Vietnamese coffee attempt #1

I tried to use my Vietnamese coffee maker (photo here) this morning to brew a tasty cup of ca phe and revisit my Saigon days (thought it's about 32° F here, not C!) but it was not to be. Two attempts yielded a watery brew filled with coffee grounds, and I ended up falling back on my Senseo and adding condensed milk. It tasted more like strong coffee with milk and sugar -- which I'm not so much a fan of -- rather than the delicious melted coffee ice cream flavor of Vietnamese coffee (if melted coffee ice cream were warm, since I didn't use ice, since as I said above, it's cold here.)

Anyway, I realize I was stupid. First of all, I should have looked online (doh!) because there are plenty of instructions for making Vietnamese iced coffee out there. Second of all, I didn't use my coffee maker properly. Apparently I was supposed to sandwich the grounds between the bottom of the cup and the press apparatus, kind of like a French press. In my non-caffeinated state, I just put the grounds on top of the press, so the liquid pretty much just zoomed through the whole thing and into the cup. Now that I know, I'll try again. But that will have to be tomorrow. I'm too shaky from the two shots of espresso and four tablespoons of condensed milk I've already had to drink any more coffee today!

The last abortion clinic

Yesterday I watched Frontline's The Last Abortion Clinic. Unlike some other abortion-related news reports or documentaries that pick a side or person to profile, this program examined the abortion debate from the context of the 1992 Supreme Court decision in Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey. Casey changed the standard of review for laws regulating abortion from the Roe v. Wade trimester framework (abortions legal in the first trimester and the ability of states to regulate in subsequent trimesters) to an "undue burden" standard. The majority wrote, "An undue burden exists, and therefore a law is invalid, if its purpose or effect is to place substantial obstacles in the path of a woman seeking an abortion before the fetus attains viability."

Since Casey, states have enacted more than 200 regulations limiting access to abortion (parental notification, twenty-four hour waiting periods, etc.), testing the limits of "undue burden." This documentary looks at abortion in Mississippi and its neighboring communities, and the effects of the regulations. It was astounding how much has changed since Roe and Casey. There is now only one abortion clinic left in the entire state of Mississippi.

You can watch the entire report online at the website, and I highly recommend it, regardless of what side of the debate you're on. The site also has lots of ancillary information that is excellent, including an examination of the six major Supreme Court decisions on abortion and a map of abortion regulations by state.

The SE Asia high low

I don't usually think of things in terms of "best" and "worst." Actually, that's untrue. I often say "best" or "worst" but I don't really mean it; everything's "best" with me whenever I have any regard for anything, prone as I am to exaggeration. I guess what I'm trying to say is that I usually don't do any kind of comparative judgment and actually mean it. But Mr. Noodlepie asked us during lunch one day in Saigon about some of the highs and lows of our trip, and I've been thinking about it ever since.

So now that I'm back, I thought I'd give a little high-low summary:

Low: The crab dinner at the Shanghainese restaurant. I think it also qualifies as the low point of the entire trip for me.

High: Our visit to the Big Buddha on Lantau Island at the Po Lin Monastery, eating yummy salt and pepper shrimp on our trip to the outlying island of Cheung Chau.

Low: A Friday walk to Chinatown. Most guidebooks and people will tell you that Bangkok isn't really a walking city, but we're stout walkers and we endeavored to walk as much as possible. One day that was nearly my undoing as we walked (for what seemed like forever) along exhaust-choked avenues filled with racing cars. At every intersection we had to deal with crossing the smoggy street with no crosswalks or in many cases street lights. By the time we reached our destination, I was ready to call it quits and head to the air-conditioned breathability of our hotel room.

High: A tie between our visit to Jim Thompson House and our Thai cooking class. Also high: the food in Bangkok, from street to fanciest hotel, it was amazing and delicious and I wish I had some right now! Bangkok was my favorite of the three cities we visited, and the cooking class probably was the highlight of the entire trip for me.

