Wednesday, February 22, 2017

My big Vietnamese kitchen.

My workspace.

A lot of apartments geared towards expats come partially or fully furnished.  This is kind of great if, like me, you moved here with two suitcases and one carry-on, as you don’t usually have to buy anything to get yourself settled (afterwards - yes - when you want a few creature comforts of your own).  The Airbnb where we stayed the month of October 2015 was fully furnished but in a really odd way - gobs of fake, dusty orchids and a kitchen rich in chopsticks, mismatched Tupperware, but not much else.  My current apartment is thankfully devoid of the crappy fake flowers. There is a zebra-striped couch along with matching armchairs that I think are quite hilarious, and will one day use for some kind of bizarre photoshoot.  And in the kitchen drawer can indeed be found about 50 pairs of chopsticks.  The kitchen also came with a set of chipped sea green dinnerware (4 plates in different sizes, a few “assiettes creuses” as the French call them, kind of like a wide shallow bowl, about 15 or 20 small bowls and dishes good for food prep, and a few oblong platters).  A 3-ring gas burner (built-in), though only one of the rings works properly; another shoots out foot-tall flames, and the third barely puts out a smoke signal.  Two fridges (these aren’t the huge American sized ones but are larger than a dorm fridge; we use one for beverages). A water dispenser. Inexplicably, a large quantity of wine glasses (this was, after all, once the home to the Chilean consulate, and I’m going to go with my made-up story that the glasses are left over from rowdy Chileans having raucous bacchanalian events).  There were a couple of things I had to buy, like an electric kettle, some basic utensils, pots and pans. But we got lucky; the kitchen came with an oven.

As far as I know and have observed, standard Vietnamese kitchens don’t have an oven. Vietnamese cooks don’t use them, don’t need to use them in their everyday cooking. They buy their bread out, as well as their baked sweets. The Airbnb listed an oven in the apartment description, when in fact it was a wee little toaster oven (I did use that thing for all its worth though, cooking whatever I could shove into the damn thing).  Since I do a lot of prep at home for my job, I use our countertop oven several times a week. The only quirky thing about it is that it’s set on an hour timer; if you’re braising anything, you have to jump up when you hear the timer ding and run over to turn the timer dial which turns the oven back on. This thing is my workhorse and I hope I don’t cause it an early death.

We also have a microwave, but I have never used it. Back in the US, one of the only things I used the microwave for was to melt butter and chocolate together.  Since my current microwave sits atop one of the fridges and would require me to stand on a chair to properly use it, I just use a double-boiler on the stove for my melting needs.

There is an air-conditioning unit in the dining area, but seems moot to run when I have the oven on, so I open the window and the door leading to the terrace to let the breeze flow through. It’s still hot though, but not as hot as it would be if I kept the window and door shut.  Last Friday while I was busy in the throes of food prep, some friends of friends were passing through Vietnam and came up to the apartment to say hi.  I wasn’t exactly prepared for visitors - sink full of dishes, laundry and unmentionables hanging to dry out on the terrace, etc.  But the house smelled wonderful as I was roasting peppers, sautéing eggplant and simmering tomato sauce with heaps of basil for caponata, so the visitors were welcomed with a face full of good smells as well as a blast of heat.  One of the wives, and Italian-American with a thick New Joyzee accent, took a good look around my workspace.

“So this is where you work? Aren’t you hot?”

“You get used to it”. I was wearing a tank top and miniskirt, my standard home cooking attire; unless I’m cooking an event, then it’s a proper chef coat and the works.

“I can’t believe you cook professionally out of this kitchen”, she said, looking around, spying the cracked and uneven countertop and giving it a good hard stare. “You don’t have any equipment. And this isn’t a very big space”.

“It’s pretty big for Vietnamese standards”, I said, feeling the need to defend Vietnamese kitchens. “Traditional Vietnamese kitchens, the ones I’ve lived in anyway, aren’t big and usually have two-burner stoves and no ovens. This one’s not modern, but then again that’s why we chose this apartment. It’s pretty quirky”.

This is considered big?”, she said, looking around. “Wow.  But doesn’t your boss have a kitchen for you to work in? Like a modern one that’s big? With professional equipment?”

“Their home kitchen? Well yeah, and it’s modern. But I don’t spend my day there if I’m prepping for an event. I prep here then bring it over”.

“But how do you get there with all your stuff?”

I shrugged. “Just hop in a cab. It’s not expensive and they live nearby”.

“You take a cab with all your food? How strange”.

“Well what else am I supposed to do? Hop on a motorbike juggling Tupperwares?”

“Haha!”, she finally cracked a smile. “I guess I can see your point”.

And my point is, you don’t need fancy equipment and loads of counterspace to get the job done.

