  So why on earth hasn't the good ol' US of A embraced this extremely easy to understand system? Let's get rid of the US Customary System already.  It's fucking ridiculous.

borrowed from Wikipedia. LET'S GET WITH THE PROGRAM ALREADY.


Also ridiculous is me spending eleventy hours a day pulling my hair out while trying to convert my recipes from ounces, cups, and pounds to grams, kilos, and liters.  Except I need to start spelling it litre if I want to go with the flow here.

Pronunciation 

Let's start with the word risotto.  In the US we say Riz Oh Toe.  Except for me, that is.  Ever since I watched Gordon Ramsey bawl out a contestant on the first season of Hell's Kitchen, I've marched around the house barking out Riz Aw Toe, much like I used to with the word ¡BOCACALLE! . "Why did you put fish stock in the fucking rizawtoe?", bellowed out a red-faced Gordon Ramsey to some kid who looked like he wanted to just turn and run away. Ah, Chef Ramsey. Never change.

Shah-Let versus Shuh-Lotte

Also, thanks to Chef Ramsey, I've pronounced the word "shallot" as Shuh Lotte for many years now. I did it at first because I thought it was funny, and then it infiltrated my vocabulary without me paying any attention.  People at my various food jobs in the US used to make so much fun of me, but hey look at me now! I got this one.

But I tell you, one word that I will never change in my pronunciation is tomato. To me, it will always be Tuh May Toe.  I cannot and will never pronounce it Toe Mah Toe.  I have no idea why, and no idea how to explain it, but this one goes against every fiber in my being.  I just can't do it.

And now, all this food talk has made me hungry, plus there's no milk in the house so I must go out into the wilds of the streets of Saigon and properly feed and caffeinate myself.  Be well, people.





Wednesday, December 9, 2015

eat real.

fermentag-ing of things and stuff, open air market in Hué

I recently read a blog review written by a woman I met a couple of times in Atlanta who had just returned from Cambodia.  She begins her post with: "Ever wonder why there aren't any Cambodian restaurants in Atlanta, while Thailand, Japan, Korea, and even Vietnam are all well represented? Having just returned from my epic Asian adventure, including six days in Cambodia, I think I know why." She goes on to bemoan the lack of flavor, taste, and spice in pretty much everything she ate while there.

I read this, and it upset me. I myself had a fantastic food experience in Cambodia, though entirely way too short (30 hours in Siem Reap is not nearly enough time).  But then I remembered when I first arrived in Vietnam back in August. Through a tour company, we scheduled a weeklong expedition of the country, starting in Hanoi, heading south to Hué, then Da Nang, Hoi An, and ending in Saigon where we now live.  The tour was to be a "food lovers" tour, so naturally we were excited.  What I haven't blogged about so far was how abysmal the food was during the first half of the tour. Americans are well-known around the world for having aversions and allergies to everything, so wherever we checked in or whatever restaurant we walked into, the first questions we were asked were, "What allergies do you have? What foods do you not like?." The fact that we have no allergies (real or imagined) and that we eat pretty much everything surprised most of our hosts.  They had already prepared meals for us wherever we went, and the menus were quite boring. The same bland fried spring rolls, the same ultra-bland ultra-sweetened corn soup appeared frequently.  The best meals we had those first few days were from the hotel breakfast buffets where we raided the pho table. I was perplexed because the Vietnamese food I'd eaten in the US was different than this Vietnamese food. More complex, much more flavor.  It finally dawned on us at dinner one night while sitting in a restaurant eating their set tourist menu and looking longingly at the food being brought out to the table next to us, food that looked really amazing and strange and delicious, food that wasn't what we were eating. So we contacted the tour company and told them: Enough is Enough, we want to do away with these set tourist menus. They were perplexed. They couldn't believe it. No one had ever complained about the food before, they said.  We pushed. And finally, we got our way. It was only after we got to Hoi An that the food got better, though the meal we made ourselves in Hué was wonderful (i've previously written about that). And the area around Hué has the spiciest food in the whole country, along with lovely fermented things and stuff sold at the local markets. In Hoi An we finally had hot pots, grilled fish, and clams using minimal ingredients, but just enough to make them all shine; produce used correctly, its integrity not lost beneath flavorless, thin sauces. This was the Vietnamese food I had been craving. This was what I had been longing for.

clams in a gingery, lemongrassy herbal broth. Hoi An


So I get it. You're on a tour in SE Asia, you get shipped off in droves of buses to these so-called tourist restaurants which cater to the bland palate. It sucks. They answer to this is to get off the beaten path and take some risks.  Not everything will be spicy (as in heat); the food will typically be sweeter the further south you go in Vietnam towards Cambodia.  I myself am prone to topping my food with as many of those tiny little fresh red chilies as my taste buds can handle; I have accustomed myself to liking and craving spicy food, and that can't be readily changed, nor do I really want it to. But heat alone doesn't make something flavorful; you must have herbs and other seasonings and spices too.  I had a passable burrito at a Mexican restaurant here last week, flavor that couldn't be ameliorated by the addition of as many pickled chili slices I could cram into the damn thing. And don't even get me started on their guacamole.

I need a do-over of Hanoi. When grumbling about the dreadful food we ate there, a Hanoian friend living in Saigon said cryptically, "You haven't seen my Hanoi" (an offer i'm totally taking him up on, hopefully soon).  And I want a do-over of Hué; street vendors every 20 feet sold corn on the cob grilled on tiny little grills set up all over the sidewalks.  We were always too full, wandering back from some crap tourist restaurant, to partake in what smelled and looked like an absolutely lovely snack.

