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.