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!