Monday, October 27, 2008

No cutting board in sight

You didn't think that I spent my entire time in Sapa sitting around, reading and drinking hot chocolate did you? Well, actually, I would have believed it myself, but I had adventures, not to worry.

Most of my time in Sapa was spent trekking through the mountains and rice paddies. It's sort of the thing to do while you're there, though I made sure to include a homestay on my itinerary. That meant that after 6 hours of hiking around the mountains, with stops to rest and even more stops to take photos of adorable children looking after a water buffalo, I found myself at the home of Son and her family.

Son is a member of the Zdhao mountain hill tribe, which means that she wears a scarf around her hair (which is never cut) and a brightly colored shirt with fasteners on the side climbing up to a mandarin top. Typical dress for the men nowadays? A t-shirt and shorts. Go figure.

Once we arrived, our guide sat us down and told us to relax while Son prepared dinner. Somehow, I didn't follow directions and ended up in the kitchen with Son and her mother-in-law. Once I had offered my help, Son sat me down with a paring knife, four heads of garlic, some shallots and asked me to peel them. Normally, I'm the kind of girl who smashes the garlic cloves with the back of my knife on a cutting board, so peeling them while keeping them whole, without anything to cut on...well, it was interesting. I have a new talent to put on my resume, however, and the only difficult part was keeping myself from cutting through the clove to my knee.

Next up came bamboo shoot peeling, which took a while to get a hang of, as I'd never even seen a bamboo shoot before, let alone peeled one for soup. It involves peeling the outer layers of each section of the shoot, then cutting or breaking off the section soft enough to eat.

Our next task was to fill and roll spring rolls, which, by this point, we were a pros at, since we'd had to do it at the cooking course I took in Hanoi. The key is to make them long and round, and wet the rice paper just enough so that it doesn't stick to the plate, but does stick to itself. All it takes is practice, I promise.

After helping with our feast, we were free to sit down and enjoy it. Well, I shouldn't say free. Our guide and Son took it upon themselves to initiate us into a new custom: taking shots of arak (rice liquor). Son homebrews the stuff, and it is strong. You count in Vietnamese to three, then yell "Zhou" and everyone takes their shot. Once we'd gotten to shot 4, however, I insisted on half shots, since I really wanted to make it through the evening. Our guide and Son's husband, however, took the stuff like champs and kept going long into the night.

Me? I helped Son do dishes. It was just like being at home again.

The next day we were off on another trek, this one a mere 3 hours, where I saw an incredibly beautiful waterfall, more gorgeous rice paddies and got chased by a drunk Vietnamese man trying to get us to drink his homebrewed liquor. Just like home, eh?

Saturday, October 25, 2008

A strong cuppa

This is a new blog, so I understand if many of you are not yet aware of my dependency problem on hot chocolate.

My daily habit started when I was studying abroad in Paris. My host family was responsible for providing breakfast daily, as well as dinner 3 or 4 times a week, so my host mother happily replenished delicious jams, cereal, milk and Nestle as often as needed. Every morning, I'd get up and turn on the electric tea kettle first thing to get the water going for my chocolat chaud. Breakfast vacillated between cereal and baguettes, but hot chocolate was my one constant.

Now, I'm not trying to complain here, but it has been really hard for me to be in a climate so hot that chocolat chaud is out of a question. Not only am I missing my favorite season (fall), but I can't even raise a toast to its passing with a cup of hot chocolate.

This story does have a happy ending, I promise, and it was found in the mountainous region of northern Vietnam called Sapa.

I travelled up to Sapa via night train after a few days in Hanoi. The second I arrived, I knew I was in love. The place was at least thirty degrees farenheit cooler than Hanoi (which was sweltering), completely enclosed by mountains covered in mist. Through the early morning fog, I could just make out row upon row of rice paddies built at harrowing angles into the sides of the mountain.

I found a hotel quickly, with a lovely balcony overlooking said mountains. I set my bags down and fell into bed, happily burrowing under covers for the first time in a month. Truth be told, I had been hoping for a place with a fireplace, but if I'd found one, I probably never would have left.

