Monday, September 30, 2013

Moc Bai - Bavet border curry

Would you expect to be fed well in a restaurant - a shack, really - that caters only to border-crossing buses and has no competition for miles (if at all, given the tourist-herding)?

Of course not.  You expect boiled spam, waterlogged noodles, fridge-burned rice, and soggy boiled vegetables.  Whatever the lowest standard for restaurants is in whatever country you're in, you expect that.  Plus exorbitant price-gouging.  And gruff service.  And touts, if you're in Asia.  Lots and lots of touts.

Essentially, if you're smart, you bring sufficient snacks to avoid the process entirely.

On the Mekong Express from Ho Chi Minh City to Phnom Penh, I was not smart.  I had brought only a handful of mangosteens, which meant that I got to the border restaurant starving and with purplish-red stained hands that made me look like I had just murdered someone.

Expecting absolutely nothing in the way of edibility, I approached the carts and grudgingly ordered a red curry noodle dish.  Prices were carefully written in dollars ($0.75), dong (15000d), and riel (3000r).  The lady grabbed a clump of fresh vermicelli noodles with tongs, plunked them into an empty bowl, ladled out chicken and pumpkin from a big silver pot, and covered the whole thing in red sauce.  Then, to my delight (for the process up until then didn't necessarily bode excitingly) she opened a container of veggies and herbs and started sprinkling banana flowers, fried onions, fish-mint, cilantro, and basil all over the place.

Then, with a subtle flourish, she slid a spatula under the whole mess and flipped it like a big wet round noodly pancake!

Which is why no herbs are visible in this picture.
If I had ordered this in, say, a Thai place in the States, I would have raved about it and festooned it with lots of shiny Yelp stars.  Really!  It wasn't just the low expectations!

The pumpkin had the texture of a good Thanksgiving roast yam, but without the marshmallowy over-sweetness (obviously), while the chicken pieces split between my teeth to reveal miles of unsinewed white meat, a vanishingly rare experience in Asia, where they like their chicken, bony and full of cartilage.

The best part, though, was how heavy-handed the herbs turned out to be.  The fish-mint and the cilantro raced down the side of my tongue like Olympic sprinters, while the bitterness of the banana flowers sat comfortably in the back.

Somehow, the noodles managed to remain un-soggy despite being drenched in red curry, and I happily chopsticked the whole pile into my mouth well before the half hour deadline to get back on the bus!

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Lox and cream cheese saves Dali

The 'Old City' of Dali, Yunnan, China was tourist heaven and therefore (as far as I was concerned) food hell.

Throngs of Western and Chinese travelers pushed shoulder to shoulder down the narrow cobblestone streets.  Shoe-menders roamed the same streets pointing in mock horror at the travelers' feet.  Their faces were theatrically twisted into expressions like the tourists' shoes had murdered their parents by virtue of their shoddiness, and the only way to right the wrong was to stitch up the offending parts.

Tourists caused traffic jams watching street performers strum guitars, throat-sing, and do stand-up comedy.  They crouched at the sides of paths to finger the edges of fine silks and the soles of hand-stitched shoes.  They gathered in cafés to sip hippie-friendly vegan mushroom soup and, at best, eat strange fusion dishes like yak lasagna or or fried spiced goat cheese burgers.  At worst, they shrank away from any foreign influence whatsoever and had spaghetti with thin, watery marinara, or spammy ham and eggs on toast.

There were 'authentic' Chinese restaurants, but these, too, were catered to the tourist throngs.  With high hopes, I tried a few of the row of Bai restaurants that stood sandwiched in between puzzle shops, jewelry counters, and travel agencies.

The first one served me a 'Bai Special Grilled Fish' on a metal platter that was burning hot in the chest, freezing cold in the tail, and soggy in the skin, lying in a pool of oniony, peppery soy sauce.  Its head was bitter, and some meat was too tough to chew while the rest mushed off the bone all water-laden like turkey stuffing.  When we inquired after this travesty, the waitress snapped that this was how they made it.