Low: There was no particular low in Saigon, though when Jason hit his head, "into a metal box hanging off of a pole" that was not so great.

High: Our day in the Mekong was really nice. Also all the yummy French food. Saigon didn't have the highs or lows of the other two cities. Perhaps I was more in the travel groove? Or perhaps I was more out of the travel groove and ready to come home? Not sure. I didn't enjoy Saigon quite as much as I'd expected to, though I have a feeling I'd like visiting the Vietnamese countryside, and some smaller cities like Hue. I would like to return and find out.

All in all, a good first trip to Asia. I look forward to going back another time, once the four-movie-watching looooooongness of the fifteen+ hour plane rides have faded from memory.

Home again home again

After nearly twenty-four hours of flying, we made it back. About half-way through the flight, Asia already seemed like another lifetime ago. Perhaps it was because I watched four movies on the plane (Bewitched, War of the Worlds, Cinderella Man, and Hustle & Flow) and slept a bunch as well. Hopefully a few more posts on the trip will trickle in and I need to go through my pictures as well. And now that I'm back on a routine with the writing here, I hope to keep it up. Ha, right. We'll see. Anyway, it's nice to be back home. I'm looking forward to eating a good old cheeseburger and fries.

There is such a thing as too much of a good thing

For our Thanksgiving the other evening, we headed to Le Bordeaux in Ho Chi Minh Ville (I love that ville, all the French restaurants say that on their menu) for a special dinner. Once our taxi driver actually located the restaurant, things were very nice, if a bit more than I'd anticipated.

We started with a Champagne aperitif and enjoyed some kind of crab amuse in a spoon with dill and a mayonnaise-life creaminess holding the chunks of firm crab together. For my appetizer, I ordered a "Foie Gras Three Ways" (which Jason, ha ha ha, called "ménage à foie"). There was a slice of terrine, a poached sliver, and then a crisply seared chunk. Each was nearly the size of a typical order of foie gras, so when they put the plate down before me, I was both overjoyed and a bit overwhelmed. It was a lot of foie, but it was delicious! My favorite was the seared piece. It had a wonderful crust on the outside but was cooked just enough so that the interior maintained its firm texture. It was the least transformed or adulterated of the three preparations and so its true flavor was most evident. And being a liver lover, I appreciate that!

For my main course, I had a magret de canard with an orange sauce that was sort of marmaladey. And what did I spy atop the beautiful fanned presentation of tasty duck breast? Mon dieu! It was another chunk of crispy seared foie gras! It was delicious, but by the end of the meal (I could only eat half of the duck, and the owner came to ask if everything was OK with the duck when they saw how much I sent back to the kitchen!) I couldn't help but wonder: is there such a thing as too much foie gras?

I love foie gras but it's so rich. Moreover, it's so special. For me it's a few-times-a-year indulgence, and something I really look forward to. Each bite is a nibble of magic. Eating that much at once caused some of its magic to diminish, as if I'd exceeded the foie gras limit. Because I believe for everything, even the yummiest most delicious amazing foods, there is a limit. Six oysters is perfect for me. 18 would not be. Two glass of Champagne is about enough. Three or four glasses and something is lost. A nice chunk of foie gras is just right, and I don't need three.

It reminds me of Thomas Keller's philosophy and the diminishing returns one gets upon successive bites of the same food. The tongue fails to distinguish; the Champagne's bubbles blur or a BBQ pork's tang recedes. Eventually it's just another sip of liquid or bite of liver. And I don't ever want to feel that jaded about anything I eat, be it foie gras or liverwurst. There's a magic that happens when we put tasty food in our mouths, and I don't intend to lose it.

It was in many respects the perfect Thanksgiving dinner: I was stuffed, yet appreciative of what I had. I was thankful for being able to make this trip to Asia; thankful for being able to eat such great food not only on Thanksgiving, but during the entire adventure; and thankful for being able to share it, not just with Jason, but with everyone reading along at home.

