Friday, November 30, 2007

Vietnamese Gastronomical Delights (part 2)

After our stint in Halong Bay, we took an overnight train to Hue in central Vietnam. Hue is often regarded as the food capitol of Vietnam, mostly the of fussy emperor who demanded that he never ate the same dish twice. Like I've mentioned before, more than 1400 of the 1700 Vietnamese regional dishes originated here.

Sauces are big in Hue. Every dish has its own sauce, and in my experience, everybody wanted to make sure that you ate the food the proper way. Personally, I found it endearing that people in the restaurants wanted you to have maximum food enjoyment, and I got used to the people placing food in front of us, then hovering around and searching our faces for clues as to how we were enjoying the dish. I learned quickly that Oooohing and Ahhhhhing over food or flashing a quick "thumbs-up" (if my mouth was full) would stop some of the hovering.

While we were walking along, trying to get our bearings, the constant drizzle turned into a torrential downpour. We were trying to find a place to eat, and I noticed a woman kneading dough, rolling it out, and cutting it into stubby noodles. Score! We took a seat at what looked like the garden area of someone's house, and waited. Soon, this came to us:

It was a steaming bowl of hand cut noodles in a chicken broth. The broth came with plenty of cilantro, sliced chilies, a slice of lime, and some chili sauce. There was also a basket of hard boiled quail eggs. This had to be one of the best meals we had, and the cost for all three of us was $1.25.

Another dish I had to try was the bahn khoai (happy crepe) at Lac Thien. I should have taken a picture of it when it first came out, but I couldn't resist digging in first.

These cakes were savory, and they had bean sprouts, shrimp, and pork all wrapped up in a crisp-on-the-outside, chewy-on-the-inside crepe. The accompanying sauce was made from ripe bananas, peanuts, nuoc mam, and (of course) sugar. Mr. Le from Lac Thien, made us some clever bottle openers to take home and let us browse through 3 photo albums of people from all over the world in front of famous monuments using his beer opener. We got the hint - I have his address and will be sending him some photos shortly.

Next stop: Nha Trang, via the most hellish bus trip ever. Since Nha Trang is nestled against the South China Sea, fresh seafood was the only thing to order. While wondering around, I spotted an outdoor restaurant that smelled promising. And it was! I had no idea until then how strong the Chinese influence was on Vietnamese food until then (I later learned that one of the emperors fancied all things Chinese, from its cuisines to its architecture). This was a seafood hot pot, served with a cold rice noodles.

The bahn mis (sandwiches) in Vietnam are sold on almost every street corner. The interesting thing about Nha Trang was that the French bread used for these sandwiches had some serious chew to it - not at all like the light as air bread we had in Hanoi and Hue. Apparently, Nha Trang prides itself on its stick-to-your-ribs bread, and locals claim that the bread is hearty because it fuels their fisherman.

In Nha Trang, I also ventured into a supermarket to buy some snacks. I love trying out different chips and drinks. This time, I ended up with corn milk and dragon fruit juice.

The corn milk was made from milk, corn, and sugar. It tasted like the milk left at the bottom of a cereal bowl after eating Cap'n Crunch. Is that a good thing? You tell me. The other drink was too chunky to be good, at least for me. I think about half of the can was full of dragon fruit chunks that didn't taste as good as the fresh dragon fruit shakes I had been enjoying. Unfortunately, I did not drink all of it that night and the ants found it in the morning. The boy, bleary eyed, woke up and saw the drink on our nightstand covered in bugs, so he dumped it into our sink. Bad idea. The fruit chunks ended up clogging up our sink and I woke up to him swearing while poking a hangar down the drain. I don't know if I could ever drink this again.

Our last stop in Vietnam was:

Technically, this was Ho Chi Minh City, but that is not a good name for a beer now, is it? One day in Saigon was not enough, especially since the street food here was the best in my experience. How about some waffles flavored with pandan leaf?

Or some pho bo? Former US president Clinton ate at this pho establishment (Pho 2000), and his picture was plastered all over the restaurant.

Feel like some fruit? Rambutans were in season and we bought a bag.

Upon reflection, I probably think that Saigon has the best food because of the food revelation I had here:
O Be is located inside the main market. When I saw the display in the window, I had to stop.

I ordered a dish that was my most memorable meal. It was round rice noodles sprinkled with fried pork skin, dried shrimp powder, chili, and two different types of fish cake all smothered in nuoc mam. It sounds so simple, but there was an art to assembling this meal with the right proportion of sweet, hot, and salty. If I could go back and have only one meal, this would be it.

For those of you following along, the description in my last post was for jackfruit chips. What the heck is glucoza and why do I need to be protected from it?

Is it time for lunch yet? I'm starving!

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Vietnamese Gastronomical Delights (part 1)

Good, fresh food. That is what I think of first when I recount our recent trip to Vietnam. For those of you who are fans of the sweet, salty, and oftentimes fishy combination, Vietnam has your number! Or if straight up sweet is your thing, close your eyes, throw some đồng, and you'll hit at least one shop or shack selling something that will make your teeth ache.

We started our culinary adventure in Hanoi, on top of the hustle and bustle at City View Cafe. We were weary from our 18 hours of traveling. We were sticky from the humidity. We were fearing for our lives every time we crossed the street.

In short, we needed drinks.

Fruit shakes are the way to go in Vietnam. Traditionally, they are made just from fruit, lots of sugar (you can request less sugar or no sugar), and ice. That's it! I decided months ago that the first thing to touch my lips in Vietnam would be an avocado shake. And it was. Later, my fruit shake of choice was dragon fruit.