So I feel a bit badly for the food writer who just hated Cambodian food. I wish she could have her own do-over. And if someone wants to open a Cambodian joint in Atlanta, I'm all for it and would be behind it all the way. Just give me the word.

grilled sea bass, smoked eggplant, cucumber, fish sauce, cilantro. Saigon

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Americans! (shakes fist in the air)

tuk-tukin' through the mean streets of Siem Reap.
German Woman: You greedy Americans. You think you're so entitled. You ruin everything.
Frances: A lot of us feel really badly about that. 
- Under the Tuscan Sun

If you're planning a trip to Cambodia to visit the Angkor Temple Complex, you'll want to eat at what's considered the best restaurant in Cambodia (per my Google fu). It's called Cuisine Wat Damnak and located on the other side of Siem Reap from where our hotel was, near the monastery where our guide Rottana grew up.  The husband and wife team who own and run the place take local northern Cambodian flavors and techniques and blend them with their French culinary background (the chef hails from France). We managed to eek out an early reservation at the last minute, and our tuk-tuk driver drove like a bat out of hell, careening all over the place and ended up on the sidewalk to circumvent all the traffic on the main road in town. It had been a really long time since I laughed that hard.

I try to be a gracious tourist. I really do. I'm a guest in this part of the world, and it's all new and fascinating to me. So I get really irritated with other tourists who don't act the same way. And i'm sure this will come as no surprise to a lot of people, but the most annoying tourists i've encountered are Americans (I feel as though i'm allowed to complain about my own people, so i'm going to go ahead and do just that).  Of course I'm not complaining about all American tourists - i've met some really lovely ones like Sheila Dee and Evo Terra who run The Opportunistic Travelers site and are really wonderful in person (they're currently gallivanting around Australia, you can follow them on their podcasts too).  But sometimes you wonder why in hell people left the comfort of their own homes back in the US and fly in a tin can over the big blue Left Pond if they're not even going to embrace different cultures once they've arrived. Which is the main reason why I won't live in Saigon's District 2, but that's another story for another day.

holy basil martini. delightfully tasty.

While we were dining at Cuisine Wat Damnak - and having a grand ol' time, fueled at first by a Holy Basil Martini (holy basil, lemongrass, Thai ginger-infused gin) followed by wine, an American couple came in and were loud as hell. The menu at CWD changes every few days or so, and it's comprised of two different tasting menus. That's it. That's perfection. That's all it needs. You choose one or the other. So this couple marched in and I experienced one of those moments where you want the ground underneath you to open wide and swallow you up because you're so embarrassed.  Talking in loud, nasally, opinionated, and haughty tones, they held court with their server, who happened to be the wife and owner of the place. The conversation went something along the lines of this:

"I'm gluten-free. GLOO. TEN. FREEEEE. Do you do gluten-free options here? Can I switch things around? I like the sound of this menu but I don't eat most of these things. What is Sanday Fish? oh, it's like grouper? I don't like grouper. Can I substitute pork instead? Ew, frogs legs. Who eats that? I don't want that. How about these mushrooms, can you get the chef to take those out? Shouldn't be too hard, right? How spicy is this? I don't do spicy. Can I mix and match from these two menus? I don't eat dessert. Do we have to have dessert? What's a winter melon? Is that sweet? Oh, never mind. What is m-a-n-g-o-s-t-e-e-n? Can you make that dish without the peanuts?"

The owner was totally kind and courteous and let them pick apart her carefully crafted menu. After monopolizing her time for upwards of 10 minutes while they hemmed and hawed, they finally settled down with satisfied looks on their faces, as if they'd completed a job well done.

I felt like the shame and embarrassment they ought to have was suddenly heaped upon my own shoulders. Their projection onto me, if you will. And though none of the other diners said a word except listen to that horse shit while they ate in silence, they joined me in sending exasperated snarling glares towards that couple. But sadly, the joke was on us. The Americans were in a state of denial and sat there, scrutinizing and frowning at their food as each dish came out. And I felt sorry for them. They'll never get it. They'll never understand the subtle nuances, the time it took the chef to lovingly create the best dishes he could with local products, the love and pride that you could taste with every bite. They'd probably read that New York Times article and figured they'd be Worldly and Check In on Facebook so their friends could be jealous at their Keeping Up With the Joneses. Ok i'm generalizing and probably making that last bit up; I do have a vivid imagination. But you do wonder about these people and their brethren who have the same attitude when visiting foreign countries the world over.

grilled Sanday fish in galangal leaves with rice paddy herb, fresh and fermented watermelon salad. from Cuisine Wat Damnak

I had another such experience when sitting at Pasteur Street one day. An American couple were having an animated conversation with a lone guy at the bar, who also looked like he wanted the ground to open and swallow him up.  They were going on and on about a recent trip to one of the Killing Fields locations. "All those skulls!", the husband shouted. "So cool looking! Honey, show them those pictures you took of the skulls. All lined up and stacked up like a wall! And so cool! I'm gonna base some of my art work on that.  How cool would that be? Big fucking paintings of skulls. No, not that one honey, show him the OTHER pictures. He's gotta see those skulls!".  Horrifying, and not to mention a complete lack of respect for the subject matter they deemed themselves experts on.

I tend to complain a bit on social media and this forum sometimes about some exasperating things that happen in my daily life here, but i try to remind myself that it's a different culture here, and i'm not here to change it. I'm here because I want to be here and I want to experience it. I do get frustrated with things lost in translation, with certain customs (men peeing on our front gate in broad daylight, for instance). But these are little things in the grand scheme of things. And those frog legs and Sanday fish? Fucking delicious.

grouper in game style with mushrooms and loofah, spicy pounded pea, eggplant, wild mangosteen leaves at Cuisine Wat Damnak

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Quirks.

When you come home from running errands and find the cleaning lady in your apartment, not on her usual day, coming out of the bathroom where the washing machine is kept, arms full of other people's laundry.  Instead of being embarrassed at the idea of having been caught, she smiles up at me, says "Xin chào!" and briskly walks out of the apartment.  This was after being sat down and lectured by the landlady and our real estate broker only last night about our high usage of electricity.