Good bye Saigon

That's it for Saigon, and it seems to have gone very quickly! But we've had our final Vietnamese iced coffee and fresh orange juice, and a final breakfast baguette. And now we're on our way to the airport and Hong Kong. A bien tot, Saigon...

A day in the Mekong

Mekong riverYesterday we escaped the throngs of motorbikes and people in Saigon and headed down to the Mekong Delta for a day trip. Normally we don't go in for any tours or that sort of thing when we travel, preferring to make our own arrangements or just winging our exploration, but with our Vietnamese lacking, and our time limited, we turned to the professionals at Exotissimo Travel. They arranged a day trip to Ben Tre Province, including a car and driver and an English-speaking guide.

Ben Tre Boat Trip MapAfter pick-up at our hotel in Saigon, we drove about an hour and a half to Tien Giang, where we learned about our upcoming day's adventures on the big Ben Tre Boat Trip Map. We boarded our boat for ride across the river and over to a coconut handicraft village, where we saw people making souvenirs for tourists out of coconut shells. After a look-see around the place, and a lesson in the utility of coconut, we hopped into a little horse drawn cart and headed to a bee farm.

Sticky rice wineAt the bee farm we enjoyed a snack of tasty tropical fruits and sampled tea with fresh honey. And after much encouragement by our guide, we tried some sticky rice wine, mixed with a bit of honey and kumquat juice. It was potent, to say the least. I can't imagine drinking more than the two sips we "enjoyed" at the farm.

Along the MekongAfter that, we boarded very small boats and headed up a little tributary for what was the nicest part of the tour. Tall palm fronds surrounded us on both sides as we our guides paddled up the narrow muddy river. Occasionally we'd pass people cutting down leafy stalks for roofing and loading them in their long boats. I could have stayed on that boat for a long time.

A Mekong specialtyBut then it was off to the coconut candy factory, where we witnessed a small family production of a sweet and tasty treat. And then it was back into our bigger boat again and we headed to lunch. At a nice restaurant beside the river we had elephant ear fish. Rolled in rice paper with noodles and greens, and dipped into a peanuty sauce, it was pretty tasty. But I have to say, the presentation of that scary fish on the table, with its teeth hanging out and its eyes staring at us, was not the most appetizing. We finished up, and then it was back to the boat, back to the dock, back to the car, and two hours later, back in Saigon. A nice tour, and one that whetted my appetite to see more of the Vietnamese countryside. It would have been nice to spend several days in the area, and to be able to get further away from the tourist sites and visit regular villages and daily life.

Avoiding the microbial confrontation

Our hotel in Saigon produces its own magazine and, in addition to information about the city, it's filled with advertising disguised as articles (adverticles?) for the hotel's restaurants and bars and shops. For those travelers looking to enjoy the best of Vietnam's cuisine without the dangers of illness, the magazine encourages a visit to their "Asian Reflections" restaurant. According to the copy, some of the best food in Vietnam is not the best for visitors because, "[i]t is a question of stomach, of microbial readiness." If you do not have microbial readiness, you can dine at "Asian Reflections" and, "experience the very same dishes -- without the microbial confrontation."

I didn't not have 100% MR when we arrived. As such, I met up with MC (microbial confrontation. old. friend.) in Bangkok a few times. Nothing too serious though. Things have been better here in Saigon, perhaps because I've been eating less off the street. Or perhaps because I've finally achieved microbial readiness, just when we're about to head home.

Feasting on French food

Dinner in Saigon at La CamargueOur first night in Saigon we couldn't resist a break from non-stop Asian food and we headed to Camargue for a vaguely French/European meal. Seated outdoors beneath palm trees on the upper terrace of a villa/house, the evening had a tropical, languid feel. There was an old fan spinning in the corner, dark wood for chairs and tables, and a calm easiness to the proceedings. I had foie gras and gnocchi (an odd combination of starter and main, and one I probably wouldn't repeat, though both dishes were tasty) and Jason had warm goat cheese salad and steak. Delicious.

