Wednesday, October 26, 2016


Yellow pomegranates. The one on the left weighs in at a whopping 800 grams (that’s about 1.75 lbs!), and I hope it’s ripe and full of good juicy arils because I plan on using them as part of a grilled eggplant salad on Friday, part of some vaguely Mediterranean buffet lunch I’m making for my clients. 

The locals seem to be interested in the food I’m buying.  Recently I walked down to my favorite street market to get vegetables, about a 2 km walk from the house; and on the way back it started to rain pretty hard so I jumped on a bus headed home.  The conductor pointed to the empty seat directly behind the driver.  As I plonked down and put my bags on the floor, the driver, noticing me in the rearview mirror, said in English, “Where you from?”.  “America”, I replied, to which he gleefully said, “Ah! AMERICA! Ha ha ha!”, then rambled off a few things in Vietnamese to the conductor.  She leaned over from her seat across the aisle and began digging through my grocery bags to see what I had bought, picking out lettuce and herbs and showing them to the driver.  I’m guessing he approved, because he kept nodding and grinning.

This is something I’ve gotten used to. It would be different if random people were rifling through my handbag, but this is just groceries and I’m guessing they’re just curious as to what I’m eating.  One day while I was waiting for Larry to get a haircut after a bout of grocery shopping, one of the stylists sat beside me and started poking through my grocery bag.  “Ca chua… Mit…”, I said, as she pulled out a tomato then some jackfruit sections. “You good!”, she exclaimed, “You know Vietnamese food! I teach you more”.  So she pulled out other items and had me repeat after her what they were.

Sometimes on my way back from shopping I’ll walk along Dong Khoi street (formerly Rue Catinat back in French Colonial days).  It’s one of my favorite streets to walk down, even though I’m constantly having to dodge women every 10 feet shoving a flyer for a massage parlor in my face. Dong Khoi is home to some pretty spectacularly cool old buildings, though I believe there’s the threat of them being torn down soon. Halfway up the street a disabled woman sits in front of the Parkson department store selling gum.  I don’t know her name, but we’ve become pretty friendly.  Sometimes we’ll give her some small bills, but we don’t take her gum because we’d prefer she sell it to tourists and be able to make some money.  One day while we stopped to talk in our lousy Vietnamese and her broken English, she made a motion for us to hand over a grocery bag so she could see what was inside.  She pulled out ginger, a cucumber, and a lime and held them up to us expectantly.  I realized she wanted them for herself, so I nodded. A look of rapture spread across her face and she burst out laughing. So of course now when I walk down the street with any groceries at all, I know she’ll rifle through them and pull out a carrot, or a piece of fresh turmeric, a beet, or another lime (she seems to really like beets and limes).  I’ve gotten used to  buying a few extra of those.

Today I had some shopping to do at Annam, which is the Vietnamese version of Whole Foods, meaning that everything is overpriced but sometimes they have that one item you just can’t live without.  There’s a brand new Annam location in the Saigon Centre shopping mall, and it’s much bigger and nicer than the other store branches. It’s where I go when I’ve had a bad day and just want to look at all the shiny pretty things (some women window shop for shoes; I window shop for food). On today’s trip I bought a head of frisée lettuce from the Da Lat mountainous region where a lot of vegetables in Vietnam are grown. Walking home, I stopped off at one of the international stores on Ham Nghi where my usual clerk waved and came up to see what I needed today.  She spied my bag and scowled, motioning for me to hand it over for a look-see. Pulled out the bag of frisée, still scowling at it. “This looks fresh. Good deal”, she said, nodding, looking at the price tag and giving it her stamp of approval, before putting it back in my bag and helping me find a square cake pan with removable bottom, the object of my shopping trip to Ham Nghi.


After a seated event for 12 the other night, after all the cleanup and packing up, I was preparing to leave but sat talking to a colleague of mine while she had a post-prandial ciggie. She’s my client’s assistant, a vivacious and well-connected woman who is extremely efficient at her job (and knows it too).  She suffered some kind of nasal injury as a child which resulted in her not having a sense of taste.

“What I like about your food is that you understand textures. I can’t taste anything, so I totally rely on that. You have such interesting textures going on, and a lot of cooks don’t get that”.

Me: “That’s the nicest thing anyone has said to me about my cooking!”

Indeed, I was incredibly flattered.  I never thought about my food having textures. As a cook, sure, I instinctively think of textures (I think); you know that adding crunch to a soft dish (like coconut puddings topped with chopped peanuts) will play nicely together and have a really good mouthfeel, but I don’t focus on it. I spend most of my time thinking flavors, and layering of flavors. It made me wonder, do other cooks think the same way as I do or do they think texture first - flavor later? Or is it just instinctive all around?

Friday, October 21, 2016

a world beyond pho

A friend of mine from Atlanta, in the midst of a whirlwind tour to SE Asia, stopped by for two nights. He landed in Hanoi, then moved on to Bangkok before arriving in Saigon. As he was about to board a plane to Hong Kong, he whined: “I ate really well, but come to think of it, I didn’t even eat any pho!”, to which I replied. “But there’s so much more to Vietnamese food than pho!”.

In Hanoi, which he didn’t particularly like, he ate at the bun cha joint made famous by President Obama and Anthony Bourdain’s visit last May.  In Bangkok (“a cross between Vegas, New Orleans, and New York; it’s sensory overload!”), he ate at the floating markets and got food poisoning.  When he arrived in Saigon, he said he was game to eating almost anything as long as he took some medicine first.

