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.


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