Last night, we again went French for dinner and headed to Augustin, a little spot recommended by R.W. Apple in his New York Times article, At Ease in Vietnam, Asia's New Culinary Star. He describes it as, "a bistro you might think had been transported intact from 1930's Paris," and it didn't disappoint. My goat cheese salad was delicious, the chevre older than I'd expected and its tangy was enlivened by a honey dressing on the lettuce. That honey richness segued nicely into my ginger duck breast entree, cooked to perfection and not only sauced with ginger but topped with julienned slices of the fresh root. It was a delightful balance of French and Asian flavors. While we were there, a Frenchman came in and sat next to us. He ate a big bowl of spaghetti Bolognese (!), drank a glass of Beaujolais nouveau, and read Le Figaro. It was almost like we were in Paris.

Diminishing fresh eyes

I seemed to be slowing down on the posting, and I think part of it's because I've lost my "fresh eyes," as I like to call it. When we first arrived in Asia, everything was so different, and I felt like there was so much to comment on. Now after nearly two-and-a-half weeks, I've become inured to many sights and sounds and happenings. Which is not to say that Saigon isn't different than Bangkok or Hong Kong, or that there's nothing new. It's just that my lust for describing it all has diminished a bit. Only a bit though, so I'll be writing more soon, I hope!

The magic of Vietnamese coffee

Vietnamese coffee brewing cupOur second morning is only just beginning here in Saigon and since we arrived, I've already drunk three Vietnamese coffees, iced with milk. The coffee was just drinkable in Hong Kong. I blame this on its prior life as a British colony. Bangkok's ubiquitous street coffee stands served a tasty brew, sweetened with condensed milk. But oh Vietnam, the coffees in Saigon, merci a France, are tops!

The drink comes to the table with a little stainless brewing "cup" resting atop your cup. You wait as the coffee percolates into the cup below, which is filled with condensed milk. After a few minutes, you stir and, if you're having it iced, pour it over a tall glass of ice. It tastes like melted cold coffee ice cream! And it's so so so good.

At the market yesterday I bought one of the little brewing cup contraptions, and when I return home, I will endeavor to create condensed soy milk (my coffee milk of choice) in my kitchen and revisit the magic that is Vietnamese coffee.

A great present for a foodie

Charcuterie: The Craft of Salting, Smoking, and CuringBefore I left for Asia, I had a chance to look over a review copy of Charcuterie: The Craft of Salting, Smoking, and Curing by Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn. Many readers may recall that Michael Ruhlman is author of some of my favorite books on cooking, especially The Soul of a Chef, and so I was excited to have the chance to check out Charcuterie.

I'm a big charcuterie fan but haven't yet ventured to prepare my own. My original hope had been to make some of the items from the book as part of my review, but I never managed to have the time, ingredients, and equipment in the same place at once to do so. But I can say that the book is filled with wonderful history and detailed instructions about how to prepare all the yumminess that salting, smoking, and curing can bring to your table and your tummy. I expect to be cooking several things from this when I return and will let you know how they turn out. But please, if you're a charcuterie fan, don't wait for my experiments. Buy it and learn how to make your own sausage and pâtés, and just in time for the holidays too!

When I return to Bangkok

We've arrived in Saigon now, and while our time in Bangkok was great, six days passed in a flash and I didn't have time to do all that I'd wanted. So here's my list of things I missed doing this time and will have to do on my next visit to Thailand.

I'd wanted to take a longtail boat tour up the klongs, or small canals, especially on the Thonburi side of the river. Alas by the time we got around to trying to arrange one, we were told that the river was up too high to navigate the small canals and the tour could only take us up the main stretch of the Chao Phraya. Since we'd traveled that many times already, we decided to save our money for another time.

