Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Over the river and through the woods

My last few days in Vietnam left me feeling as if I was on a roller coaster ride with no end in sight.

And yes, I do mean that literally. I suppose that's what eight hours in a minivan without air conditioning, jutting in and out and around potholes big enough to swallow a full-size bus will do to you. That, and the fact that every time we hit a pothole (which was about every 30 seconds) I flew out of my seat about two feet forward, wiggling back up just to jettison out again seconds later. It was so ridiculous, it became hilarious. At least I provided entertainment to my fellow Vietnamese passengers.

Instead of the quick and ubiquitous straight shot bus ride from Saigon to Phnom Penh, I decided to do the Mekong River crossing. Though it took longer, as it involved the previously mentioned minibus ride to get over to the Mekong Delta followed by a full day's worth of river travel north, the trade off was well worth it. The scenery that I witnessed during the boat ride showed a quiet, river-centric way of life that kept my eye glued to the camera viewfinder.

My first order of business upon arriving in Phnom Penh was to taste a dish that my older sister has been raving about since she left Cambodia: fish amok. A firm, white-flesh fish is steamed in coconut curry inside of a banana leaf before being spooned over hot long-grain rice and gobbled up. At least, that was how I ate it every time I tried it...which averages out to about once a day.

There are as many versions of fish amok as there are restaurants in Cambodia. Known as the unofficial national dish, it had a place on nearly every menu I saw. And if it wasn't fish amok (my personal favorite), it was available with another protein: tofu, pork, chicken, beef. I sampled my favorite version at the Cambodian cooking class I took in Sihanoukville, which I will share in a later post.

After I got my introduction to fish amok out of the way, I was free to attend to other things of business such as applying for a Laos visa, oh, and visiting some of the many national monuments located in Cambodia's capital.

As luck would have it, the rain followed me all the way to Cambodia, and my first day there, after paying a visit to the Lao Embassy, found me inside the Cambodian National Museum. This was, by far, my favorite museum of the trip. Filled to the brim with ancient Khmer and Angkor statues, it took me hours to get through it all. I also brushed up on my Buddhist and Hindi deity knowledge and fell in love with the graceful Khmer language engraved on tablets centuries old.


Now, as you may have guessed, these blog posts are not happening in real time. Though I'm only up to Cambodia in the posts, I'm actually in Thailand with my good friend Katie, having a lovely time, and a mere week away from coming back to the States (assuming the protests in Bangkok don't wreak too much havoc). I'll definitely be continuing the posts to get you all up to date, but I wanted to take a moment to wish everyone a Happy Thanksgiving.

I will be in the kitchen myself, taking a Thai cooking course, though I can guarantee that I'll be missing Dad's turkey, Mom's pumpkin pie and everything that comes in between. Have a couple extra bites for me if you can, and maybe a sip or two of champagne to celebrate.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

The heat is on

Eh-ehm...anyone still out there?

It's been a busy few weeks, and I have to apologize for my recent silence. I'm already woefully behind with my updates and will therefore be continuing to post about my holiday when I'm back in the States for Christmas. Oh well, a girl has to be out having adventures in order to post about them, doesn't she?

Onward then.

My next bus ride down the Vietnamese coast brought me to the town of Nha Trang. Laidback, touristy, very very beachy. The weather was perfect, allowing me to play in the clear blue waves until sunset the day of my arrival.

My second day in Nha Trang was spent on a boat trip around a few of the neighboring islands. We were able to snorkel, drink fruity Vietnamese wine while floating about in inner tubes and enjoy entertainment in the form of our our crew's very own boy band (drumset, electric guitar and all).

As an extra bonus, I even met some sweet American girls who were equally crazy about musical theatre, so we played "name that tune" games throughout the day. Selections from Miss Saigon and Spring Awakening featured especially.

Foodwise, eh, Nha Trang's not exactly known for it.

