hot and sour clam soup; chopped crunchy vegetable and spicy prawn salad behind, with modified nuoc mam cham.

So I participated in Whole30.

And I’m not going to bore you with the details of what I ate every single day, which is why I didn’t post about it throughout the month.  At the end of December when I mentioned to a few people that I was going to do this cleanse, most of the responses were incredulous. “But why? Why deprive yourself?”, was the main feedback I got. Let me tell you why.

December, and let’s be frank, November, were full of holiday spirit, in all definitions of the word. My boss hosted various lunch and dinner parties, and I spent a lot of my free time imbibing and eating pretty much everything in sight. Hey, it’s Christmas, that’s what we’re supposed to do, right?  In the beginning of December, I noticed a few days of indigestion, but firmly pushed it out of my mind as I didn’t have time to think about it. I kept cooking, and that included a lot of baked things, chocolate, crazy Australian desserts I’d never heard of before (something called a White Christmas which is basically melted white chocolate with everything sweet lurking in your pantry chopped up and folded in), and a lot of wine. Right after Christmas I got a serious bout of food poisoning, which really incapacitated me and laid me flat and miserable for a few days. At the end of the month, feeling slightly better yet still very shaky, I decided something had to be changed.  Fortunately, a group of friends and friends-of-friends Stateside were embarking on a month-long Whole30 “diet” (I really do hate that word, it suggests negativity when there’s nothing negative about Whole30), so Larry and I decided to join them.  We all kept track of it and each other via a newly-created Facebook page because misery loves company. (I jest. I’ve not been miserable).

The premise of Whole30 is that for a period of 30 days you immediately eliminate the following items from your diet: alcohol, dairy, gluten, rice, all grains, soybeans (includes soy sauce and tofu), peanuts, all legumes (from lentils to chickpeas to peas and beyond), corn, sugar in any form except for fructose. I may have forgotten a few things. After 30 days, you slowly reintroduce each item (the Whole30 creators have a specific order they recommend) and see if you have any gastrointestinal issues with it. This is a great regimen if you have some weird allergies and you want to pinpoint if a food item is the culprit. Also, contrary to popular belief, IT’S NOT THAT FUCKING HARD. Half of the friends and friends-of-friends pooped out a week or two in because they just couldn’t handle it.  The only difficulty we ran in to is that we live in Southeast Asia, and what are the common foods found here? Rice and soy and tofu.  And as I began to discover, as I scoured restaurant menus, recipes, and started asking a lot of questions and generally being That Pain In The Ass Restaurant Customer, is that a lot of Southeast Asian cuisine has sugar in everything.

Even pho isn’t safe (a real pho has rock sugar in the broth). Nuoc mam cham, the spicy fish sauce/lime juice dressing mixed into every Vietnamese salad and served as a dipping sauce for everything? Palm or white sugar is added. It’s actually kind of scary how much hidden sugar there is in Thai and Vietnamese cooking.

Because of the Christmas holidays and Tet (Lunar New Year) my boss has been traveling, so I’ve had a lot more time at home which enabled me to cook for myself -  this was the perfect month to try this thing out.  I jumped into recipe changes immediately.

I ate a lot of soup. this one is potato leek, blended, then topped wiih crispy bacon. Bacon makes everything better.

The next question I heard from people was, “What can you eat, since you’ve eliminated pretty much everything good?”.  All vegetables. All tree nuts (cashews, almonds, etc). All meats and seafoods. Eggs. Good fats, such as avocado (unfortunately not in season here though can be found at exorbitant prices for a rock hard specimen), olive oil, coconut oil, clarified butter, aka ghee (butter that’s been melted and the fat solids removed). Spices. Salt. Fruit - but only in moderation, since it does contain fructose. I began experimenting and replacing sugar in recipes with fruit purees and juices (for example, as I learned from Luke Nguyen, coconut water is a great replacement for sugar in nuoc mam cham (that fish sauce/lime juice dressing). I’ve been using a small teaspoonful of tamarind paste in mine because it’s what I have on hand and is easy to get here. In the US it would be hard to find - not to mention expensive - so I’d use dates and mash them up a bit. I found myself using a lot less sweetener than I had previously. And I got used to no milk and no sugar in my coffee, though that one was a toughie (I’ve replaced milk and sugar with a dollop of coconut milk instead. Took a bit of getting used to, but now I really enjoy it).

