Thursday, March 17, 2011

Sometimes It’s Hard to Eat Local

One of the delights of traveling is sampling the food from the various locales you visit on your journey.  At least that’s my opinion.  I’m always surprised by the numbers of people who don’t subscribe to this.  Tour groups are the worst, opting for food as close to home as possible, although I suppose that can be expected.  But what about other travelers who choose to stick with only the familiar?  If you’re going to put out the effort to venture half way around the world, wouldn’t you want to at least sample what the locals eat?

Eating where the locals eat is one of the best ways to experience the flavour of your destination.  In SE Asia this means eating at food stalls, either along the street or at the market.  It can require a bit of an adventurous spirit, but brings you face to face with locals, and isn’t that what travel is all about?  My preference is to just dive in with arms waving and fingers pointing, and see how it all turns out.  Usually it comes off without a hitch, but sometimes, it can be hard to eat local.

Take today, for example.  I spent the morning cycling around Siem Reap, Cambodia, running some errands, and as I was about to expire from the heat and lack of sustenance outside coffee, I spotted a bustling market area.  Counting myself lucky I waded through the piles of fruits and vegetables and headed straight for the food stalls.  It was midday and the place was alive with locals having lunch.  I picked a stall that looked busy and had a series of soupy looking dishes on display.  I pointed at a rather innocuous looking one and was directed to take a seat.

And that’s when things got interesting.  People in SE Asia are small, and seats at markets and street stalls are accordingly tiny.  Westerners are often seen squatting uncomfortably on them, with their knees up around their ears.  The people in Siem Reap didn’t look any smaller to me, but judging by the seat they gave me they are the smallest people on earth.  I may as well have been sitting on the floor.

Everyone else had the same stool, though, and they weren’t complaining so I did my best to relax and wait for the food.  That’s when I tuned in to the racket going on around me.  Over and above the usual market din I was in earshot of at least three televisions and a couple of stereos.  People in Asia only watch TV or listen to music at one volume – 11!  I was being inundated with the dubbed soundtrack to Free Willy, an Asian martial arts flick and as best I could tell a bad horror film (judging from all the screaming).  All that, plus duelling Asian “Top of the Pops”.  So much for relaxation.

A smiling, nodding woman, not the one I had ordered from, approached with a tray of food strangely dissimilar to that I had ordered.  She placed in front of me a plate of rice and a bowl with whole eggs, spinach and meat products.  I pointed back questioningly at the stall where I had ordered, a stall which had only vegetable dishes on display, and she continued to smile and nod.

Knuckles Never Tasted So Good!

Accepting my fate, I proceeded to pick through my plate of assorted goodies.  It gave the term “mystery meat” a whole new meaning.  I’m not sure what animal or cuts the bits with actual meat came from, but they all had knuckles.  The other morsels were gristly, tripe filled and/or congealed. 

I looked around and noted that everyone else was eating sort of similar stuff, and no one was laughing at me, so figured this was legit.  I dumped the whole bowl over the rice and feasted.  This proved to be less of a challenge than I had feared.  First, I ate whatever meat parts could be broken down, which amounted to about 10% of it.  Following that I mushed up the eggs with the spinach (I’m assuming it was spinach), broth and rice and kind of slurped it all down.  Other than the bone shards, this was quite easy and surprisingly yummy.  Again, no one was laughing at me so I guess I didn’t look too ridiculous.  Mind you, Cambodian people are notoriously polite.

About the time I was polishing off my last spoonful, I started to become aware of the unmistakeable aroma of shit.  I had noticed wafts of it earlier, but now it was pretty strong and seemed to be getting even stronger.  There was no sewerage or toilets around, so I started to worry that I had stepped in something.  I was only off by a couple of inches. 

Under my table was one of the mangiest dogs you have ever seen, and it had curled up right at my feet.  My guess was it had started farther away and inched closer as it realized I was otherwise distracted and wasn’t going to whack it over the head like probably everyone else at the market.  Even so, once I saw and smelled it I swung around on my chair (no small feat when your knees are at eye level) and waved frantically for the bill.  I had reached my limit.

Ah, the bill – the other reason to eat with the locals.  My total for the meal, including two iced coffees with sweet milk, was $2.  That’s a far cry from the price in town, by more than an order of magnitude.  I felt much better about it as I rode away.  Now, the only remaining question is whether my stomach will feel the same way.