When you go shoe shopping, spend a good 10 minutes looking around, turn to the salesclerk who's been hovering over you like a hawk only to have her tell you (before you've even gotten a word out) "We have nothing for you here".  "But I haven't even told you my size!", I exclaim.  "We have nothing for you here", she repeats, smiling broadly.

When you're standing in line at the checkout and a lady blatantly cuts in line, then looks around at everyone else daring them to say anything to her.  Everyone looks away, pretending they don't notice, except for me; I'm glaring at her.  The guy in front of me turns to face me, staring me down, as if he's wishing I would stop glaring at the lady.  I don't understand this attitude; they don't mind instigation, but they don't like confrontation.

Ah well. Just a few things I need to get used to I suppose.  Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

peace


approaching Angkor Wat through the trees

"The Frenchman Mouhot discovered Angkor quite by accident as he was chasing a butterfly", said our guide as we walked down a wide dirt path. Though this is technically untrue - the Angkor temple complex in Cambodia had never really been 'lost', just covered by jungle - these words hung in the air and added to the mystique of an already strange day.  The sun was out, but clouds were drifting in; and the occasional monkey would scamper by looking for something to steal from you.  We were walking the back way up to Angkor Wat, a path much less populated than the main front entrance which is indeed grandiose but elbow to elbow with tourists, hawkers, and street urchins selling beads for a dollar.  As I looked up through the trees, the main tower of Angkor Wat peeked through; and I was overcome with the greatest sense of awe i've ever felt, and complete peace. I was so bowled over by this that I almost started to cry. "This is fucking cool," I said to Larry. "This is the best thing i've ever done".

We sat down on a rock facing the temple. Our guide Rottana was recently involved in a motorbike accident, so he walked slowly with his head tilted slightly.  Over the day, his story would come out. His father, a university professor, was killed by the Khmer Rouge. Since his two older brothers spoke English, they were accused of being part of the CIA and sent to the Killing Fields.  Rottana grew up in a monastery and learned Sanskrit and Mahayana Buddhism. He was reunited with his mother in 2003 after both thought each other dead. Yet as he told us of these horrible memories, his demeanor was calm, and he exuded an air of serenity. Perhaps this was his Buddhist training shining through.

A guard and a monk take refuge from the rain. Angkor Wat.

While we sat and Rottana spoke a little bit about the history of Angkor Wat, we noticed a noise in the distance getting closer and louder every second. I turned my head towards it. "What is that? Is that rain?". "The monkeys are coming", said Rottana, cryptically. Larry and I jumped up as the few tourists behind us started to make a run for it. Rottana smiled at us as we started to walk faster and faster then broke into a run and barely made it to the covered archway into the temple entrance. It rained on and off for the next few hours, but this only added to the sense of mystery of the place. Plus it didn't make the heat feel so oppressive.

There really are no words to describe how surreal Angkor Wat is. Even the obnoxious Japanese tour guide shouting at his tour group didn't mar the atmosphere.

the Center of the Universe. notice the 0 degrees on the compass.


Later in the day while visiting the Ta Prohm Temple, best known as the Jungle Temple or "Tomb Raider" temple where one small scene from the movie was filmed, we stood in the middle of a courtyard of sorts flanked by enormous banyan trees crushing the temple walls, and Rottana smiled. "Of all the Angkor temples, this one is my favorite", he said.  "I am happy here". If everyone could be as lovely and forgiving as he is, the world would indeed be a much better place.

Banyan tree, Jungle Temple.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Vertigo in an uncertain world.

For the first time in over two months I am watching the news on TV.  CNN in the hotel bar here in Siem Reap, Cambodia, trying to find out more about what's happened in Paris, trying to wrap my head around it, hoping my extended family is okay. And when the bar manager came up to ask me what was going on,  I realized that he and his staff did not know. So I explained. And I suddenly felt so foolish. I've come, briefly, to a country mainly to renew my visa but also to play tourist, and I know next to nothing about what these lovely people have been through in their own lifetimes. Today when talking to our guide about the Paris attacks, he said, "Oh. We had ISIS thirty years ago. The Killing Fields". 

We all know about the Killing Fields, but we don't sit down and really think about how close that happened in our past. And our guide, who grew up in a Cambodian monastery (we're guessing he was orphaned during the civil war) learned how to speak English from an Australian UN soldier in 2000. I don't know, maybe I'm being silly, but I'm overwhelmed by how small I feel in the universe, and how far away I feel from my family. Tomorrow I go to Angkor Wat, a trip I've wanted to do as long as I can remember, and I hope I can find some peace and understanding amongst the symmetry and holiness of the structures. 

Sunday, October 25, 2015

the little things

When I decided to move to Vietnam, I had a lot of questions. I made lists and lists and lists.

Could I bring my knife kit? and will customs take it upon arrival? or will I have to pay a bribe at customs?
Can I ship things to myself from the US to arrive after I get there?
Does social media (Facebook, Twitter, etc) work there?
Should I get shots?
Will I get malaria or dengue fever?
How easy will it be to find a job?
Etc...

Every day I would add to my list of questions. I went online and read expat blogs, which were less than helpful. One American living in Hanoi had created a downloadable Excel spreadsheet of all the things expats moving to Vietnam ought to bring with them. A friggin' Excel spreadsheet of nonsense. Things that she deemed the most important items were a cast iron skillet, cast iron Dutch oven, horse riding gear, pizza stone, metal cupcake trays... and the list went on.   Though she did have some helpful items, but those were rather common sense stuff (like feminine type things, which I won't get into for TMI reasons).