The first day I arrived, my traveling companion fell sick and spent the entire day and following night asleep in bed, which left me a lovely bit of freedom. Sapa itself is a fairly small town, so I managed to explore a good chunk of it within an hour. I took a seat on the steps of a Catholic church (!) intending to do some people watching, but soon found myself chatting with a lovely Hmong woman and playing with her adorable baby who was strapped to her back.

Of course, I was then surrounded by lots of other women trying to sell me jewelry, bags and the like, but I still enjoyed a nice conversation about work, her village and family.

Later that afternoon, I grabbed a book that my older sister had recommended and which I also heartily endorse, and went to the cafe next door for a snack. I spent the rest of the afternoon buried in my book, coming up only for air and sips of hot chocolate. Heavenly.

Now, I have a certain way of making hot chocolate on a daily basis that I feel I should share, as well as one for special occasions. For my daily dose, I doctor up the powdered stuff with a bit of crushed red pepper and some cinnamon. Easy, and makes such a difference.

For the good stuff, however, the stuff of hot chocolate dreams, you must try the recipe that Molly writes about here. It's adapted from the lovely Dorie Greenspan's book "Paris Sweets", and it is truly the best hot chocolate I've ever made or tasted. Not too rich, not too sweet. As said in the post, you feel like you want to swim in the stuff...or curl up with it and a book as often as possible.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Walk slowly into oncoming traffic

I arrived in Vietnam in a sweat.

I made my flight, though I still don't know how, after having run through two sets of customs, criss-crossing the Kuala Lumpur (KL) airport numerous times, trying to check into my flight in less than an hour. Oh, the joys of international budget travel.

Once I arrived in Hanoi and got through the slightly extensive security checks, I grabbed my bag and headed over to the ATM to get some cash for the cab ride into the city. While there, I helped a fellow backpacker figure out the exchange rate, and we ended up sharing a cab from the airport. (This, the day after I saw a movie about a girl sold into a prostitution ring by doing the exact same thing! What was I thinking??) Luckily, my life is not an action film, and my new Aussie friend and I have been traveling together ever since. Much cheaper to go as a pair than to go it alone, we decided.

Hanoi is the craziest place in the world to cross the street. You can always tell who has just arrived in town, as they rush right out into the thick motorbike traffic, then stop about a quarter of the way through and run back to the nonexistent sidewalk. Once they've regathered their courage, they venture out in the road again, faces pale, stopping suddenly in front of multiple motorbikes, then making a mad dash for the other side, narrowly missing being hit. Did I mention that crosswalks are only a suggestions here? As are red lights.

There's a trick, you see, that can only be learned by watching the locals cross the street. You must walk out slowly, facing the oncoming horns and lights. Continue walking at the same pace, and try to make eye contact with anyone you can. This way, the drivers can judge your speed and neatly and easily steer around you. It really is as simple as that. Of course, it can be quite hard to remember with hundreds of motorbikes careening past.

Hanoi is a city of street stalls, home-brewed local beer, beautiful architecture and very friendly people. The tastiest food can always be found in the street, as can the cheapest beer and the best entertainment (see paragraph above about watching newcomers cross the road). I tasted tons of classic Vietnamese fare, ranging from pho bo (rice noodle soup with bean sprouts, beef and fresh herbs) to steamed snails on the street, and it was all fabulous. I think the elderly Vietnamese woman sitting next to me while I was eating the snails was especially pleased with my choice. She knocked back two entire bowls of the stuff, while continually urging me with hand signals to eat more and more. What a treat.

Probably my favorite food discovery in Hanoi came care of my father and older sister and a restaurant called Little Hanoi 1. Featured in the Lonely Planet guidebook, and therefore frequented by practically every Western visitor to Hanoi, this place has what may be a perfect meal (and great date idea, people!): Roll-your-own fresh spring rolls.

Made with fresh or dried rice paper rounds, inside, you layer fresh rice noodles, the protein of your choice--crispy fish and caramel beef were our choices--slices of pineapple, bean sprouts, mint, basil and lettuce at the bottom of the rice paper. Roll them up in a round (sort of like a tortilla), dip them in a fish sauce mixture and enjoy a little slice of heaven. Oh, and if you couldn't tell already, they're also incredibly healthy. So eat up!

I promise to post a more detailed info on the fish and beef later, but the above guidelines should be more than enough for you to have a go.

