Friday, August 30, 2013

Quận Bình Dân, Part 1

I spent my first 12 days in Hồ Chí Minh City in one of the the outer districts: a far cry from downtown and the backpacker areas.  Bình Dân has the highest population of any district (as well as the highest migrant population) but aside from a few nods to its west bus station, it's not mentioned in any tourist guidebooks.  It's skirted over even on websites dedicated to mentioning things about HCMC districts, meriting two entire sentences.

I wasn't so naive as to expect quaint, undiscovered gems to burst from every picturesque corner, or to return singing the praises of the 'real, unspoiled' HCMC.

What I expected was open friendliness mixed with curiosity, neighborliness, and merely decent but extremely cheap grub, and for the most part, this is exactly what I got.

(Links on dish names below lead to an approximate Google map location of where I ate them.)

The first day, snakehead fish porridge (cháo cá lóc) eased me gently into what I remembered best about Vietnam: its ability to stuff more flavor into things than has any right to be there.  The porridge's deceptively oatmeal-like exterior yielded to waves of pepper and caramelized onion as well as seemingly more fish than could physically fit in such a tiny bowl.  In case my tastebuds were bored, sliced limes, three kinds of chili sauce, salt, sweet soy, and hoisin were of course provided.

That night, after watching groups of shirtless, sweating men play đá cầu in the park, I approached a man with a cart whose tiny sign said "Bún riêu cua, 12000".  What he brought out about 8 seconds after I ordered it had marinated tofu, fish cakes, a glistening blood cube, plenty of crab cake shreds, a plump tomato, and a biting tomato-seafood flavor, almost like cioppino.

Good broken rice (cơm tấm) is a tough find in Vietnam, because the name is applied to every stale-riced, soggy-porked buffet languishing on the street.  My rule is if there is no one cooking any meat at the stall, I don't stop.  This particular stand had no less than twenty grilling porkchops on a knee-high grill by the gutter, plus a bonus line full of old ladies.  Old ladies know exactly what they are doing, so I joined it.

One old lady's grandson graciously helped me order, and I joined the throngs pressed knee to knee at the metal tables behind the cart.  The egg cake relied heavily on noodles and mushrooms rather than Little Saigon's pervasive pork, while the bi was as powdery, savory, and wriggly as I could have hoped.  The fat, candy-red lạp xưởng sausage tasted like strawberry sugared meat candy, which I wasn't feeling, but the highlight was absolutely the fresh-grilled pork chop, whose salty crust broke to veritably ooze meat juice wherever it was bitten.

Last year's HCMC highlight was snails.  I hadn't realized, though, that snail/seafood restaurants popped into existence every night on nearly every corner of the city, downtown or not.  Addresses which at lunchtime were barred, deserted, and dusty transformed upon the setting of the sun into sprawling lots of tables and fish-tanks.

The first snail place I saw in my neighborhood was modest: just a woman throwing molluscs in a wok and a little table set up with about a platter's worth of each species. I stopped to check it out; an eager old man hobbled up and took my arm. "Ốc Hương," he barked, waiting for me to repeat after him. When I did, he moved my hand, and his, to the next bowl. "Sò Điệp," he asserted. "Nghêu. Chem chép. Ốc mỡ."  And so on.

When he had named all the varieties, he seemed satisfied that I was now well-schooled in the art of shellfish.  He shook my hand, said 'Bye!' and was gone, which surprised me, because I had thought that he worked there!

Feeling nostalgic for last year, I got the blood cockles, which she threw in the wok almost as soon as I uttered their name.  They came to the table coated in rau răm leaves, which stuck to the firmly closed shells.  Blood cockles are one of the only varieties of shellfish that don't open when cooked.  You need some serious fingernails to dig their stubborn shells open.  Here, their color wasn't so shockingly red and the texture was slightly more raw oyster than clam.  I also had to discreetly drop a few bad ones on the floor.  Overall, though, it was a happy reunion.