My lunch spot, complete with ghoulish TV figure!

Monday, March 14, 2011

Honk If You Love Vietnam!

It’s there as you first start to wake, lurking somewhere on the edge of your consciousness.  It’s been infiltrating your dreams, yet as you stir and open one eye, it’s still present.  You pause for a moment to get your bearings and only then does it occur to you.  It’s honking. A lot of it.

Still, the morning is yours, and you take your time sipping a cup of tea in your hotel room before starting your day.  It’s when you step outside and are enveloped by the sweltering heat (or freezing rain if it’s March in Hanoi…?) and have to immediately step aside to avoid a speeding motorbike, and then avert your gaze so as to not show interest to the three motorbike drivers calling after you.  It’s then that it finally hits you.  You are in Vietnam.

This isn’t to say that all there is to Vietnam is motorbikes; there’s so much more, like rice.  Nevertheless, Vietnam and motorbikes are inextricably connected.  The place is full of them, and they’re either honking or being honked at.  Take Saigon for example.  (No one calls it Ho Chi Minh City except bureaucrats, bankers and foreigners.)  The city has between 8 and 10 million inhabitants and almost that many motorbikes.  On the average workday, many outsiders (Vietnamese word for people from the outer ‘burbs) come into the city on motorbike, so the number of motorbikes actually exceeds the city’s population by a fair amount.  That’s a lot of motorbikes

The rest of the country follows suit.  From other large cities like Hanoi, to the remotest village in the mountainous north, motorbikes are everywhere.  They are at the center of Vietnamese life, as probably the most identifiable status symbol.  Put simply, everyone must have a motorbike.  It is considered plebeian to walk anywhere, even just a block down the street, so the Vietnamese ride their motorbikes everywhere

Entire families will ride on a single motorbike, with mom and dad up front, two kids on the back and baby riding the handlebars.  Students socialize by riding around on their motorbikes.  When they decide to stop, they all just hang out on their bikes before they start them up and move to another location to hang out on their bikes again.  I’ve seen everything imaginable being transported on motorbikes, including a full sized couch, large live animals and full grown trees; in rush hour traffic no less.  I’ve even had to dodge them in the heart of crowded markets where there didn’t appear to be room for a chicken, let alone a bike.

The abundance of motorbikes leads to some interesting traffic patterns, because even though they dominate the road, they aren’t the only thing on the road.  Whether in a city or rural setting, motorbikes have to share the road with trucks, cars, cyclos (bicycles with seats over the front road driven by unscrupulous crooks – a story for another day), bicycles, livestock and, lowest on the totem pole, us pedestrians. 

At first glance it would appear that there are no driving rules in Vietnam.  Traffic comes across as complete chaos, with traffic lights and road signs being ignored in favour of incessant honking.  Take a closer look, though, and there are certain patterns that suggest a kind of underground set of rules.  I’ll do my best to explain them as I understand them.

The first rule seems to be that in Vietnam size really does matter.  The bigger the vehicle the more damage it could inflict on anything else in its path, so it has the right of way.  This results in things like large trucks pulling out into a busy road regardless of red lights, stop signs or children playing.

The second rule is to continually honk if you see another vehicle of any type ahead of you.  This rule causes a lot of noise in urban areas, because there are vehicles everywhere.  However, it is necessary because it results from a debilitating condition inherent in almost all Vietnamese people, that being the inability to turn their heads.  This is true.  I swear. 

Since they can’t turn their heads, they can’t look to see if someone is coming when they want to pull out into the street, or do a shoulder check when changing lanes.  (Who am I trying to kid, there are no lanes in Vietnam.  Let’s say they can’t do a shoulder check when they decide to inadvertently swerve back and forth, or decide to exit to the right at the last second when they are way over on the left.)  The worst culprits by far are the motorbike drivers, which is surprising because they stand to lose the most if they get hit by a large truck.  Despite this, motorbikes are constantly pulling out onto main roads without even a glance to see if anything is coming, and cutting in front of whomever they please.