I'd also read about traditional Thai floating markets. There are some that are close to Bangkok that apparently are quite touristy, but if you set out early or make an overnight trip of it, you can visit some less touristy, more authentic ones.

We saw several wats (temples) but didn't make it to Wat Arun, the Temple of Dawn, and one of the most famous landmarks in Bangkok. It always looked neat as we passed it along the river, and I'd like to take a closer look around.

And the food!! I never found coconut custard concave tarts, or kanom krak again. And I never ate sticky rice and mango. And I forgot to order banana flower salad the final time I saw it on the menu, though every time I saw it I wanted to. And who knows what countless other treats I missed? Hundreds! Thousands!

Yes, it's clear: a return trip to Bangkok is in order.

The importance of language and the experience

Surprisingly the place where I thought the most English would be spoken, Hong Kong, is the place where we've encountered the least. (We're now in Saigon, and so far, so good...) I've been thinking about my problem early on during this trip with the crab, and I think the language difference contributed a great deal to the experience. It wasn't that I was just overwhelmed by the crab, it was that I also felt totally isolated. Before I ordered it, I'd tried to ask the server if it was difficult to eat, but the communication barrier was too great. So I ordered it anyway. And when I was stuck, I didn't really feel able to ask anyone for help or direction.

While I love that travel can make even the most familiar tasks unfamiliar and challenging (say, going to the bathroom when it turns out to be a squat toilet where there's no toilet paper...), it also has a way of majorly bumming me out. Sometimes the ability to do basic things, things I take for granted when at home, can be overwhelming when that ability is lost. Like when you've got some food and you don't know how to proceed (be it crab or some strange container of soup), or when you discover a different type of squat toilet in a new country and realize you only mastered one kind and now there's a new one to figure out and you just really want to pee.

In Hong Kong the day after the crab dinner, we ate lunch at Spring Moon at the Peninsula Hotel. While the food was great, the best part for me was being able to communicate with the staff. I'm a very social person, and being able to communicate and share experiences makes dining more enjoyable for me. At Spring Moon, the server took the time to explain where the tea we were drinking came from. He told us why it smelled as it did, how it grew, how it was an organic tea, etc. And that vastly improved my drinking of it. I like to extend the experience of eating through knowledge. And crab night, I couldn't do that. That's what made it so bad. Well, that and when I touched the slimy claw.

The good thing is that most of our other meals have been more successful, either because the language barrier wasn't as high, or because I ordered something I knew how to eat, or I was just feeling better. The same thing happened to me in Paris before I spoke French at all, but doesn't happen much anymore. It's just part of travel I suppose, and there are ups and downs, good days and bad. If everything were the same as at home, there'd be no reason to leave. So don't get me wrong, I relish the hairy crab experiences and the squat toilets at the temples. It makes the non-hairy crab and the toilet seats all the sweeter in the end.

From Bangkok to the Old South

Gonw with the WindSorry for the lack of updates: somehow I've become sick. At first I thought it was allergies, but my allergy medicine didn't seem to do anything. The sneezing and runny nose grew worse, exacerbated by temple incense, crazy aromatherapy oils at the Chatuchak market, and Bangkok exhaust fumes. By yesterday, I was exhausted and worn out. So after an early dinner, we borrowed a DVD from the front desk, and I crawled into bed to watch Gone with the Wind. It was the perfect sick-in-bed movie, and I managed to stay awake until Rhett abandoned Scarlett to go join the retreating Confederate Army and she headed to Tara with Prissy, Melly, and the new baby. Today, after twelve hours of sleep, I felt a little better, and we managed to see some more sights. But now I'm beat and all I want to do is watch the rest of Gone with the Wind. Tomorrow we're off for Vietnam. As for one big final night out in Bangkok? Frankly my dears...

What I'm not reading in Thailand

Best Food Writing 2005I brought Best Food Writing 2005, edited by Holly Hughes, along with me on this trip so that I would be inspired to write great things about the food I've been eating. Alas, all the walking and sightseeing and eating wears me out, and by the time I get in bed, I can barely manage to read more than a page or two. Still, the book is filled with great food writing, and I'm looking forward to reading more of it when my energy level rises.