The second one had snails bubbling away in a tank on the sidewalk, so I took the opportunity to order large and small snails in bean sauce.  They came out so bitter that my tongue physically ejected them from my mouth as my lips shrank away.  Upon a second try, I noted that the snails were gritty with sand and the overall impression the sauce left my mouth was: totally numb.  Not Sichuan peppercorn numb - Novocaine numb.  Dead numb.  This waitress, too, claimed that this was how it was meant to be made.

Street vendors sold me rubbery, room-temperature quail egg skewers and burned, asphalt-textured fried cheese.  A smiling guy at a table outside a bookstore sold homemade custard that flopped around on my tongue like a dying guppy and tasted like glue.  Mango juice was made from syrup instead of fruit.

Of course, this all occurred at prices a good 2-3 times higher than the rest of China.

I was fed up and I was hungry, so I threw my policy of only eating local when traveling right out the window.

I'd heard tell of a German bakery that made delectable European-style rolls, loaves, and bagels, and better yet: I'd heard it had the elusive lox-and-cream-cheese topping!

When I'm traveling in Asia, a bagel with lox and cream cheese is always at the top of my homesick cravings list.  I can't explain why.  It has something to do, certainly, with much of Asia's reticence about cheese, but at this particular time I was in Yunnan, home of fried goat cheese.  Also, China doesn't shy away from yogurt.  So I'm not sure why I craved this so intensely, but I did.

"It's going to cost 100 kuai," I joked with Julian, not actually entirely sure I was joking.

At the bakery, timid, limited-English-speaking staff watched us as we perused the menu.  Sure enough, "bagel with cream cheese spread and smoked salmon" was written at the very bottom, nearly edged out by splashy chocolate mousse cakes and resplendent blueberry pies, next to the high but not totally insane price of 48 kuai.

"Bagel... ah... méiyǒu..." a staff member stammered.  He was right to be nervous.  I was on the edge of leaping across the counter and shaking the bagels right out of him.

A crisis was averted by ordering the lox and cream cheese on potato walnut bread.  While we waited for it to come out, we chatted with a couple of Californians snacking on blue cheese and bratwursts about the weather.  It was surreal.

I failed to take a picture of my quarry, because the second it was in my hands, it was between my teeth.  Here is a picture of it, three-quarters-eaten, next to the vegetable bāozi Julian insisted on having instead.

It may not have been the best idea to bite into the sandwich without looking, because it is apparently German-expat-in-China tradition to line one side of bread with whole lime slices, peel, seeds and all.  The first taste was therefore a combination of heavenly sighs and utter confusion, my tongue savoring the creamy spread at the same time as my teeth were crunching lime seeds.

Once the limes were removed (and retained for palate-cleansing between bites), the sandwich, while not quite akin enough to, say, delicatessen bagel creations to be in the same family, was certainly familiar enough to be utterly comforting.

Soft, pillowy potato walnut bread, with its mild flavor punctuated by pockets of nuttiness,  was almost a better base for the smoky fish than bagels.  The traditionalist in me (note: not a large part) hates to say it, but it's true.  They even used red onions and capers, the latter so alien in China that I have no idea where they possibly could have sourced them.

This fist-sized sandwich alone saved Dali from being a purely resentful slot in my culinary memory.

I suppose that's worth the shame of admitting I succumbed to my American-food cravings and paid $6 for Western breakfast in China.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Frogs in Vietnam, frogs in Cambodia

I. Frogs in Vietnam (Ho Chi Minh City)

In District 1, just to the northwest of the Phạm Ngũ Lão backpacker district, a sign shouted, "CHÁO ẾCH SINGAPORE!" at me from across the street.

"Singaporean frog porridge?" I said to Julian with a question mark in my voice, like he would know,  Frog porridge didn't sound familiar.  I thought it was more probable that I was getting my diacriticals mixed up, like always.  

But I was pretty sure, at least, that the sign didn't say "hello frog" (chào ếch), so we went in and sat down.