I really didn't know what to bring with me, so I figured I'd pare my life down to two suitcases and one carry on.  And I was most certainly not going to pack a Dutch oven; as it is my two suitcases weighed 71 kg and 75 kg respectively. That's 156.5 lbs and 165 lbs, for those of you who don't do metric. No wonder every single hotel porter has given me dirty looks.  When checking in at Delta curbside at the Atlanta airport, the baggage handler picked up one of the bags and blurted out, "What, you pack a dead body in here?".  After a while I started telling people I packed rocks. At least the humor diffused their surprise and irritation for a bit.

No, I didn't pack dead bodies. I packed clothes (a lot of the wrong clothes, mind you) and cookbooks. Some of those suckers weigh a lot. Out of a massively growing collection of almost 300 cookbooks back home, I brought 20 of them. Two of them are by Thomas Keller, and if anyone has copies of The French Laundry or Ad Hoc at Home, you'll know they weigh 5 lbs each at least. I got dinged on Vietnam Airlines twice for having overweight luggage and had to pay fines. But these were the things that made me comfortable, that would remind me of home, and that will get put to good use. Eventually.

I reached out to Beth from Wander for Life, since I knew her when she lived in Atlanta. Beth currently lives in Turkey and had spent a few months living in Bien Hoa.  She had some helpful suggestions. I had also made a local contact through one of my clients back in Atlanta, and I had a Skype call with him. Both of them suggested to keep small bills around; that bribery was common; to not lose patience; and should I do get an offer of bribe, to negotiate. Beth had issues shipping boxes to herself, though they did arrive; so I tossed that idea of shipping things to myself out the window. 

In the end, I did pack my knives in my checked luggage, and upon arrival at Hanoi's Noi Bai International, the customs officials looked so bored they didn't even blink or check through my bags as we walked confidently through the line.  They're looking for drugs and money, and can't be bothered with just another jetlagged expat rolling off an airplane.

Social media works here. Some of it may be temporarily blocked, so I took advice from Brandon, who runs the Ticket Saigon website and opened an Unlocator account. This small monthly fee is totally worth it. In fact, Brandon has a ton of advice for expats moving abroad, what to do with your mail, etc, and worth a good look.

You don't really need shots if you're staying in one of the larger cities. There are no really big areas of stagnant water - even when the city floods during the rainy season, it drains off within hours.  And about the job thing... well I've written about that. I'm trying to not get depressed about it, so patience is key.

One thing I can tell you all though, in case anyone is interested in coming to Vietnam and staying for a bit, is about visas. Something you won't find online and I had to find out the hard way.  We flew into Hanoi first and took a tour down the coast before settling in Saigon.  I've renewed my tourist visa twice now in Saigon, and both times the visa brokers were pretty upset that we arrived in the country through Hanoi. I've had to pay double for the visa renewal. The first broker we used was through a friend of ours, so I just figured it was a one time deal and forgot about it. This last guy we used, through a very reputable source so I know he's legit, told me the same thing. 

"You shouldn't have come through Hanoi", he said. 
"Why?", I asked. 
"Because you have to pay double now." 
"But WHY?"
He shrugged his shoulders and his eyes got wide. "Because that's the law. Hanoi is the law. We don't question it".
Oh. Kay.

So the best advice I can give you if you're traveling on a tourist visa and want to live here with a tourist visa:  If you plan on staying in Hanoi, fly into Hanoi. If you plan on staying in Saigon, fly into Saigon. In fact, because of this little irritant, I can't renew my visa in November in Saigon. I have to go on a border run to Cambodia - basically, exit the country and come back in. Then apparently all will be kosher. I think.  I guess there's only one way to find out.  But hey, i've never been to Cambodia before, so at least there's that.

And i'm sure there will be times when I wish I had a cast iron Dutch oven, but i'm not losing sleep over it. But I do wish i'd brought a wooden spoon.  That, I really do.





Saturday, October 24, 2015

eating everything in sight

If you follow me on Instagram or Twitter, you'll think all I do is eat out; and when I do eat out it's only Western-style food. That's a pretty fair assumption, and we have done a boatload of eating out.  Most places here are terribly inexpensive, unless you go to some of the restaurants in District 1, especially one which is a great favorite of mine, a Japanese-Peruvian place called Blanchy Street. Notice how I don't use the words 'Japanese-Peruvian fusion' here because fusing reminds me of a soldering iron; and I once got burned pretty badly by one. That word has no business being used in food writing. 

But some of the best food I've had is the street food. Yeah yeah yeah, i'm sure you're over it, ever single Trip Advisor entry on every SE Asian town bleats out to its sheep that one must eat the street food. But the thing is, you really ought to.  And the street vendors tend to be the nicest, friendliest, and most beautiful people you'll ever meet.


pho-in' it around the country

When we first landed in Vietnam, we arrived in Hanoi.  I had never been to SE Asia before. The furthest i'd been from home was India and South America, and that was more than 25 years ago.  I was mentally ready for this adventure, or so I thought. I honestly didn't quite know what to expect. At first, Hanoi was overwhelming. I didn't think I could take it all in. But then we strolled around the city and started to notice things, little things.  Like this lady selling pho and chè đỗ đen (I believe it's a sweet black bean concoction) right off the back of her bike. I firmly suggest that someone back in the States ought to get on this mobile pho delivery service, seeing as more than one person, including myself, would have killed for a bowl of it delivered right to me on a hairy morning.