We also had our first snack: the ever present spring rolls. Every city has its own version of this fried piece of goodness, and it was my job to sample them in every city. A tough job, I know. At the very least, these rolls had pork. Oftentimes, other morsels would be included like shrimp, mung bean noodles, and carrots.

We laughed a the craziness below us, until we realized that we would have to be a part of it again once the meal was over. We ordered another round of beer. That's when I took this video of the traffic below. Look in the upper right hand corner of this video and watch the person cross the street. It is as sketchy as it looks! And we had to do this many times over!

Our next photo worthy meal was dinner that night at 69 Bar-Restaurant.

The highlight was these fresh spring rolls with fried catfish, dill, and a crispy rice paper roll. This was the first time I have ever had rice paper rolls that were supposed to be crunchy - our server was adamant that we ate them all within 4 minutes because he said after the rolls were soggy, the dish wouldn't be good. For the record, I think we finished these in 3 minutes.

This dish, thit kho, was one that I enjoyed in the US several times. It is pork belly (yes, the same meat used for bacon) cut into thick slabs and braised in coconut juice, coconut, caramelized sugar, and the ever present fish sauce. I've made it before, too, with great success. However, I don't think I'll ever be able to make it as good as the restaurants in Vietnam. Why? Well, for starters, I can't go into my backyard and pick some fresh coconuts.

Oh, the fruits of the sea were plentiful in Vietnam. At Cha Ca La Vong, they only serve one dish, appropriately named cha ca. How to describe this? It is fish sautéed in butter, then piled with fresh dill and green onions. They bring the greens in a separate bowl and mix them on the skillet at your table. When you have eaten most of the greens, another heaping bowl of greens appears, and is also dumped into the skillet and lightly wilted. Cha ca is served with peanuts, nuoc mam (fish sauce), and rice noodles.

If you feel that your libido needs a boost, there were plenty of snake liquors that supposedly do the trick. Traditionally, only men drink these medicinal liquors, but they've become a tourist commodity.

After a couple of days in Hanoi, we ventured out to Halong Bay for a break from the smogginess of Hanoi and the obnoxious honking horns. We lived on a boat for two nights and boy did we eat large. Our seafood plucked from the bay daily.

This fried fish is topped with nuoc mam, tomatoes, white and green onions, and a touch of sugar.

May I wax poetic about the cucumbers? These cucumbers were little bites of heaven. They were dressed with chillies, raw garlic, sugar, and nuoc mam. There were also some of the sweetest shrimps, dusted lightly with tapioca starch and fried, and steamed clams that tasted like little bites of the sea. Unfortunately for you, I was too busy eating them to take their pictures.

Sigh, it is so fitting that my 100th post (yeah!) is about food. I'm hopelessly obsessed with all that passes through my lips. There will be one more food post on Vietnam, one food post for Thailand, one for the cute beasts I encountered, one for my socks (they get their own post!), and then some posts of the scenery. Ha, only I would save the sites of Southeast Asia for last.

I'll end this first food series with this:

Can you guess what this is?

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Chau or Sawasdee!

(Hello in Vietnamese or Thai, respectively.)

I'm back. Well, technically, I was back since last Monday night, but I was only home for a day before leaving again for family Thanksgiving festivities. But now, I'm really back. Is this a good thing? Well, right now, I say that it is. However, if you ask me on Monday after my first day back at work, I might have a different answer.

Vietnam and Thailand are culinary meccas. I'll be plastering y'all with scrumptious food photos and descriptions in due time, however, today I feel the need to shame Thai Airways. Why is it that a country with some of the most outstanding cuisine lets their airlines serve this? What is it? Even after I took a fair bite of the stuff (I hate judging before I eat something), I could not identify this "dessert" and the contents within. Yuck. Was that fruit a kiwi or a grape? Or none of the above? For a country famous for its sweets, this sucked.

Shame on you, Santos Zopper. Shame. On. You.

The rest of our trip was [insert fabulous words here]! Vietnam is a country with one of the most varied cuisines and I didn't even have a chance to sample 1% of its famous dishes. However, in a country that boasts over 1700 regional dishes (more than 1400 of those dishes originating in Hue, where one of the emperors demanded new dishes every day for every meal), I feel that 1% is still a valiant effort. My waistline thinks so, too. The weather was rather wet during our 10 day stay in Vietnam, we were trying to outrun a typhoon, but even with the wet weather, I loved this country. I will go back someday and stay longer.

By the time we reached Thailand, we had found a dry spot to do some of the activities we hoped to do. Like kayaking in the turquoise waters of the Andaman Sea against a backdrop of limestone cliffs. Yeah, it was good.

This was the view from our bungalow in Koh Phi Phi (also Thailand).

It was a gorgeous view, but you did pay to have it. I lost count after 500 steps.

Oh, and since this is a knitting blog, I did finish two (different) socks on my trip. This one uses the Scroll Sock pattern from More Sensational Knitted Socks, and the second one is a Gentlemen's Fancy Sock from Knitting Vintage Socks. I'll post full details when I finish their mates.

The bottom sock is for the boy, and his size 13 feet resulted in the unintentional anklet. I used all 50 grams of yarn! For contrast, on the above sock, my sock, I still had almost one third of my yarn left when I completed the sock.

I'll have more trip pictures and stories as soon as I can! This was just a little sneak preview so those of you asking where the heck I am know that I'm still alive and, expect for a few mosquito bites, no worse for wear.


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