I must admit that after a delicious lunch of clear vegetable soup, fish cooked in a clay pot with tomato sauce and rice...I gave in and had a goat cheese salad for dinner. I know, I know! I promise, it's the only time I've had Western food since I arrived, and, well, it's goat cheese, people! You know how I feel about that. Forgive me?

After basking in the Nha Trang sun, I hopped on yet another overnight bus (they're a staple of travel here) down to Saigon, or Ho Chi Minh City, as it's officially known.

Now, Saigon wasn't particularly inspiring visually. It's a fun, busy, motorbike-filled city like all of the rest, but the architecture's nothing to write home about.

Two of the more memorable visits were to the War Remnants Museum and the Cu Chi Tunnels. The War Remnants Museum talked about the Vietnam War, or the "American War", as it's known here. It's the sort of gut-wrenching experience that's best left without description or outside commentary, but let me just say that propoganda played a role, and my eyes were not dry while walking by the photos of disfigured victims nor the deformed fetuses preserved in formaldehyde on display.

The Cu Chi Tunnels was possibly even more disturbing, mostly because the tour guide was laughing the entire time that he demonstrated how all of the booby traps left for American soldiers worked.

On the positive side, I had some fabulous food in Saigon. It would be hard not to. I had an authentic version of bun cha, or what we probably know as vermicelli with spring rolls. Fresh rice noodles held up fresh herbs and newly fried spring rolls. On the side was a sweet dipping sauce that I just tossed on top and mixed in. Absolutely delicious, and refreshing when the temperatures are through the roof...which they were every day.

The other interesting things I tried were on the recommendation of a waiter. Since I tend to ask servers back home for their favorite menu items, it's been hard not to be able to while travelling! Happily, this waiter spoke English well enough to understand me and steered me towards another fresh rice noodle dish. This one was interesting, because it involved mixing the typical inside parts of a fresh spring roll (fresh rice noodles, vegetables--cucumber here, herbs) and dipping them into shrimp paste. Tangy, to say the least, but delicious after you got over your initial shock.

After my tangy main course, I decided to even things out a bit with a sweet treat: taro mixed with purple sticky rice, drizzled with coconut milk. I cannot even begin to tell you how delicious it was. Think of a taro bubble tea, take out the tapioca, and substitute in sticky rice and a hint of coconut.

I promise to figure out a way to recreate it at soon as I figure out where to find proper sticky rice and a good method for cooking taro. Too bad I won't have all of my neighborhood San Francisco Asian grocery stores. Guess Houston's Hong Kong Market will have to suffice. Oh, and if you know of any good Asian grocery stores in Chicago, please let me know!

Friday, November 14, 2008

Serious withdrawal

I come to you today with a confession: I really miss cooking.

Perhaps this is not that shocking to some of you, but since I recently spent an entire day on a bus, staring out the window and daydreaming about the different dishes I'm going to try and old favorites I will be pulling out immediately upon landing in the States...well, it's on my mind.

Luckily, today's entry includes a cooking class that I took in Hoi An, so I can at least reassure myself that I still remember what a kitchen looks like.

I only spent about two days in Hoi An, and was sick for most of one of them. However, I did get to wander a little ways around its streets, and the architecture was beautiful. If I'd had the time and money, I would have spent a bit more time there and had some clothes or shoes hand made (Hoi An is reknowned for this, you see shop after shop after shop of tailors), but unfortunately it was not to be. I think my dad described it as akin letting an alcoholic into a liquor store and not letting them buy anything. How well he knows me.

I did get the chance to take another cooking class here, one recommended by both my sister and father when they were in Vietnam just a few months ago, so all was not lost.

The cooking school was reached by a quick boat trip up the river, which, when there's yet another torrential downpour, makes for quite an interesting trip.

The venue itself was quite beautiful, an open-air outdoor kitchen with individual work stations set up with wok and cutting board. Our menu varied from a seafood salad with fresh herbs to tomato roses to fresh rice paper spring rolls.