Yep, frog porridge!  Or rather, frog hot pot with a bowl of porridge on the side.

Beyond the cliché "it tastes like chicken!" I never heard much of a description of frog meat before I ate it on this trip.  I had no idea what to expect.

Allow me to elaborate: it does taste like chicken.  It tastes like chicken that's been crossed with eel.  And it's slippery and tender and encircled with tiny veins that look like tiny rubber bands holding the meat on the bone.

This particular frog was chopped up and marinated in a thick, syrupy sweet soy sauce that dripped tendrils into the porridge like honey into Cream of Wheat when I mixed the bowls together.


II. Frogs in Cambodia (Phnom Penh)

The frogs in Vietnam were relatively unadorned, and retained enough of their original shape, texture and flavor that they were unmistakably frogs.  The Cambodian dish, on the contrary, was so heavily stir-fried and coated in all sorts of spices that the meat serving as a vehicle for all that spice was practically irrelevant.  Tiny bones flexed and crunched, but that was the only clue.

In a raucous outdoor restaurant that had only beer and Fanta as refreshment options, I ordered something called 'Hot fried with frog', knowing it could be absolutely anything.

Like most of the mystery Cambodian stir fries I had, it came out liberally coated in lemongrass, an assortment of green leaves and herbs, and wildly spicy red chili specks.  This was the better frog dish by far.  It had a bar wings sort of feel, a carefree application of flavor, made to meld with alcohol.  I came very close to wishing I was a drinker.

Instead, we managed to flag down a wandering vendor who was studiously ignoring the table of foreigners and got him to sell me a baggie of hardboiled quail eggs.  Dragged through the tamarind sauce Julian had on his boring vegetarian noodles, they were the perfect accompaniment.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Crabs in China, crabs in Cambodia

I. Crabs in China (Ruili, Yunnan)

Our first view of Ruili's night market came through waves of rain, crashing down from the sky like we were walking under the world's biggest waterfall.  The streets quickly flooded and became streams.  We crossed several in water up to mid-calf.

When we got to the market, it was ghostly.  Tarps rattled in the wind, covering deserted stalls.  The stalls were filled with coolers, which were empty and draped in cloth and cardboard.  Only a few places were open.  In one, one drenched diner sat, bedraggledly sipping a papaya smoothie.

We tried again a week later after a scorching day spent on the Burmese border, watching villagers traverse the tiny border river using unofficial makeshift bamboo bridges or merely wading with their pant legs rolled up.  I wanted to find crab to eat; we'd seen rows and rows of workers packing their little silvery blue bodies up into crates bound for the rest of Yunnan.

The night was clear and the market was hopping.  Vendors jostled for space at the edges of a massive inner dining area, their carts all identically piled with skewered meat, snails, crabs, crickets, worms, and baby bees.

View from inside the covered area, with a solid border of stalls
I wasn't that hungry, because, as I recall, I had had about 40 pork and green onion dumplings for lunch, but the night market vendors only sold their merchandise in one size: gigantic-Chinese-family-sharing-size, for 50 kuai (~$8.25).

Julian, of course, refused to eat any of the creatures on offer, so he was tasked with trying to convince the vendors to give me a smaller portion at a smaller price.  Some were mildly amused by the question (in a why-would-I-even-entertain-that sort of way), and some were offended by it (in a you-want-less-of-my-delicious-food?!?! kind of way).

One, though, didn't understand the question, or else didn't care.  "40 kuai," she said with a shrug and a take-it-or-leave it flip of her wok-stirring spatula.  As a normally utterly ineffective bargainer, I was shocked but pleased by this turn of events: an unintentional bargain!

Chopped crabs, passion fruit juice, mango shake
As the dish was set in front of me and I smelled the garlic and chilies wafting up into the air, all my hunger came rushing back somehow.  The dumplings, though still digesting, became a distant memory, as though I had eaten them in a dream.  It was a good thing I hadn't gotten a half-order.  I ate every last claw.

