Saturday, November 26, 2016

I'm afraid of Americans.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

visions of flying coffee-smoked ducks in my head

bar notes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 20, 2016


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Never a dull moment in Saigon.