Sacrificing my feet to see Bangkok

Ever since my sandal broke on Cheung Chau, I've had a bit of trouble walking around. Yesterday that trouble culminated with me stepping on glass. We were walking down a soi, which is a small street kind of like an alley, and it had a v-shaped indentation it its middle, serving as a gutter. I was walking and stepped on the incline, which caused my foot to slip out of my sandal. And it just so happened that right there was a soda bottle smashed to bits, so my foot slipped off my shoe and into a pile of glass. Ow!

Luckily we were right next to a 7-11, so I stopped and pulled the glass out of my foot and a nice man came over to make sure I was OK. Jason ran for some band-aids and quickly returned. Luckily too I've been carrying antiseptic wipes in my bag, so with a quick wipe, the foot was cleaned and a bandage was applied. The man proclaimed Jason a hero for getting the band-aids, then he admonished me for wearing bad shoes, and told me to go buy some better ones right away. And like that we were off we went again to see the sights, and I didn't even limp.

A visit to Jim Thompson House

Jim Thompson HouseToday we visited the Jim Thompson House, a museum in the former home of an American architect who lived in Thailand for twenty-two years before he disappeared in Malaysia in 1967. The house is comprised of six traditional Thai houses that Jim Thompson moved from various parts of Thailand to Bangkok and reassembled in authentic style. It is filled with some incredible antiques that he collected during his time here, including some rare Buddhas from the seventh and eighth centuries.

The 100 baht (US$2.50) entrance fee included a 35 minute tour in English which highlighted the architectural twists Thompson made on his traditional Thai structure. Since Thai houses are built without nails and in panels, they are easy to break down and move by boat (so people could relocate to better farmland as necessary). Thompson reassembled his several small houses into one large Western-style house. He placed some of the panels backwards, so that the innate carving usually seen on the outside of the house could instead be appreciated by those on the inside. He mixed Western elements, such as glass chandeliers, with Asian antiques like temple paintings and Buddha statues. He also took Asian items and reworked them to create Western furniture, for example two mah jong tables pushed together to make a dining room table. (Thais traditionally sat on the floor to eat.) He also took small drums and turned them into lamps.

Alas, no pictures were allowed inside, so you'll just have to imagine it all (and look at the website). The whole place had such a lovely, airy, minimalist, tropical feel. It was gracious and understated, calming, and surrounded by lush gardens. If I were to live in Bangkok, this is the house I would want to live in. And seeing it made me sad that Jim Thompson isn't alive today. It seems like he would be a really interesting person to meet.

A delicious coconut tart discovery

Coconut custard concave tartsAs Jason mentioned yesterday, we've been eating a lot of street food in Bangkok. At first I was a bit trepidatious, but with each item my courage increased. Everything was so yummy. So when we saw this man at the Aw Kaw Taw market pouring some liquid into what looked like a giant egg poaching pan, I wanted to try them out.

Coconut custard concave tartsAs I approached he said it was coconut, so we purchased a little container of them and sat down. They were amazing: warm and creamy, sweet but not cloying, and crispy around the edges because of the thin crepe-like shell. We wolfed them down, and returned later for more. Today I wanted them again but didn't see them at any of the street vendors. They are on my list for tomorrow though, and I will find them again.

Three photos from Bangkok

As a change from all the words, here are three pictures from Bangkok.

View from the Chao Phraya river
From the water taxi in Bangkok, Thailand

Steamy soup
In the Aw Kaw Taw market, Bangkok, Thailand

Flowers for floating
Floral floats, or Krathongs, for purchase on Loy Krathong Day, spotted by the river beneath the Skytrain at Saphan Taksin. You light them on this special day under the full moon and then float them away on the water. The Krathongs carry away your bad luck for the next year.

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