So the honking rule often trumps rule number one.  For example, truck drivers may be aggressive, but they don’t really want to kill anyone.  So, even though they are bigger, their only recourse when a backfiring motorbike cuts them off is to lay on the horn.  They could run over the imbecile, but the paperwork would be endless.  So they send out a warning honk and the motorbike usually clears off to the side.  However, once warned the motorbike had indeed better get the hell out of the way because now the truck driver has followed rule number two and can at this stage run the motorbike over without guilt if its honks are ignored.  That’s rule number three: if rule number two is ignored, go back to rule number one.

And that’s pretty well it, unless, of course, you’re unfortunate enough to be a pedestrian.  Pedestrians are the lowest of the low.  If you’re on foot, you’re on your own.  Just stay out of the way and hope for the best.  This goes for streets, sidewalks and anywhere else a motorized vehicle could be.  They’ll warn you with a blaring of the horn, but you had better be prepared to duck into a doorway or dive into a rice paddy because they are not slowing down.

Despite all of this, there seems to be very few accidents in Vietnam.  The best I can tell it's the result of all the honking and nothing else.  The motorbike drivers may be maniacs that never look anywhere other than forward, and no one seems all that interested in traffic signs, but none of that matters.  If someone’s in your way – honk.  If you hear honking - get out of the way.  It’s as simple as that.

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Whatever You Do, Don’t Touch Your People Making Stick: Vietnamese Cooking 101

What Is Going On Here?
If there’s one thing you’d never associate with my sister and me, it’s cooking.  When I want to eat at home I don’t open the refrigerator, I pick up the phone.  (My refrigerator is reserved for storing stale dated condiments and booze.)  Beth isn’t much better.  So what came over us to sign up for a full day deluxe Vietnamese cooking class at a fine restaurant in Hoi An?  I blame Beth.   Whatever the cause, it’s the reason we showed up bright and early the other morning at a cafĂ© in the heart of the old town, prepared for the worst.

The Red Bridge cooking school offers two single day classes; one a half day session for folks who are marginally interested in cooking, while the other is an intensive all day affair for master chef wannabes.  Beth and I obviously intended to take the half day class, but upon arrival at the meeting place we saw a room full of gray haired, dour faced seniors from Germany.  We were not pleased with the prospect of having to spend the next 4 to 5 hours with that humourless lot.

Fortunately, we spotted four much younger folks sitting at a table in a corner having a lively chat about traveling.  I strolled over to see what they were doing there in geriatric central and learned that they were the only ones who had signed up for the full day course.  Hmmm…  A half day with 20 bitter Germans, or a full day with four fun Australians?  We didn’t have to think twice.

Herb and Spice Garden
The agenda for the full day course consisted of several stops around town to pick up supplies followed by the class at a facility on the outskirts of town.  Our guide Su packed all eight of us (including herself and the driver) into a taxi and we headed to a local herb and spice garden.  It was a beautiful setting where herbs and spices have been grown organically for  many years. 

We strolled through the plots while our guide introduced us to the myriad of flavour accents available to the Vietnamese cook: Asian basil, several kinds of mint, dill, chives (grown for the tourists, the Vietnamese hate the stuff), sawtooth coriander, lemongrass, turmeric…  It was quite an astounding array.

“Yum!” one of the Aussie girls exclaimed while taking in the aroma of some freshly crushed Vietnamese basil.  “No say yum in Vietnam!” our guide cautioned.  “It mean you horny.  Even if you horny, not polite to say to Vietnamese people.”  Beth and I decided it would be particularly bad form for her or me to use the Y word.  The couples could potentially get away with it.  But just to be sure between she and I, everything was “tasty” from that moment on.

A Man With Dual Talents
 The herb gardens are still watered by hand.  An older gentleman was more than willing to show off his well honed technique of filling two large watering cans from a well, then swinging them in unison to evenly water the rows of herbs.  My guess is that as soon as we left he lit a butt and picked up a hose.  Even so, it was still entertaining all the same.

At the garden’s main house we watched women prepare some Vietnamese specialties, including shrimp and pork rice pancakes, and then we were offered a refreshing mint drink.  Our hosts of course didn’t tell us that the little floaty bits were frog eggs until we had all downed our beverages. 

NameThat Vegetable
The next stop was a local market where we would load up on food items. Vietnamese markets are similar to those in most other Asian countries.  They’re crowded, noisy, open air affairs with yelling vendors competing for the attention of hoards of pushy little shoppers.  Everything is on display and in your face, from exotic fruits and vegetables to raw fish and meat (a disturbing amount of which is still alive).