Friday, October 17, 2008

A moveable feast

When last we met, I was being eaten alive by mosquitos in the jungles of Borneo. Not the best place to leave off, I admit. I returned to a form of civilization soon after by spending a few days in Jakarta with my sister Jenny and her friend Pauline. These few days were chock-full of delicious food, thanks to their recommendations.

My two favorite restaurants were of the Italian and French variety. We visited the Italian star, Trattoria, twice in as many days. Like I said, we ate well. This restaurant starts you off right immediately, by handing over a basket full of hot crispy breadsticks and mini focaccia rounds. By the time we had ordered our dinner (and lunch, the second go-round), we were on our second basket. Hot, homemade bread fresh from the oven is truly one of my weaknesses.

The first time I ate at Trattoria, I shared a delicious and utterly simple salad: arugula with shaved pecorino romano, sliced pears and not nearly enough toasted pinenuts. Topped with a liberal amount of balsamic vineagar and olive oil and it was perfection.

Can I just stop a moment and thank every single restaurant that takes the time and effort to toast their nuts before adding them to salads, pastas, what have you? Because it makes ALL the difference in the world. Don't believe me? I dare you to try it and go back to untoasted nuts afterward. In fact, I triple dog dare you. You won't regret it, I promise.

The rest of my first meal at Trattoria was wonderful. I had ricotta/spinach gnocchi dumpling sthat had been lightly poached before being placed in a pool of tomato and ricotta sauce. Simple and delicious, and definitely something I'd like to experiment with at home. My second experience there started off with the same pecorino/arugula salad and was followed by lovely gnocchi in a fresh tomato and basil sauce. Again, refreshingly simple and delightful.

The second restaurant I have to share with you is a real gem. In fact, I seriously considered moving in. Brasserie was a lovely French restaurant just a five-minute walk from our hotel, and surprisingly empty for the delicious food they turn out. The second we walked in, I felt myself relax and unwind after a crazy and mosquito-filled week. We were eagerly ushered in by the manager (who remembered Pauline and Jenny from a visit months before), and immediately set to work on the free bread and fresh basil and herb olive oil it accompanied. Did I already mention my weakness for fresh bread? It turns out, it gets even worse when said bread comes with that delicious flavored oil.

Now, Jenny had been tormenting me for days about the lovely food on which we were going to be feasting, so ordering was not much of a problem for me. I knew I wanted escargots, as well as the goat cheese salad, but everything else looked so good that I persuaded Pauline (or was it the other way around?) to split escargots and sauteed chicken liver so that we could try both.

The escargot were amazing, just drenched in herbed butter and not in the least bit overly chewy, as so many people fear. The chicken liver arrived, sauteed in red wine with mushrooms, draped over a lovely brioche roll. The flavors were amazing together. And the goat cheese salad? Well, I have this theory that goat cheese makes absolutely anything taste better, and this salad was no exception. A half round of goat cheese on a piece of toast that had been slightly crisped in the oven topped a salad with a beautifully simple viniagrette...and I even think I spied some toasted pine nuts hiding in there as well.

My last meal in Jakarta was a repeat at Brasserie, with a bowl of delicious french onion soup, followed by a shared goat cheese salad with Pauline (my budget was getting a bit out of hand, so sharing helped offset the cost, a touch). Again, absolutely beautiful food, though this time it was accompanied by an incredible Amaretto Sour. These drinks, while consistently delicious in my opinion, can tend towards the too-sweet side, but this one was balanced by a touch of lemon. I know I'll be ordering one from my favorite bartender (my dad) when I go home.

The rest of my time in Jakarta was spent wandering around malls and the cinema, oh, and fighting through a crazy day where all three of us had vertigo and truly upset stomachs. Just a tip: never go to Jakarta during Ramadan, especially the last day of celebration. If you do, you'll have a whole new sympathy for non-Christians visiting Christian countries around Christmas time.

Next up, I head to Hanoi and fall in love with Bia Hoi.

Friday, October 10, 2008

A mighty jungle

Apparently I was a bit mixed up with my orangutan preserve locations when I said earlier that I was going to Sumatra. Instead, I ended up on a boat in the jungle in Kalimantan, in the Indonesian portion of Borneo.