The crabs' sauce was so dark and thick it was tough to distinguish the basil leaves from the undercurrent of pounded chilies.  At first I tried to dig the meat out with chopsticks, but quickly came to realize it was a futile endeavor.  I pulled a rubber band from my pocket, tied my hair back, pushed wayward strands behind my ear, and dug into the bowl with both bare hands like the sauced-up and hot-oiled crab bodies and claws were nothing more than a bowl of jelly beans.

Before long, I couldn't pick up my drink without it slipping right out of my absolutely sauce-coated hands.  I dug my fingers under carapaces and wormed my way into tiny claw crevices.  I scraped claw adductors with my teeth and smeared my cheeks trying to get my tongue all the way into some of the spaces between organs.

The garlic had been stir-fried so thoroughly that it could be eaten in chunks right along with the crabmeat, which was good since they were indistinguishable in color.  The chilies' flavor had seeped into everything so thoroughly that eating them directly had no spicy effect beyond the effect of the rest of the dish, which was very hot.  At first, my tongue delightedly bounced from garlic to ocean to spicy to herby and back, but before long it started tingling and burning them all together.

On the way out, we told the crabs' cook that her work had been amazing.  She barely nodded as she kept stirring someone else's eventual dinner in her wok; she knew.


II. Crabs in Cambodia (Phnom Penh)

Khmer cuisine is one of those cuisines that hasn't been widely exported to the U.S.  Last year, I was persistent enough to ferret out a few places in Long Beach, but apart from those tastes, I had no idea what to expect when I found myself on a bus to Phnom Penh earlier this week.

Luckily, Cambodia and Vietnam share the custom of, at nightfall, dragging out hundreds of plastic chairs and tables along with countless tanks of fresh shellfish.  They do this in front of places that remained shuttered and gated all day.  A place that was fixing motorbikes at noon might be tossing sea snails with lemongrass at nine.  And language barriers can't stop me from recognizing those telltale shells.

There was one such place right down the street from our hostel.  It was called the Oyster House.  They had a simple one page menu largely consisting of English translations that left a lot to the imagination.  This wasn't unusual in Phnom Penh, a capital with a much higher general English level than Ho Chi Minh City - enough English to have translations, not enough English to have detailed translations.  One restaurant, for example, listed a particular soup as 'Khmer spice soup' and what came out was full of pumpkins, wintermelon, green beans, eggplant, and cucumbers.

My crab dish was an exception, though - it was called "Shake Sea Crab with Salt and Chili".

Which is exactly what it was.

It came out unadorned with any sort of silverware altogether, which confused me for a good minute.  My stomach was rumblings and I couldn't get any meat out!  Was I supposed to scrape the brain meat with my fingers and then stare at the legs wistfully?

No: I watched the locals.  They were cracking the legs with their teeth.

Despite knowing my dentist would wince if she saw me, and despite the fact that some of the legs were spiky, I did the same.  The crabs were small, about the same size as my palm.  Their open heads were full of potent pepper seeds and sea salt; the legs were grilled until they could almost be crunched like BBQ flavored potato chips.  To get the tiny wedges of meat out of their skinny limbs was like performing hand surgery, but ultimately worth it.  The seasoning was simple, but the crabs were effortlessly, lightly fresh, the kind of fresh you only get in the States by paying over $30 per head or by going out in a boat yourself.  Getting them for $1.50 was an experience I knew I shouldn't take for granted.

But they were tiny... so I couldn't help ordering some of the restaurant's namesake afterwards.

Grilled oysters!

Friday, September 6, 2013

Sushi Dai, supermarket sushi, and the sushi in between: Part II

(Continued from Part 1.)

I have a confession to make: I regularly eat sushi from American supermarkets.

I know it's a sorry excuse for what can be a true art form.  I know that if you put rice in the refrigerator, it totally ruins it, and that everything keeping the not-so-fresh raw fish from killing me is a preservative and preservatives are bad.  I know.