My second snail restaurant was fancier, a lot covered in corrugated iron.  It had chairs with actual backs.  A skinny cat sharpened its claws on a stack of Heineken boxes and the waitresses giggled at my side, occasionally saying things like "Rice!" or "Chicken!" when I got to the relevant page of the menu.  No thanks, ladies - I am here for snails.  Bring me a big plate of ốc mỡ with garlic and onions!

And they did, but they also brought out a plate of seafood fried rice that I definitely did not order.  No matter.  The snails were mealy at certain ends and rubbery at others, but I swear you can put that lime-salt-pepper mixture on anything and cover it with garlic, cilantro, and rau răm and it'll be delicious.  Also, a platter of trứng cút lộn?  There's no better feeling than having waitresses watch you expectantly, waiting for you to gag on an unexpected baby duck beak, and instead ending up watching you pop three in a row.

$3.50 for the snails alone, $6 for the lot
To be continued...

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Saigon's first surprises: Lảu đầu cá hồi and bò lá lốt

Even before I started studying Vietnamese seriously (even before I could say any more than 'hello' and 'thank you'!) I could read Vietnamese menus.  I had no alternative if I wanted to travel deep into Saigon - or even many of the U.S.'s Little Saigons.  

Vietnamese restaurants don't make splashy plastic molds of their dishes and stack them in display cases outside, like they do in Korea or Japan.  They also don't generally like to translate their menu items like they do (with often hilarious results) in China (cephalomappa belly burst, anyone?).

So I learned to distinguish my gà from my cá, my rau from my trái , my bún from my mì, and more.  I recognized the shape of the words even when I couldn't get my mouth around them, and used my pointing finger to the best of its ability.

I've been doing that for over two years.

Imagine my surprise, then, yesterday, when I came up short against a restaurant whose menu was like French to me.

I rocked on my heels outside, squinting at the board that listed its specials.  Nothing was familiar.  Diacriticals danced around collections of vowels.  Patrons clustered around steaming hotpots glanced curiously at me, while waiters enthusiastically motioned me to come inside and have a seat, but I balked.

As my blog indicates, I eat everything.  But I don't generally make complete shots in the dark.  Doing so has historically resulted in (for example):

- globs of fish paste and lettuce
- a pile of raw beef
- noodles with a pat of butter-cheese on the side

So my translation app and I suffered through some permutations of definitely-not-at-all-what-they-meant (metal oil slab chicken, crib wheel noodles, property of horn fish) before I finally remembered that I knew how to say 'head', and ordered something with the word 'fish head' in it:

Lảu đầu cá hồi.

It came out a deceptively small bowl of mostly green, the okra and bamboo hiding in a forest of morning glory.

But underneath, in the depths?

Salmon head galore!

The broth was almost tom yum, with a decidedly sour undertone to its sweet-and-citrus light broth.  The okra had nearly all its slime coaxed out, and its seeds wafted under the cheekbones of the salmon, whose flesh wedges dislodged with one mere poke of a chopstick.

Healthy hotpot for one!


That night, I set off in search of a dish recommended my by a Vietnamese penpal (Hi, Thủy!): bò lá lốt (beef grilled in betel leaves).  My frankly pathological geographical memory served me well in this search: I'd briefly glanced at a stall selling this three days before while taking a random walk, and for some reason remembered the exact intersection I'd seen it at.

The stand was nothing more than a 3X1 foot counter with a hot grill wobbling alongside.  But the smell... it filled the block.  Duck porridge, broken rice, and phở stands had their scents summarily overwhelmed by the aroma of fatty beef melting and sizzling inside their leaf wrappers.

I ordered one order, thinking I would get a five-leaf skewer of wraps, but what was carried to my table was this:

Just out of frame on the right is a MASSIVE plate of herbs - almost bigger than all the rest of it put together
 Ten crackling sausages of beef.  Ten cigarette-shaped green-black betel leaves filled with beef.  Sweet soy with chilies.  Crab paste softened with peanut sauce.  A bowl of noodles tossed with chunks of pork skin and fat.  And of course, enough herbs, lettuce, sour starfruit, and cucumbers to feed a whole army of discerning rabbits.