So we ate - and ate, and ate.  We ate banh khot, the tiny pancakes cooked in cast iron molds, filled with coconut milk and crab meat. Cau lau, a dish traditionally made in Hoi An, noodles and pork with very little (but extremely flavorful) broth. Fresh spring rolls which we rolled up in lettuce and mint and dipped into nuoc mam cham (fish sauce with chilis, lime juice, and sugar).  A vat of clams in a starfruit broth with tomatoes and loads of fresh dill. Caramelized pork ribs encrusted with sesame seeds (which he proclaimed to be “one of the best things I’ve ever put in my mouth”).  And consumed more ca phe sua da (iced coffee with sweetened condensed milk) in two days than I’ve had in a year of living here.

One can find Vietnamese restaurants all along Buford Highway in Atlanta, and lot of their menus consist of more than pho and banh mi sandwiches, but those two food items are really the only things that most Atlantans know as Vietnamese food, which is a crying shame.

Two days is just not enough time to sample the variety that encompasses Vietnamese cuisine. He said he’d come back next year, with wife and kids in tow, and vowed to spend more time diving into the food culture.  And I’m glad I’m doing my part to convince people back home that there’s a whole great big wide world out there beyond pho.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Deal with this, please. I’ve drank half a bottle of wine and I’ve some shit to get off my chest.

Every day I wake up and I think, “What did Trump say now?”.  I’m 11 hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time, so when I wake up, I check Twitter since it’s the end of the day on the previous day in the US. And every day for the past couple of weeks there has been some turmoil or bullshit that has popped up because Trump’s mouth has no filter, and it’s never good. It makes me sick to my stomach.

20 years ago I left an abusive relationship. I lived in the state of Florida. I got a restraining order, then moved to Savannah, Georgia. Two months later, the abuser showed up on my doorstep. He followed me to class; he followed me around town. He followed me home from work late one night when I worked a catering job after classes, and he forced me into my house. He raped me and sodomized me.

The next morning, after he left, I called Chatham County Sheriff’s Department, and I told the policeman on the other line what happened. I may not remember a lot of things, but what that man said has been etched into my brain forever. “Well, unless you have a bruise on your face, or a picture of him on your doorstep pressing on your doorbell, there is nothing we can do for you, little lady”.

I’ll never forget those words.  “Little Lady”.

I moved. The abusive stalker moved on, I thought. I moved away, to Atlanta, then Baltimore, then back to Atlanta.  And then I started getting phone calls from creditors, telling me that they were looking for him, because he owed them money. What in the fuck does that have to do with me? Nothing. I hung up. I got married to a decent guy. I never thought I’d have to deal with the abuser again.

And then came the time of social media. I started getting Facebook messages from him, at first being nice, saying, “Hi how are ya?”, shooting the shit like nothing bad had ever happened. As if I would be receptive to saying hello.  As if I would say, “Hey! How’s life? You doing good? How’s that left hook going, you still got it?”.  I ignored him. When I didn’t answer him, the messages became threatening, calling me a bitch for not answering him.

I never responded to any of these.

Why didn’t I block him, you ask? Because I always needed to know where he would be, so that I would be one step ahead of him.  I didn’t want to run the risk of running into him by accident. Blocking him wouldn’t help ease the uncertainty that he wouldn’t be waiting around the corner. This is the kind of shit that women who have been abused think about and have to deal with.  You didn’t think of that, dear reader, did you? Well, welcome to our normality. Every time I parked my car anywhere, every time I walked up my driveway or went to a grocery store, I looked around me to ensure he wasn’t lurking in the shadows.  And I still do that, half a world away, when I moved to Vietnam. I look around me wherever I am to ensure he’s not there. It's instinctive.

And he found out where I live; he lurked on my LinkedIn, a place where I felt safe because it allows me to interact with normal people and look for normal jobs. He saw where I worked. He sent me messages about how much he missed me, how he wanted me to change my profile picture so he would know what I now look like. Twenty fucking years later he does this.

Back in the day he constantly boasted about grabbing pussy, about grabbing tits, about how that’s what women want. And when the recordings of Trump came out, it brought back way, way too many memories of my past life, which brings me to the here and now.

Trump is an asshole, for many, many reasons.  Making fun of disabled people; thinking he’s better and smarter than everyone else; being a full on total waste of a human being.   Why on earth people think this “Good Ol’ Boy’s Club” is the norm is beyond me. Why every morning I see cousins and friends of mine on Facebook bleat like sheep about how “Why should this man be punished for saying bad words? It’s just locker room talk”. You must be joking. My father, my brother, and my boyfriend would NEVER speak this way in a locker room. My male friends wouldn’t either. Most men I know wouldn’t. Trump is the kind of man who thinks he’s done no wrong. Trump is like my ex. Trump is like many women’s exes. They think they can get away with it because they HAVE gotten away with it, with no thanks to people like that cop in Savannah belittling me. They can push and push and push and STILL annoy you from halfway across the world. And I’m embarrassed to be associated with people who think this way.

This whole “Make America Great Again”? It’s INSULTING.  I didn’t think America was such a bad place to live. My mom came to the US at the age of 18, which makes me a first generation American. Most of my American friends are first, second, and third generation. It pains me to see people embrace Trump like he’s telling “the truth”. What truth is this? Are you giddy, happy, ecstatic that he talks the way he does? Would you make fun of the family of a fallen soldier? Would you make fun of a disabled person? A Latina beauty queen? Would you talk about women like they are cheap? So why in hell are you supporting him? You ought to be ashamed of yourselves, but you’re not… but why the fuck aren’t you?

Guess what, Trump. You’re the cheap one.  You are the abusive ex we’ve been trying to get rid of.

Now, get the fuck out of our lives. For good. And take my abusive ex with you, to Hell.