I must admit there have been a few faltering moments. A picture floating around on the interwebs of a salted chocolate tart had me gnawing at my knuckles late last week.  A couple of weeks back I inexplicably craved ice cream like nobody’s business, even though I rarely eat ice cream (though do make fantastic ones). I thought I’d miss bread since it has always been my favorite food, but I don’t. There have been two times where I really, really wanted a glass of wine.  And last night, Day 28, we decided we needed some. With what is going on politically in the US, I’m surprised we didn’t cave on the wine earlier. So some wine was imbibed, also a small bit of really excellent Marou chocolate, and I’m back to normal today. I’m not drinking tonight.  And on the plus side of all this, I’ve lost 7 lbs and exercised every single day.

I’m slowly going to reintroduce foods, but at my own leisure. I’m not going to go all hog out like some of the friends and friends-of-friends did and sit down to a pizza dinner with pasta appetizer covered in mounds of parmegiano, cheese and bread and chocolate-covered sugar bombs for dessert, with wine spilling everywhere (I have a vivid image of a scene from Caligula in my head). That’s not smart anyway; imagine what you're doing to your stomach? Just the idea makes me cringe.  I’ll eat bread again, and I do look forward to a very nice, very tasty glass or two of red wine towards the end of this week. And I leave you all with a variation on a Thai recipe for hot and sour clam soup. It’s stupid simple, has minimal ingredients, and is sometimes all you need when you want something good and light.  The caveat is you must like sour and spicy food.

This is a starter course. If you want more, if you want to make it the only dish you eat at that one sitting, by all means get more clams and use more broth.  I suppose if you wanted to add rice or rice noodles to the end product you could, but I wouldn’t, and won’t.  This serves two people.

the only thing it didn't come with were the giblets. I want giblets, damn it!

The broth: for this, I use some chicken parts I have lurking in the freezer. This last batch I had some chicken feet and a backbone from the last roaster I bought then spatchcocked (chickens here come with head and feet attached. Not so in the US).  Put that in a pot and add about 6 cups of cold water. A couple cloves of garlic that you’ve smashed with the flat end of your knife to remove the skin. A thumb-sized knob of ginger that you’ve also bruised or smashed lightly. You can also add some spring onions that are dying in your crisper drawer, but you don’t have to go out and buy anything special for this. Bring to a boil, then let simmer and skim off any funky grey bubbly bits that come up. This is a very quick broth, so 20 minutes to a half hour will do. Strain through a fine mesh sieve (or use cheesecloth if you’ve got any handy - I don’t since it’s not a common item found around these parts).

When you’re about 5 minutes out from eating, get the rest of your ingredients nearby and ready. Bring the broth back to a simmer, hopeful you’ve washed out your original pot or used a clean one.  I’ll assume you’ve gone through your clams (about a pound for two people - use steamer clams if you can find them) and chucked out the opened ones (rule of thumb for clams and mussels: chuck if open before cooking; chuck if closed after cooking).  Add salt to the broth to taste (how much is entirely up to you).  Gently dump in the clams.  Using a ladle, remove them as they open and put into a larger serving bowl (they’ll pop open wide when they’re cooked - about a minute or two, but they’ll vary).  When they’re all open, pour the broth over them into the serving bowl. Tableside, add freshly squeezed lime juice to your own bowl and one tiny whole bird’s eye chili that you’ve bruised ever so slightly.  If you want to, you can sprinkle over some fresh cilantro (coriander) leaves. And that’s it. I could eat this every night, and in fact have two nights this past week.


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