As helpful onlookers crowded around, trying to make Julian the vegetarian understand that he needed to dip his beef into his crab paste, rather than pick fastidiously at the bowl of noodles, trying to rustle them free of the pork pieces, I grabbed my rice wrappers and dug in.

Vietnam loves its leaves.  It occurred to me as I was masticating like a gorilla lounging around beneath banana trees that I was essentially eating beef wrapped in a leaf (betel), covered in three more leaves (basil, mint, and saw-leaf), all placed in another leaf (lettuce), and stuffed in rice paper.

I guess that's how I always manage to feel so healthy and vibrant after eating platefuls of the fattiest, oiliest, most flavorful meat while squatting precariously on plastic stools!

Monday, August 26, 2013

Shanghai pooh-poohs my well-laid plans

I approached my Shanghai meal itinerary with all the precision of a Swiss watch-maker.  Shanghai's a huge city, I reasoned, and I couldn't just go wandering off into a random corner of the city and expect it to impress me (as my usual strategy goes).  I only had four days, and only the best would do!

I scoured food blogs and newspaper features, noting the dishes and restaurants that made me drool.  I wrote down their addresses and their hours.  I drew circles around sections of my printed out subway map and plotted out walking directions.  I showed the characters for each dish to my Mandarin speaking partner and had him confirm he could pronounce each one.

Visions of myself flitting freely from place to place, one hand filled with hairy crab dumplings, the other filled with pork mooncakes, with a baggie of tofu soup swinging from my arm and the city's best egg custard in my mouth filled my brain as I had the breath squished out of me on the subway.

China had other plans.

I skipped up to the hairy crab dumpling place, whose sign faithfully listed the characters I'd written down.  There was even a picture of the dumplings - orange roe brightly decorating the swirled noodly baskets.  But no: "We don't have any," barked the man behind the counter.

You don't have any of your flagship dish?  Well, OK.  No need to apologize or explain why, I guess!

Only slightly daunted, we set off for the egg custard place.  Yum yum, giant Portuguese style egg tarts, the likes of which Shanghainese bloggers can't stop raving about!  Brilliant yellow-orange custard with spots of brown where the sugar has caramelized!

Except the address was a clothes store.

Moving slightly more warily now, we approached the pork mooncake window, which wasn't too far.  In fact, we could see the line spiraling out into the street from a few blocks away.  Happy customers darted off holding baggies full of steaming, fresh pork mooncakes as the people who'd been in line right behind them...

...just kidding, there aren't any lines in China.  But the people who'd been elbowing and squirming and shouting and pressing their way up to the window managed to laboriously obtain their own baggies of gold.

I joined the thrum.  My height gave me an advantage; I watched the buns, hot and fresh on a silver try, get stuffed into bags and handed off.  I threw elbows with the best of them.  I slowly inched closer to the front.  And when I got there...

They had just sold the last bun of the day.  "No, no, no more," the lady behind the counter said brusquely, waving both her hands in front of her face like she was shooing away flies.  "Tomorrow," she added when pressed, like this was a viable solution, like we hadn't taken three subway lines and a two hour meandering walk to get there already.

It was a long, long way to the place that was meant to sell tofu flower soup, and it was something of a torturous walk.  Not having eaten anything all day, we were slogging along at a glacial pace - even more glacial than everyone else's normal 100 degree walking speed.  (I stubbornly insisted on eating only what was on my list, which turned out to be very stupid.)  

The tofu flower place, however, existed!  And it was open!  And it had tofu flower soup on the menu!  Finally - delicate dried shrimp sprinkled over curls of curdled soy, pickled radishes forming the flowers on the top!

Nope.  A nightmare of glass noodles, MSG, and sweet soy.