mobile pho vendor


Street vendors are everywhere.  In Hué, they sold grilled corn on the cob, setting up a little makeshift grill right on the street.  I ate far too much while we were in Hué, and was too full by the time I'd emerge from a meal to even consider eating another bite.  This is an omission that will be rectified one day.  We also took a cooking class while there, from the most charming woman who's husband's family ran the classes and restaurant.  These types of classes are fairly popular here amongst visitors.  You usually start off at a typical Vietnamese open air market and go shopping, then head back to some central location and cook.  For us, it was our first time shopping true Vietnamese style, and I loved it.  I saw things that would raise an eyebrow or two from Health Inspectors back home, but things like that go unnoticed here.  A lot of the vendors sell out early, so if you get there late it's pretty wise to not buy meat or fish or something that you just know has been sitting out for more than four hours. Common sense is your friend here; respect it.  But if you put all that aside, and shop in the mornings (or sometimes at night, the vendors come back with fresh, sometimes different products), you'll be rewarded with a vast array of things you'd never even heard of but want to get in your belly immediately.  


baskets and baskets of fresh straw mushrooms


We got back to the restaurant and immediately set about making a four course menu.  The highlight was a fried banana flower salad with prawns and fried shallots, and a stuffed pancake.  I really want to make those pancakes again. First you make the pancake in a small crepe type pan, then brush the inside with a duck egg that has been gently whisked. The ones we made were then filled with sautéed straw mushrooms (which you never want to eat raw unless you want a nice case of indigestion, or so said our guide who mimicked what indigestion looked like). It also had pork, shrimp, and bean sprouts stuffed in, then you fold it over and fry it.


stuffed pancakes, Hue style, frying up


For the first month after arriving in Saigon, we lived in Go Vap, a northern working class district. A lot of people (mainly expats but some locals as well) were shocked. "Why on earth are you living there?", they all exclaimed. The thing is - now that i'm no longer living there, I really value that experience.  The people were friendly and amazing. For example, we went to get roast duck from a street vendor and discovered we didn't have enough money on us.  With a big laugh and lots of arm movements, the vendor basically told us it was no problem and we could pay him back later - which we immediately did as soon as we could (and the duck itself was a delight).  The street food is amazingly good and cheap, and an average lunch - such as this stuffed squid with braised greens and rice (and a banana on the side) - costs approximately 88 cents. 


best 88 cent lunch around

I ate some pretty decent banh mi as well. If you can, if you have a choice, find a vendor that has a bowl of pâté hanging about, and get them to slather that on to the bread first. You will not be disappointed. 

Since moving into this new more southernly suburb (which I find particularly sterile and uninviting and can't WAIT to get the hell out of), I haven't been doing much street food eating, so I have cooked more at home.  This kitchen doesn't have much going on, but that toaster oven, with a capacity of maybe 8 inches by 5 inches, has seen a lot of usage. I've roasted garlic in there; roasted peppers; broiled chicken thighs, toasted innumerable slices of bread, melted many a things. 


the little toaster oven that could.

The fridge is always full of little goodies, like this bowl of persimmons. Ripe, jammy, putting any persimmon I ate in the U.S. to shame. That whole bowl (minus one because I'm greedy) cost me about 58 cents. 




There's a Whole Foods in Mill Valley, Ca near my parents house that I've affectionately dubbed "Whole Shed", since it's about the size of one. And then one day while wandering down Hai Ba Trung Street, we came across the Shed's Vietnamese equivalent, a place called An Nam. It's expensive for Vietnamese standards, but really cheap for American standards. They sell a lot of American, French, and British packaged foods, as well as Australian and American beef. But they also sell a really great selection of unpasteurized French cheeses, which I leapt upon yesterday, and which we had for dinner last night. 




An ashy tomme, a slab of veiny morbier, and a raw goat's cheese wrapped up in grape leaves. The goat's cheese was so incredibly fragrantly stinky and running out to sea. It was marvelous.

So the point is, there is no shortage of food here in Vietnam, whether you want to eat typical or Western. It's an inexpensive place to live, and so far I'm crazy in love with this country and its people. 


Wednesday, October 21, 2015

back to the old drawing board

"Mr. Quynh? Nice to meet you" I say, extending my hand. "I'm sorry i'm a bit early, my taxi got me here very quickly".
"Not at all, not at all. Come in". He shakes my hand and sits down. "Yes, come in".

I sit myself down and take out a pen and pad of paper from my backpack and settle in for the interview. I'm not quite sure what i'm interviewing for, really. I know it's for a teaching job, but the woman doing my recruiting was pretty vague about the exact position, because i'm sure she wasn't given much information to pass along.

"Hmmm. Yes", says Mr. Quynh. "Do you know IELTS?"
"Do I know what that is? Yes, I do. But I don't have that degree. I have a certificate in TESOL".
"Hmmm. Okay. I need you to monitor study group".
"Of course. Is the study group on the school premises? Is it here?"
"No.... know what... I have nothing for you".
"Oh... uh...."

Awkward pause. Why am I here? I ask myself. I hesitate for a moment then pick my bag back up off the floor and start to put away my pen and paper.

"You have teaching experience, yes?", Mr. Quynh blurts out.
"Well yes, that's why i'm here, no?". I look at him puzzled. I'm trying not to look exasperated.
"I have friend. She work international school. I place you there".
"Oh. Uh. So what does that job entail? I mean, can you tell me more about that job?"
"I been here one month. I turn thing around".
"Um. That's great, i'm sure you're doing a really good job". I smile, trying to move things along. "Where were you working before?". Not quite sure where this is going, but i'll play along, I think to myself.
"Oh. I was with Asia Pacific International School".
"If you don't mind me asking, why did you leave?"
Mr. Quynh laughs. "Students! They problem. They no good. But hey, I can get you job there!".

I blink and take a deep breath.  "Uh... Mr. Quynh. If you left the school because of classroom management problems, why do you think I would do well there?"
"Oh. Hahaha! you need to take bus".
"Excuse me?"
"You take bus. You live too far".
"Oh. Okay". This is going nowhere.

He smiles complacently at me. I pick my bag back up and put my pen and paper away.

"Well, this was nice", I say while standing up. "Thank you for your time, Mr. Quynh".
"Thank you! I tell my friend about you. You don't forget".
"No sir, I certainly won't".
"And you take bus".