The fresh rice paper spring rolls were quite fun to make. I've told you before about the lovely fresh spring rolls I've had throughout my time in Vietnam, but those were always done with dried rice paper. This time around, we actually made the rice paper ourselves, by preparing a sort of rice crepe batter which we steamed over cheesecloth. I did my best, but mine ended up a bit too thick, and since we were only able to try one each, I wasn't able to redeem myself. Eh, maybe next time. To be honest, I liked the dried rice paper better anyway.

I'm going to share a recipe with you today that's surprisingly good, and incredibly easy. The only "exotic" ingredient you need is lemongrass, which you can find easily in regular grocery stores or Whole Foods nowadays, so you have no excuse.

Asian Eggplant in Clay Pot
Adapted from Red Bridge Cooking School, Hoi An, Vietnam

2 Japanese eggplants (the long, thin kind, not the ubiquitous plump American version)
1 stalk lemongrass
1 1/2 tsp salt
4 cups water
1 1/2 Tbs tomato paste
1 tsp sugar
1 tsp or more chili sauce (to taste)

Place two cups of water and 1 tsp salt into a heavy-bottom pot.
Peel the outer stalks from the lemongrass, then bruise it (crush the thick bottom part slightly with the side of your knife) and add it to the pot of water. Bring to a boil.
Cut the eggplant into 1/2 inch thick rounds and add to the now boiling water. Continue to boil for 3 minutes, or until the eggplant is beginning to get tender and change color slightly.
Drain the eggplant, discarding the water and lemongrass.
Return the eggplant to the pot, then add the tomato paste, the remaining 2 cups of water, remaining 1/2 tsp salt, sugar and chili sauce.
Simmer this mixture for 7-10 minutes, stirring periodically, until the eggplant is completely tender.
Serve hot with steamed rice.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

A full belly

The food in Hue is reknowned because of a particular king who must have been either constantly hungry, bored or picky. Whatever the reason, it is due to his orders to be served 50 different dishes by 50 different chefs at each meal that Hue has such delicious offerings today.

My personal dining experiences in the city ran the gamut from street to royalty.

I arrived quite early in the morning after an overnight bus ride to pouring rain and promptly showered before falling into bed. (Note: it is next to impossible to get a good night sleep on a bus, even one with long reclining seats. It's a hard lesson that I learned more than once.)

I was astounded when I woke up a few hours later to find that the rain hadn't stopped or even slowed, and the roads had been transformed into rivers as a result. I felt a bit like I was in the Oregon Trail, Vietnam Edition, as I forded the river crossing the street, nearly losing my shoe in the process.

Happily, I survived without losing any oxen or contracting cholera, so I was able to enjoy a big steaming bowl of pho bo while watching people struggle by on motorbikes whose engines had flooded. Quite an entertaining way to pass a few hours.

Once the rain finally subsided, I struck off for the Citadel, Hue's very own walled palace. I spent the rest of the afternoon exploring this enormous and bewitching complex, stumbling upon ornate temples and playrooms in pristine condition only to turn the next corner to find a palace in complete shambles. The Citadel is an intriguing place where I could easily have spent an entire additional day wandering about.

Starving, Petar (my travel buddy) and I made our way to my favorite kind of restaurant: a stall just off (or on) the street. You know the type, plastic chairs and short tables filled with locals slurping and chattering, a kitchen rigged up outside with one wok and two cooks and a menu only if you're very very lucky. The kind of restaurants where you point at something someone else is eating, then make a #1 sign with your fingers, the eloquent yet universal way of saying "I'd like one of whatever he's having, please."

The following day I decided to treat myself to one of the Lonely Planet guidebook "our picks". Y Thao Garden offers only one dining option, an eight course set menu for $10. Broke my budget, but oh, was it worth it.

I now have to take a moment to beg your apologies, because I forgot to bring my camera to this amazing lunch to end all lunches. I know, I know, completely idiotic, but what can you do? Perhaps someday I'll learn to be a proper food blogger and have my camera onhand at all times.