It's a good thing I learned these paired lessons on only my second day in China:

Never expect to find what you're looking for.  If you see something good in front of your face, seize it.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Assault by pepper: My first day on the Chinese-Burmese border

Rarely do I manage to escape a cluster of street stalls without fistfuls of mystery to-go bags, but Ruili’s local farmers’ market so overwhelmed me that I managed it.

People fanned spits of rotating ducks and chickens, the air heavy with dry spiced smoke. The woman at the first duck stall waved her cleaver menacingly as she told us how she’d cut and price the duck, but she good-naturedly offered me one of a bucket of tiny chili-soaked crabs as a taste when I expressed interest. The crab was a thumb-sized bomb of pure red spice, its meager flesh holding the oil of so many peppers that my nose, shocked, immediately started running so aggressively I had to use up my entire day’s supply of toilet paper.
Women sat surrounded by bowls of green salad-looking dishes, and after much deliberation, I chose two to sample as I wandered. Despite the vendor’s assurances that these were dishes and not spices, even though they came in plastic bags with no chopsticks, the first was a dense mass of cilantro and pepper seeds that would have been fiery even as a teaspoon in a pot of something much bigger, and the second was not much milder. Wishing I could magic the bags home to my mom, who would quickly figure out how to blend them into something, we kept walking. A beggar asked for my dishes/spices, and I gladly acquiesced, hoping he knew what he was getting into, and it started raining.

The covered section of the market was a muddy, sloshing gymnasium-sized gathering of butchers, vegetable vendors, breakfast stalls, and oddities (the most notable of which was a large, uneven-looking rock that its vendor explained was actually an anthill. One apparently hacks off a piece of anthill, boils it, and eats it. Next door to the anthills were mushrooms so large they appeared to have morphed into wooden tree trunks.

Indoor market
Tree trunk mushrooms
Unfortunately lacking in places or pots in which to boil an oversized anthill for lunch, we left the market (via boards laid across the flooding ground) and found a place that advertised Thai-style chicken on its sign, but actually drew us in with bowlfuls of fresh fruit on the counter, plus an extensive fruit juice menu. Buoyed by the sudden realization of my proximity to Burma - less than 6km away - I ordered tea leaf salad. It came out thick and a pastelike dark green, its leaves weighed down as though painted onto the plate. The dish was dotted with bright red circles of pepper, though the owner claimed they were merely decorative and the spice came from the green. Based on the care which I had to take to keep my lips from catching fire and falling to the ground, the green paste was likely distilled from ghost peppers. The only thing that saved me was the tall glass of passion fruit juice, which I saved from the inevitable Chinese Sugar Spoon of Overkill by claiming I wanted it ‘sour’.

Tea leaf salad in front, vegetarian rice embarrassment in back, smoothies standing guard.
I would not be granted a respite from spiciness for dinner.
Dai Dai Xiao Diao, a lushly decorated Dai minority restaurant next to a blind massage parlor (where I received my first gua sha of the trip), advertised Lao-style roast fish and though I knew what that would entail - dry red spice rubbed on the outside, gut cavity stuffed with wet green spice - I went for it.

As though the dry and wet spice weren’t enough, the fish came (along with lettuce leaves, fried garlic and mung beans, a mystery fish-mint cousin, and cilantro) with a mildly foamy orange sauce for dipping, a mere drop of which sent my nose into evacuation mode yet again.

Spying on my distress from a corner, our waiter very kindly dropped off a different dipping sauce which he claimed was not spicy. Though totally untrue objectively, when compared with the habanero lava lake, it indeed gave mostly the impression of lemongrass and garlic.

(I should reiterate here that I am the person who regularly gets into near-altercations with Thai and Chinese restaurants in the U.S. who are reluctant to make my food spicy enough.)

However, with the lemongrass dipping sauce, the fish made an extremely satisfying dinner. Dragon-backed and with almost no bones to speak of except for a robust rib cage, its flesh was easy to dig out, place in the lettuce leaf, and sprinkle with trimmings. The flesh alone was white and mild, but smeared in dry spice, soaked in wet spice, wrapped in leaves, and sprinkled with beans and garlic, it came alive in the kind of way that only really overwhelmingly flavorful meals can.