Recently Among The Living
We followed Su through the ramshackle maze of stalls while she introduced us to the various ingredients we’d soon be preparing.  We had an introduction to rice noodle making, and were filled in on the finer points of rice paper and rice pancakes.  She showed us an incredible variety of exotic vegetables and fruit, the names of which I will never remember.  (I was too busy playing a game of “guess what part of the animal that is?”)

None of us had had breakfast, so we were offered a Vietnamese specialty - duck embryos scooped straight from the eggshell.  FYI - they look revolting, have assorted crunchy bits, and taste (not surprisingly) like chicken.

Mmmmm!  Baby Duck!
We picked up the bulk of our produce from the same woman, leading one of the girls in our group to ask Su how Vietnamese shoppers choose which purveyor to buy from.  To us they all seemed to be selling the same stuff.  “Simple” she replied.  “This woman has nice smile.  Looks honest.  I buy from her.  Don’t buy from that woman.  She ugly.”  We were learning so much.

Our Torture Chamber
Armed with bags full of herbs and food, we once again stuffed into the taxi and drove to the Red Bridge Restaurant and Cooking School.  Nestled amongst exotic ferns and trees along the river, it couldn’t have been located in a more beautiful setting.  The open air teaching kitchen was situated next to an inviting swimming pool with plenty of refreshing breezes providing respite from the heat and humidity.  If only the whole spectacle didn’t have to be ruined by a cooking class.

But cooking was our focus, so cooking was unavoidable.  The menu looked delicious, if not a tad formidable: Hanoi Beef and Rice Noodle Soup, Lemongrass Shrimp Wrapped in Banana Leaf, Clay Pot Fish with Fresh Dill, and Grilled Chicken and Banana Flower Salad.  The other students were all amateur chefs and welcomed the challenge.  I was looking for a stand-in who never showed.

Yours Truly Making Rice Paper Under Het's Watchful Eye
 To ensure that Beth and I would be particularly humiliated by the whole process, we had an instructor whose demeanour was a cross between Julia Childs and Adolph Hitler.  Her name was Het and her playful foodie banter was often accentuated by “achtung” like orders to stir more vigorously or pay attention.  She’d demonstrate a procedure faster than a carnie doing the pea in the shell game, then hand the implements over to one of the students and slap our hands when we didn’t do it right.  Beth and I still have the bruises as proof.

Exotic Foreign Cooking Implements
Stir Faster!
Perhaps Het’s most poignant instructions came after we had all chopped up some particularly hot peppers.  We had some pretty lethal firepower on our hands (literally) and she had only our most precious interests at heart.  She wasn’t worried about our eyes or anything as rudimentary as that.  No, she ordered us all to head straight to the bathroom to wash our hands, and cautioned only the men to “Remember, whatever you do, don’t touch your people making sticks!”  I was liking her more and more as the day progressed.


Cooking Goes Better With Tiger Beer!

I liked her even better when after an hour or so she announced “Cooking goes much better with beer!”  At that point she unlocked the cooler and the Tiger Beer started flowing.  It’s not like I was counting or anything, but I believe the tally was four beers down before noon, and at least seven or eight each consumed before Het realized that she had some serious problem drinkers on her hands and promptly re-locked the cooler.

In the end, the class was a huge success.  Our group had tons of fun being ordered around by the cooking nazi, especially when we realized her methods were actually working.  Before we knew it, she had us making rice paper and noodles, grinding spices, folding banana leaves and generally emulating Vietnamese chefs like we’d been at it for years.

  When it was all over, we sat down to enjoy the fruits of our labour.  I’m quite serious when I say it was some of the best food I had during my entire time in Vietnam.  Each dish was packed with flavour, something I can’t say for most of the meals I have ordered in restaurants.  And those flavours were exquisite; beautifully balanced and absolutely bursting on our taste buds.  If the end product was any indication, we had passed our cooking class with flying colours!  Now, if only I can remember half of what we learned when I get home so I can replicate it all.  Oh well, not to worry.  I know there are plenty of Vietnamese restaurants in Vancouver that deliver.   

Best Pho EVER!
Best Salad Ever?  Probably!

You Call That a Banana Leaf?