Maybe I should mention that Hue food is known as not just being tasty, but also very decorative and well-presented. Because maybe then you won't be as shocked when I mention that our first course consisted of fried pork spring rolls skewered onto a pineapple peacock whose wings and head were made of carved carrots. I did mention that it was a bit over the top, didn't I?

Our next course was a vegetable soup with the most delicious broth I've ever had created strictly from vegetables. It was enough to motivate a girl to finally getting around to making homemade broth.

Third course consisted of freshly steamed whole prawns served with a delicious lemon and salt & pepper dipping sauce. Simple, fresh, perfect.

Four course was a sort of Asian taco. A deep-fried rice pancake was filled with pork, prawn, mung beans and mushrooms, and served with a peanut and coconut dipping sauce. Delicious, if a bit greasy.

The fifth course was the most unusual. It was described as fig salad, but what came out was not what I had pictured (I was thinking quartered figs with proscuitto and goat cheese, my only previous experiences with fig salads, and delicious ones at that). Anyway, what arrived was finally diced figs, peanuts, mint, prawn, sesame seeds...and possibly other things that I couldn't quite put my finger on. The salad was to be eaten on top of shrimp crackers and was completely delicious.

The sixth and seventh courses, while good, weren't quite up to snuff comparatively. They consisted of grilled/smoked beef topped with sesame seeds that tasted overwhelmingly smoky and a sticky rice stir fry with lotus nut and diced carrot, shallot and onion. The latter was fine, if unmemorable.

Our last course arrived looking like a cross between a lollipop and a tomato plant (okay, to be honest, I would never have guessed "tomato plant" if the waitress hadn't described it as such). It was, in fact, a green been cake dipped in gelatin that was tasty and, yet again, unusual.

Did I eat again the rest of the day? I did not. But I did have a satisfied belly to last me through another bus ride the following day to Hoi An.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Ships passing in the night

After a quick and restless overnight train ride back to Hanoi from Sapa, I jumped on to the most uncomfortable mini bus I have ever experienced for the 3 hour trip out to Halong Bay.

Halong Bay, vying to be considered one of the new seven wonders of the world, is located off the northern coast of Vietnam. Consisting of gorgeous ragged rocks jutting out of the water, it is home to some of the most awe-inspiring caves in Asia. It is also home, as I soon found out, to hordes and hordes of tourists being ferried around in their boats from cave to cave.

This was the first and only official organized tour that I have taken so far, and let's just say that it was as good as I should have expected. At least the views were above average.

The first day of our two-day cruise consisted of being shuttled in and out of two large caves, helpfully decorated in colored lights for our viewing pleasure. Don't get me wrong, the caves were magnificently impressive...they just would've been more so if they hadn't had red and turquoise lights highlighting their nooks and crannies. Oh, that, and rubbish bins shaped like penguins. I'm still puzzling that one out.

Post-caves, our boat threw down anchor for awhile in a smaller cove that was happily next to a fishing village and only one other boat! We had time to jump off the sides into the gorgeously warm and clear water, as well as do a bit of kayaking and swimming.

The real gem of the whole trip was undoubtedly at sunset. As we cruised over to our overnight anchor area, next to 20 different boats, the dwindling sunlight highlighted that beauty that makes Halong Bay such a tourist destination. I know my imagination was getting ahead of me, but it looked to me like all of the towering rocks and islands were guarding something. It honestly seemed like, if there was an "end of the world", it would lie beyond the rocks and caves forming their seemingly impenetrable maze.

After the sunset, the boats around us became infinitely more bearable, as they were all lit up with people getting ready for dinner onboard, and looked a bit like pirate ships in the night.

Now, what about the food, you ask? Well, it honestly wasn't really worth writing home about. Better than I imagined, but you guys deserve better than your standard stirfries and really disgusting Vietnamese wine. So I shall leave you salivating in anticipation of the eight-course traditional meal I had in Hue, considered by some to be the gastronomical capital of Vietnam.