Equipment-wise, sure, I’d love a KitchenAid mixer. I’d kill for one. And an ice cream maker. But I make do without. Recently, I did break down and buy a small handheld Philips mixer, since I got tired of whisking egg whites and heavy cream by hand. Having said that, I believe any cook worth their salt ought to know how and be able to whip egg whites and cream by hand, and do it without (much) whining. That, my beloved and much used mortar and pestle, the hand-crank pasta roller, and the juicer with blender attachment are the only luxuries I have in this kitchen, and I’m perfectly fine. Somehow, I manage to make pretty damn good and quality food out of here.

View from the dining area showing the open door to the terrace, my meager cookbook collection (what I could stow in my suitcases), and the crooked cupboards. I love it.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

the monk.

Yesterday started off innocently enough. I got up early to head down to Ben Thanh Market.  I know I’ve said it’s a tourist trap, but occasionally one must make one’s way there, especially when one is looking for a specific item that nobody else in town seems to carry.  One of my Twitter buddies swears the best spice vendor in all of Saigon has a booth there though I’ve yet to go pay them a visit because I know I’ll go hog wild and buy some of everything they offer.  Yesterday I was on the hunt for duck livers, quite a bit actually (about 500 grams worth, around 1 lb) since I got it in my head to make a pâté for an upcoming event, and I’d been told by a reliable source that I could find livers from a certain vendor at Ben Thanh.

Duck livers and a kilo of chicken livers procured (total price a whopping 30,000 VND - about $1.30), I set forth on the way back home. Friday morning traffic was in full swing. The usual cacophony of motorbikes revving, bus turn signals pinging,  truck honking. As I was coming up to the intersection of Nguyen Du and Nam Ky Khoi Nghia, near Independence Palace, I looked up to see a Buddhist monk right smack in the middle of the intersection. Hard to miss him in his saffron yellow robes. He was crossing the street, going up Nam Ky Khoi Nghia, and I realized with horror that the signal had not yet changed so traffic was still flowing at full speed. The monk crept through the intersection at a snail’s pace, slowly putting one bare foot firmly down on the pavement from heel to toe before raising the other foot up to bring forward. I thought for sure he would get hit by a car or bike, but miraculously he didn’t. Traffic flowed around him, like a school of fish, and not one single person honked. It was so surreal.  I stood on the edge of the sidewalk, clutching my bag of livers with my jaw hanging open and noticed a group of tourists on the other side of the street with comical expressions on their faces. One of them lifted a camera to commemorate the surrealness of the moment, and for a nanosecond I thought to do the same but decided against it. Sometimes when you accidentally peer into a person’s soul, you feel awkward snapping a picture for your Instagram feed.

When the light changed and I was able to cross the road with no issue, I quickly caught up with the monk, still moving at a snail’s pace, and glanced over at him as I passed. He was clutching a large bowl to his chest and seemed to be staring not directly ahead but at a point a few feet in front of him, completely immersed in his own self, and not troubled with the world around him.

I’ve read about walking meditations and begging bowls, but it didn’t appear that he was begging. He reminded me of Catholic pilgrims on the Chemin du Calvaire, walking barefoot up a rocky slope (such as the one in Cap d’Antibes near my cousin’s house) so as to feel closer to God. I would have liked to quietly follow him to see his progress but the livers needed refrigeration, so I silently wished him luck and veered off towards home and pâté making.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

"we're hiring!"

Out for drinks the other night, I noticed a familiar face, though it was out of place.  The particular establishment where I’d parked myself at the bar has a sister location (with different concept) down the street, and occasionally at either place you’ll see a manager or a bartender from the other location swinging by to borrow a keg or bottle of spirits of some sort.  But this time it appeared that they had borrowed a server for the night.

I waved at her; she smiled and came over to say hello. “What are you doing here? You haven’t defected, have you?”, I joked.

She laughed. “No, they’re just short-handed here. Lots of people quit”.

Later I was talking to one of the managers who brought up the personnel shortage.  “People quit for Tet so that they can go home to their families. And now I have a hard time hiring anybody because when I call to schedule an interview, they tell me they’re still on vacation from Tet and they don’t want to work yet”, she explained.

I didn’t know what to say to this so I just blinked and kept my mouth shut.  My initial reaction was incredulous.  In the US when someone calls you - regardless of the industry or job - and you say you’re still on vacation and can’t be bothered to come in to interview, you’ll never hear from the hiring manager again.  But here things are different. Lots of kids in hospitality and the F & B industry have skills and can speak English moderately well. And loads of places are hiring. Off the top of my head, I can name seven Western-style bars and restaurants in Districts 1 and 2 that are actively looking for personnel (and there are more; these are just places that I frequent or where I know the owners).

But Tet ended two weeks ago.  I find this “I’m still on vacation” excuse to be flaky.  As someone who has hired and fired before, this lame reasoning comes across as laziness. But maybe that’s just me, and it’s yet something else I need to adjust in my cultural perceptions.