What the fuck just happened?

I cut a bit out of the middle there since it was much of the same, and he was busy telling me about other people that he's interviewed lately (people that i know); but that was the gist of my job interview yesterday. I left, perplexed. Was I dressed inappropriately? Is it because i'm too old? Was I showing too much cleavage or not enough? Wait - did I really just try to justify to myself that i'm not sexy enough or too sexy for a fucking job? seriously - these are the things that popped into my head. You never know here. Maybe he just didn't like my face.

So. Back to harassing people for a job.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

apartment hunting

So the other day whilst milling around the busy streets of Saigon, I walked past a seafood restaurant that had these critters swimming around in large aquarium cases.  I put an APB out on Facebook and Instagram, asking if anyone knew what they were - as far as I knew, they were a hybrid shrimp-lobster-preying mantis maybe? and Toby from Plate Fodder said they were in fact called Mantis Shrimp.

you will be assimilated




If you're not familiar with mantis shrimp (and I wasn't), I advise you to check this link out.. and it's FRIGHTENING.  Why the Mantis Shrimp is my New Favorite Animal.

As I was doing a round of show-and-tell the other day at Pasteur Street Brewing Company, my friend Oanh (who works there) peered over my shoulder and exclaimed, "Oh, tôm tít!". She says her family steams them and serves them au naturel with dishes of salt and pepper to dip them into.

We have to be out of this apartment by I think the 27th, so we're actively looking for a new place.  As previously stated, I will probably miss the view at this Airbnb. But I will not miss the massive dusty fake orchid arrangements that are supposed to liven up the living area, since the landlord can't seem to keep anything alive in the eight large planter boxes of dead stubs out on the balcony.



I always thought that when I finally move into a more permanent place here in Saigon that i'd get an orchid or two - the florist here sell them like crazy.  But I think i'm over that, and now I just want a bunch of potted cacti.

Apartment hunting can be an adventure. We found a broker on the internet, who met us in front of one available apartment, then took us around to see others. The first one we saw was fine, just a bit small... then it went downhill from there. The last place he showed us, after we'd been following his motorbike in a taxi all afternoon, looked like a dorm room complete with dorm-sized fridge and a small electric hotplate. So when a new buddy of mine I met on the twitterverse (hi Michael!) reached out and suggested I use one of his real estate people, I jumped on it.

Dan is Vietnamese but speaks English really, really well (in fact, he was featured on a 2012 episode of House Hunters International - a show that for some inexplicable reason was always playing on the waiting room TV every time I went in for a doctor's appointment back in the States).  Dan took us around to visit a few places that expats generally like - nice places, high rise buildings, nice views, usually a lot of Western-type shopping in the building itself or nearby. I finally realized I had to be frank and tell him I wanted a decently sized "Western-style" kitchen. A lot of these high rises have small kitchens, most without an oven - in fact, all of the traditional Vietnamese apartments i've been in don't have an oven at all, maybe a small toaster oven. I'm not planning on cooking massive roasts (or maybe... I am?) but I wouldn't mind something a bit more substantial than a toaster oven. Or I can just go buy one myself if the apartment has enough counter space for it.  The last place Dan showed us was ideal. I don't want to talk too much about it should the deal fall through and the landlord decides not to let us have it; but I really want this apartment and I feel as though I could be happy there, pottering about in the kitchen.

And even if i don't feel like cooking much - which will probably be the first few days since pots and pans need to be purchased - the surrounding neighborhood is littered with cafés, beer gardens, restaurants, street vendors with tiny tables and chairs to perch yourself on, so I won't go hungry. And the best part? the closest restaurant to the apartment is a seafood place, complete with aquariums lining the walls... lobster, fish of all kinds, and my old friend, the mantis shrimp.  Now to get some salt and pepper.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Adventures in dining




If you walk up the stretch of no-man's land that separates my apartment building from the rest of District 7, you reach what is probably my favorite hole in the wall restaurant so far. To be honest, I don't even know the name of it. From the outside it looks like a big, dilapidated, palm-roofed beer garden, complete with the requisite "beer girls" which every beer joint in Saigon has; a bunch of tiny, cute girls wearing the tightest and shortest little matching outfits. Their job is to get people to drink more, and it works. Because District 7 is home to a lot of Japanese expats, this particular restaurant is full of off-duty Japanese businessmen who want plenty of attention and are willing to pay for it. The people watching here is pretty fascinating to say the least.

The speciality here is crab. I know this because though I don't know the name of the place, it has an enormous neon crab brightly lighting up the dingy entrance. When you're seated, you're handed a menu as thick as a Cheesecake Factory menu, and some of the stuff on there is pretty fascinating. Iguana, all types of fish, pig's brain soup, deer, badger, and an assortment of snails, cockles, clams, oysters, and of course, crab.

(Some items don't translate well into English).


I'm used to Maryland blue crabs, having lived in Baltimore for a bit way back when, but these suckers are huge, 3 kilos each (well over 6 pounds apiece). You can get them steamed a variety of ways, in beer or coconut juice, and with several different sauces. I tried the black pepper sauce, which was good - but the chile sauce is the best. If you're getting other food, you really only need one crab a person, maybe two. We thought we had ordered a Szechuan peppercorn oyster dish, when what came out were raw clams in a spicy sauce heaped with cilantro, which turned out to be a really nice mistake; the clams meaty with a tinge of an iron-like flavor, like liver.



The crabs come out with a spicy green sauce which I can't get enough of. And bowls of lemongrassy herbed water to clean your fingers with, because you will get messy.  The shells on the crab claws are so thick I friggin broke my cracker. Our beer girl didn't seem to mind. 


There are about two or three similar crab joints on this block, since I don't know the address I'll just post a picture of the map and street corners.