But sometimes I get a craving and it absolutely does not matter if I can only fulfill it by eating something that's only as akin to restaurant-quality sushi as a McDonald's burger is to one made with Kobe beef (actual Kobe beef, not fake American Kobe beef).

Last year, every week before my graduate seminar in social psychology, I would go to 'The Cage', which is an on-campus convenience store that sells things like Pringles, wrinkled day-old donuts, powerbars, and slimy old tuna sandwiches.  And, inexplicably, raw salmon handrolls.

They were always terrible.  There was spicy orange sauce everywhere, the cucumbers were often so bitter I had to remove them, and the fish was occasionally edible alone but more often required a full slathering of soy and wasabi.

Basically, everything I am telling you should disqualify me from any pretense of judging Japanese supermarket sushi, but I'm going to anyway:


And cheap!
($3.98 for 8 pieces)
When I was in Osaka, it was hot.  Smotheringly so.  There was one day when I had had just about enough of darting from covered mall to covered mall, looking at stacks of platform shoes because going in the sun would make me pass out, so I went to the supermarket, picked up the first package of to-go sashimi I saw, and booked it home before the heat brought the fish back to life.

I kicked my shoes off at the door, hauled open all the windows, sprawled on the bed, and lifted each piece of hamachi by two fingers, dropping them into my mouth like gummy worms, expecting them to satisfy my only slightly more than hamachi-flavored gummy worms would.

Instead, I found myself with a mouthful of fish fit to be served festooned on a platter at any sushi bar.

Seriously, I would not have been surprised or disappointed had I encountered it in a swanky izakaya or a spare, traditional establishment for $4 per piece.  I would have welcomed it, savored it, reviewed it highly.

And here I was with it between my fingers on a lazy weekday afternoon in a hotel room for $0.50.

The sushi at every big supermarket was this good.  Hamachi, sake, saba, and maguro.  I'm ashamed to admit it, but some days I didn't really want to go out searching for restaurants because I knew that if I wanted to and with almost no effort, I could lounge around popping sashimi like potato chips for a pittance.


Sushi Dai blew me away, and supermarket sushi blew me away.  But the mid-range eateries I tried were surprisingly average.

A hakozushi place in Shinsaibashi recommended by my (otherwise excellent) hostel, was full of old people.  This can mean one of two things, possibly both:

1. It's a long-running establishment with a great reputation
2. It's boring (old people have fewer taste buds - yes, really!)

This one was boring.

Yes, despite its beauty.  Every dish is beautiful in Japan.
The slices of fish were paper-thin and were overwhelmed by the dry, starchy rice.  The eggs were sickeningly sweet and there was that pink-sugar floss in half the rolls.

At another place in Namba, my chirashi bowl consisted mainly of fish that was so tough to chew that it felt like sinew had taken over my jaw and the spaces in between my teeth.

Admittedly, though, the salmon was fantastic.
The moral of the story, or at least the story I'm telling based on my own limited experience (and very shady expertise that has been thrown into question by my enjoyment of American convenience store sushi) is:

Go big - to the famous players that hold clout in the Tsujiki market, to places that emphasize freshness above all else, to places that have a great local reputation - or else just walk down the street to the supermarket!

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Sushi Dai, supermarket sushi, and the sushi in between: Part I

I love sushi.  I always have.

But it's not an easy thing to write about.

Most of its wonder comes from its simplicity; the closer you get to the living, breathing source, the better it is.

And the parts that aren't simple, the years and years of training, the ratio of fish to rice, the stickiness, warmth, and shape of the rice, the way the flesh is cut from the fish and carefully sliced, all take inside training to spot.  Either that or the budget to sample enough high-end sushi over enough years to be able to become a discerning gourmand.

I'm not an insider or a discerning gourmand, but I have been eating sushi since I was two years old.  Until I went to college, I hadn't so much as heard of spider rolls, caterpillar rolls, or the concept of putting mayo or sriracha on sushi.  My family went regularly to one sushi bar, where the owner, Kuni, plied us with extremely fresh versions of the familiar choices: maguro (tuna), toro (fatty tuna), shake (salmon), hamachi (yellowtail), tako (octopus), anago (sea eel), and the like, occasionally surprising us with fresh daily specials like white toro, hokkigai (surf clam), or aji (horse mackerel).