When what should by all rights be way too many axe-wielding ingredients somehow settles down, smooths out, and hits your throat as a unified whole, you know the chef really knows his stuff.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Betraying Japanese river fish

In slippers, we padded eagerly down the stairs and into the dining room of our minshuku.  Each table was set with what looked from far away like dozens of hot plates, platters, stone pots, and side dishes.  I found it difficult to maintain Japanese composure, and would rather have leapt into the dining room yelling with excitement than what I did do, which was glide in as Japanese and refined a way as I could manage.

We seated ourselves, poker-faced.  A man came by to light the flames beneath our hot plate and our bowl of soup.  The candles burned steadily, setting the soup to bubbling and the hot plate to spattering.

And as I dodged hot oil from my exploding fatty beef slices and Shimeji mushrooms, I noticed something.

Those fish... the ones near the right, the whole ones with sea salt so artfully crusted on their fins and tails...

Younger versions of them had just been hanging out with me in the river that morning.

Kawayu Onsen, in Wakayama province, is a town built along a bend in a mountain river where boiling water comes bubbling up in tiny spurts through cracks in the riverbed.  The water is generally cold, but when the pebbly bottom is disturbed, either by a too-aggressive wiggling toe or by a hired hotel bulldozer come to forcibly create baths, boiling water comes shooting forth, either mixing with the cold to form a comfortable bath, or scalding whatever unfortunate skin unveiled it.

I had found a comfortably shallow, smooth-stoned lounging place with hot bubbles surrounding me and heating the water to body temperature.  I was leaning back against a rock, enjoying the tingling feeling of what I thought were bubbles bursting against my skin, only to find out that hundreds of little silvery fish were darting around my limbs, trying to eat up my freckles.

It was a guilty realization for sure that night when I realized my tiny massaging friends' parents were on my plate.  It was even worse when I realized the fish heads were bitter and inedible.  I sucked the salt off their fins and crunched their tails, hoping that savoring at least that much of them would make my betrayal worth it.

As for the rest?

Being a devotee of the wonderful, country-style Domo Restaurant in Denver, as well as an unabashed fan of most Japanese dishes, I was shocked to find that the country-style food in the actual Japanese countryside was not, generally, my cup of tea.  Not dinner that night, not breakfast the next morning, and not even the beautifully presented bento-style lunch pack they tucked into our hands as we left to take another dip in the river before our bus back to town.

While everything we ate looked like a whimsically wrapped present, it boiled down to two basic flavors: vinegar (pickles) and soy.  When food was not pickled or marinated in soy, it was left to fend for itself.  This, of course, works when ingredients are very fresh, but there was no evidence that these were.  (Though I will allow that the eggs were, as I didn't die after eating a big bowl of rice with a raw egg cracked in.) 

That's what you do when your bowl has a raw egg in it!
After my third meal in a row of vinegared something, usually rice, topped with soy-covered something else, usually some kind of fish, egg, or mountain vegetable, I was more than ready for southeast Asia to swoop out of the sky and rescue me with some lemongrass, or chili peppers, or fish sauce, or basil leaves, or something.

Lunch bento, layer 1.
Luckily (as you shall soon see), it did!

Emerging from the Great Firewall

So China slapped me with a full Blogger ban this year, which I wasn't expecting.  Last year I was able to change the .com on the end to a .kr or .hk, and if that failed, use the mobile app, but the Great Firewall apparently grew wise to my shortcuts between 2012 and 2013.  I was unable to access anything Google-related at all.

Therefore, the posts that follow will be a mishmash of finishing touches on now-ancient Japanese thoughts, accounts of Chinese dining experiences over the past month, and the Vietnamese adventures I'm having now.  They will be in no order whatsoever.  But they will come.

And if you're still here after my long unexplained absence, thank you.