That big intersection there to the left of Vivo City, corner of Nguyễn Văn Linh and Nguyễn Hữu Thọ.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

observing the breadth of his domain

All the travel books say it's a good sign when you walk into a restaurant and you're the only tourist in the place. Last night we went to a Japanese restaurant on Đông Du Street in District 1, and we were the only non-Japanese in there. The people at the next table may have even rolled their eyes a bit at us, but when they saw what we ordered (not California rolls, I guarantee you that), they became much more respectful.

The food was pretty phenomenal, including this mushi broth served in a teapot (which was about $6 USD). I used to eat something similar in Atlanta for about 20 bucks, but it was only once in a while since the matsutake mushroom used for the broth is seasonal.  



Normally I do a fair amount of people-watching. I have a fertile imagination, so it's helpful when you're stuck someplace like the airport, because I find people-watching to be ridiculously fascinating.  But I found myself watching this guy all night:


I first noticed him when I went up the stairs to use the facilities, and I was curious what this chef guy was doing, just standing there on the small landing, staring out at the restaurant. When I got back to my seat, it occurred to me that he wasn't watching the customers. He was watching his own well-oiled machine at work.

He kept a keen eye on every bit of what every person who worked there was doing. He watched what the girls were ringing in, what the bussers were doing, how fast everyone was moving, glanced at each and every dish coming out of the kitchen, scrutinized the whole lot. At some point he came down from his perch and took over expediting food out of the kitchen.  And once, and only once, did he break his regal stance and deliver food himself to a table, someone who must have been of great importance to deserve such an honor (I never got to see who it was because they were seated upstairs).  In a way he reminded me a bit of Chef Jiro Ono - and if you haven't seen Jiro Dreams of Sushi, you must, especially if you're into food (notice how I didn't use the word 'foodie' here because I fucking hate that word). 

Upon leaving, we paid our respects and thanked him, and were rewarded with a huge grin and a deep bow.  




Saturday, October 10, 2015

irritations.

One of the good things about the apartment where I currently live is the view. On a clear day, one can see for miles (or kilometres - I need to get back into the habit of using the metric system, which makes way more sense than whatever bullshit yards and feet and whatnot that only confuse).  I took this photo below the day I moved in using the panoramic feature on my iPhone.  The buildings are actually much closer than they appear, but for purposes of this exercise, this photo will do.



Not too shabby, eh? The view is one of the only things I like about this apartment. It's located bit farther off the beaten track than I would prefer, and you can't exactly walk anywhere, but i'm only here for a couple more weeks before uprooting and moving closer into town. I think.

But for the past few days, this is the view we've been getting. And today is a bit clearer than previous days: 


Yesterday you couldn't see the buildings on the left, which are in reality pretty close. And this is all due to illegal wildfires burning in Indonesia, affecting all the surrounding countries, which the Indonesian government refuses to do anything about.  

That's pretty normal in this part of the world. Governments are corrupt; they say they're going to do something and they don't, and they don't enforce rules and laws they put into effect. But they enforce their own bullshit made up on the spot rules, like cops pulling random people over when driving and demanding a bribe. Bribery is pretty common here. Shameful.

Yesterday, trying to get a taxi home from dinner, some local decided to help us by pretty much getting in the way. When we did manage to get a cab, no thanks to him, he got pretty angry when we wouldn't give him any money, and beat his fist on the cab door. Shit like this is pretty common here. I am gracious and gracious and gracious, and I put up with a lot of bullshit from "friends" and former business partners; I had vowed not to tolerate any more bullshit when moving here, but unfortunately I may have moved to the wrong country to enforce my own beliefs.

I knew before coming here that these countries tend to have antiquated views on women and ageism in general, but it didn't occur to me that it would be as bad as it really is. Job applicants must include a head shot of themselves (now I see why so many people are keen to get professional pictures taken of themselves) and you must include your birth date on all applications. I had a job interview the other day, for one of the resorts in the central provinces.  Second question out of the Executive Chef's mouth was, "How old are you?". When I told him, I could tell he immediately wanted to get me off the phone. The awkward pause and hemming and hawing and finally, "Well... i've got some hotshot young chef in Hong Kong who I'm going to interview next, so I'm not quite sure what to tell you".  In the US, ageism is illegal.  No amount of me trying to tell this chef about my vast experience and knowledge, he wants a hotshot young guy. Ah well. No use crying over it when there's nothing I can do about it.  And there's no use in me voicing my opinion about it here because that will only fall on deaf ears. 

The other thing i've noticed here - though it hasn't applied directly to me but has pissed me off way more than the ageism - is blatant racism.  The women here try to be as pale as possible. They don't step out in the sun without covering themselves up ridiculously from head to toe. They buy bleaching products and skin care, which has proven to be difficult for me when shopping for my own skincare because I can't find anything that doesn't have a bleaching ingredient in it.  People here view dark skin very negatively. The Vietnamese who are tan or naturally dark skinned get shunned because they're considered to be a lower class than the others: they're viewed as farmers, the ones who do hard labor outside, they're seen as "dirty".  My friend Vân is a totally cute chick who is naturally dark skinned. We were out having drinks with her and her friend Kim when they told us about being bullied growing up, and how the other kids called them "negroes" because they both have skin a bit darker than what is considered "normal" here. Kim said that at the beginning of each school year she would check her new history book for when they would be learning about U.S. history, especially slavery and the Civil Rights movement, so that she could be mentally prepared for the onslaught of name-calling that was par for the course.  I read on one of the expat message boards about an American couple (he's white, she's African-American), and how people here were treating her. He claimed that strangers were coming up to him and asking why he was with a "dirty" girl. If this is true, it's pretty fucking awful shit.

