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.|