This week was spent with my sister on her fall weeklong holiday, as well as eight other teachers from the international school where she works in Bandung. We boarded the plane for Kalimantan in Jakarta, had a fun dance party to various Mika and Madonna songs at the back of the plane and before I knew it, I was on Borneo and boarding the boat that would be my home for the next four days.

The boat itself was rather nice, at least nicer than what I had in mind, which was sort of a bigger version of the one in the movie The African Queen (Katherine Hepburn + Humphrey Bogart). Our boat had two levels, the kitchen and the staff sleeping quarters below, and our living room/card-playing room/reading room/dining room/sleeping quarters on top.

The trip on the whole was absolutely fantastic. I got to get up close and personal with dozens of orangutans both males (not so close to them, they're rather aggressive. Come to think of it, eye contact was out of a question as well) and females, as well as adorable babies. I even got to touch one's hand! The hair was unbelievably coarse. And all of them move with an unbelievable grace--I couldn't take enough pictures of their hands and feet as a result.

Female orangutans are particularly awe-inspiring. They have one baby every eight years, and for those eight years, are completely devoted to their little one. For the first three years or so, the mother literally holds the baby, then the next two years consists of the baby holding onto Mama's back and finally the baby exploring on its own, but staying close until Mom decides it's time to get pregnant again. The females even have an internal birth control that makes them unable to get pregnant for those eight years that they're caring for the baby--the young ones are that vulnerable and need that much attention.

In addition to the orangutans, I got to experience other fun jungle-y experiences, such as showering in jungle river water, drinking arak (indo rice liquor), being doused in red wine for absolutely no reason by another passenger (long story that I'm still puzzling over), sleeping under a mosquito net only to awaken to 30+ mosquitos inside the net and my bum completely covered in bites...lots of enjoyable moments.

Ahhh, yes, the food! I have to say that the food we had on the boat was some of the best Indonesian food any of us (teachers having lived in Indo for two years included) had ever had. There was always nasi (rice), but I enjoyed some lovely squid dishes and barbecue stir-fried tempeh (another soy product, similar to tofu) and of course, I can't forget the tree shaped watermelon slices served at the end of every meal. Almost put me in the holiday spirit...

The rest of the week with my sister was spent in Jakarta, and the fabulous food we had there deserves its own post, coming soon.

P.S. I'm currently in Vietnam, in Hoi An, and have to apologize for posting so late! I'll try to catch up when I get another rainy day like today.

Monday, October 6, 2008

A welcoming party

I realized last night after I posted my entry about my second week in Bali that I completely forgot the most authentically Balinese activity that I did the entire trip! I participated in a house-warming party, Balinese style.

I suppose that I need to back up and mention that when Anne offered to let me stay in her house my second week in Bali, she wasn't planning on being there. Unfortunately (but also fortunately, since I got to know her well), she had an accident involving stitches in her scalp and was "forced" to spend another week past her holiday with me in Bali before travelling back to Korea where she is a permanent substitute teacher at an international school.

I suspect that as a result of her accident, all of her Balinese friends/employees were a bit worried that there were bad spirits stirring up a ruckus in her newish home. So they all decided to have another house-warming ceremony in order to make sure that all of the gods and spirits were in agreement that this house should no longer contain quite so much mischief.

After an afternoon of helping Anne shop at the friendly neighborhood Balinese Costco, we rushed home to make it back to the house before the priests arrived, which we did, luckily, as it turned out that we had to be dressed for the occasion.
When Anne and I arrived, Ketut (essentially the overall manager of the property and groundskeeper and general coordinator of all of the other workers) had already changed into a sarong and matching sash and was opening up the house to get it ready. A few other people rushed home on their motorbikes to find sarongs and sashes for Anne and I so that we would be properly attired.

The priest arrrived and everyone got everything set up, which, in Bali, means a huge spread of rice, beautiful fresh flowers, a baby chick and hundreds of other things designed to make the gods and spirits happy with you. The priest did a three-part chant, first asking the gods permission to pray, then the actual praying, before a long closing chant to thank them.

It was a beautiful, fairly surreal experience, and I felt so honored to be invited to participate. I mean, I drank flower-flavored water, put flowers in my hair, even had a string tied to my wrist, which all signified...well, I have no idea, actually, but I think they were all good things. Plus, I now feel a responsibility to the house and its well-being, so it's only natural that I should go back to check on it sometime in the near future. Right, Anne?