You'd think that with more expat money flowing in at a rapid speed that attitudes would change here - and they probably will, though I doubt how fast those changes will take place.  I can't even imagine what would happen if they allowed people to vote here. I'm not quite sure i'll see that day in my lifetime.

Anyway, I could delve much deeper into this, but I haven't had enough coffee yet. 

Thursday, October 8, 2015

wish wish wish

I took these pictures in August at the Chinese Assembly Hall in Hoi An, a historic building that dates back from the late 1600s and now houses a temple dedicated to the goddess of the seas, protector of sailors.



These incense cones take three weeks to burn. One can buy a cone and write a wish or dedication and have it hang in the Assembly Hall.  At the end of the three weeks time when the incense slowly burns its way around and out, your wish is said to come true. So naturally, money was plonked down and I wrote myself a wish and got my very own incense cone.  




Given the opportunity, what would you wish for on your cone?

(I'm not telling what I wished for on mine. It's a big fat secret).

temple dog



Wednesday, October 7, 2015

the land of fruit aplenty

If you're into fruit, you're in luck. SE Asia is a treasure trove of fruit i've only been able to find stateside at places like Buford Highway Farmer's Market in Atlanta. 

One night at sunset while walking through the courtyard of a restaurant in Hué, I noticed trees bearing heavy oblong fruit that looked awfully familiar... and I realized they were starfruit (carambola). I'd never seen them growing on trees before.  The only time i'd ever eaten any was in Florida, decades ago; the grandfather of my friend Caprice had trees and trees of them on his property in Miami, and gave us a big huge paper bag full of them one Christmas.  Caprice and I were really broke at the time, so we ate starfruit pretty much every day until we were sick of it and able to scrounge enough loose change out of the couch cushions to buy a pizza.  Fast forward a couple of decades and here they were, long, oblong and ridged, growing like crazy in Vietnam. The hostess noticed me gawking open-mouthed at them, and asked if i'd like some. A few minutes later, it arrived at my table, peeled, sliced, and with a dish of spicy salt to dip them into. I remembered that sour tanginess from those long ago Florida days. Dipped in salt, the fruit is really refreshing on a hot day.

starfruit


Dragonfruit is sold everywhere, and I mean everywhere. At least every 100 yards down any urban road there's someone hawking some. If you're not familiar with it, I can understand how it looks completely batshit insane. How would one go about eating one? That pink and green, as pretty as it is, is just the rind. You cut one of these in half and are rewarded with a stark white flesh dotted with black "seeds" (which are edible).  

dragonfruit


My breakfast a lot of mornings consists of a bunch of fruit (along with some ph because hey, when in Rome). A dragonfruit slice is in the background (where you can see the white flesh), along with watermelon, pomelo, rambutan, the best and most flavorful passionfruit i've ever tasted, and papaya. The papaya one gets in the States is pretty pathetic. You don't realize it is either, because you're too busy pretending to be all fancy by using the seeds in a vinaigrette or some other way for your neighbors to ooh and ahh about. You always have to doctor papaya up with a good squeeze of lime. Not so with this local stuff. It's complete heaven. 

yum.



This thing below was brought out to me one night while I was hanging out at a local American-owned brew pub. One of the bartenders, Oanh (pronounced One) has become a pretty good buddy. She came running out from the back with a plate of this and exclaimed, "CAROLINE! have you had this before?"

Figuring it was some sort of apple, I crunched down on one of the slices. While it's not an apple, though it has the texture of one, it's actually a plum. "What's the name of it?", I asked Oanh. She laughed. "Plum. we just call it 'plum'. mận in Vietnamese". She shrugged her shoulders. "It just translates to 'plum' ".


pronounced 'mun', with a sorta silent n.


Then there's this thing which I noticed one day at the breakfast buffet at a hotel. I couldn't figure out why there was a huge platter of little potatoes sitting right next to the papaya. I figured it was some kind of fig, so obviously I had to try it. The thin skin pulled back easily enough and I was rewarded with these globule-like capsules, each encasing a seed - not unlike a rambutan or longan fruit.  It's called langsat ( trái bòn bon or just bòn bon in Vietnamese).  Sweet but with a hint of bitterness, which I really like. 


langsat

Speaking of figs, came across this one at the market. But this type of fig is considered a vegetable in Vietnam. I didn't find out too much how it's prepared, but I will. Oh, I will.


Figgy McFig.


And then there's my old friend the durian.  You can't escape it here. It's everywhere. and you can smell it coming a mile away too. The other day at the Ben Thanh market in District 1, I could smell it wafting across the way over the vendors heads.  A lovely, putrid scent, a tinge of eau de death, stinky cheese, and old socks. I may taste it again one day just to fulfill the desire to eat it locally (and not frozen, shipped halfway around the world, like I had before - which was bad enough), but i'm not feeling that adventurous yet. 

you can stay right where you are, durian.

I can understand the jackfruit and durian, but what did the pup ever do to you?


Similar to France, fruit is served as dessert here - which i'm totally fine with.  Some of the sweets are just a bit too much for me.  Like this passionfruit cupcake I had a couple of weeks ago. It's pretty enough, but god was it teeth-achingly sweet. The top turned out to be marshmallow fluff. I thought it would be passionfruit flavored too, but sadly it wasn't. 

passionfruit cupcake and a cappuccino.


I want to recreate this with a passionfruit meringue, once I get a working oven. The current apartment has a kitchen rich in chopsticks, bowls, and dull knives.  It also has a tiny little toaster oven, with four settings: Light, Mid, High, and Toast. It turns off after 15 minutes of use. I managed to roast garlic in it the other day, though I kept having to jump up and restart the damn thing every quarter of an hour. Hey, adapt, improvise, overcome, they say.

And if all else fails, go for the chocolate. 

The cure-all for all shitty moods: Vietnamese coffee and a chocolate cupcake covered in ganache and sprinkles. BLISS.