His fish was always excellent and he treated us like family.  He always cut my sashimi into little pieces because I was a little kid - and never stopped, even when I reached well into my twenties.  His restaurant had training chopsticks, held together with a rubber band.  I went there every year on my birthday.

Kuni's sushi was my whole world until I went to college, and it could have been my whole life.  I wouldn't have complained.

But the U.S.' palate was changing, and the same kids who cringed when I told them what I had for my 3rd grade birthday dinner were now hanging out at fusion sushi restaurants to spear themselves some dragon rolls or tempura bananas and drink sake out of wooden boxes while watching the chefs do karaoke behind the bar.  People who had already been enjoying simple sushi started to demand more variety and authenticity (whether those goals were compatible or not is an exploration for another entry).  Restaurants started springing up that served barracuda, Spanish mackerel, halibut, and sea bream.  Chefs started getting certified to prepare the deadly blowfish, fugu, without killing their patrons.

I was 1000 miles away from Kuni in college, and 2000 miles away afterwards, and so I started branching out.  I learned to respect the good fusion rolls (white tuna, avocado, and apples; mandarin oranges, salmon, and chives; and the good old Philly roll were the best flavor combinations I found) and disdain the bad ones (overuse of mayo and reliance on imitation crab meat were the most common offenders).  I tasted the aforementioned barracuda and sea bream at a place where novelty seemed to be the only consideration, and tasted them again at a few places which knew best how to season them to bring out their flavors.  They used ponzu and sea salt and tiny curled shisito peppers and green onions and blowtorches and strictly prohibited me from touching the soy and wasabi.  There was a world of difference.

An izakaya taught me to love the deep magenta skin at the edge of hamachi flesh, while a sushi maker in the back of a grocery store introduced me to battera, a pungent pickled blast of saba and kelp molded onto a square of rice.


Last month, I went to Japan.

When a sushi lover goes to Japan, a sushi lover goes to Tsukiji Fish Market.  A sushi lover finds the restaurant with the longest line and joins it unhesitatingly, ready to sacrifice a half day standing in the rain.

In my case that restaurant was Sushi Dai.  Its line wound in a coiled snake shape in front of the restaurant, allowing the soaking wet queuers to press their noses against the glass and stare hungrily at the people inside.  The overflow from the snake coil was shifted across the street and around a corner, so it looked like there were just a bunch of people with umbrellas forming a queue to nowhere.

We waited.  One of us ran off to get some tamago.  We waited.  A guy ahead of us bailed in disgust after two hours (and he was so close!).  We waited.  No-nonsense workers barreled by with trucks full of crates full of boxes full of fish.

We waited.  We finally got in.  It was 1PM.

One of the chefs greeted the grinning crowd piling in with the loudest "IRASSHAIMASE!!!" and widest, toothiest grin I'd ever heard or seen before, which shocked everyone out of their queuing reverie and into the mood for sushi.

The pieces came out straight onto the bare, pristine, wooden counter.  I ate them with my hands, even though most used chopsticks.  It's strange to say, but I wanted to feel the fish as well.

I present the photos in the order that they came.  (All photo credit goes to the wonderful Eugene, who brought a fancy camera and consented to do the photo gruntwork as I flitted around excitedly from fish to fish like a sushi hummingbird.)

What Tsukiji is known for is its frenetic tuna auctions that take place at daybreak.  This tasted like the result of some seriously aggressive bartering.  I mean that in a good way.  I don't how else to adequately say that this was far and away the creamiest, fattiest, butteriest toro of my life, and I expect that it will never be topped.  This sounds depressing.  It isn't.  I'm just grateful to have gotten the chance to taste it once.

Hirame, or fluke, is a fish I was taught to ignore my my whitefish-disdaining parents.  They did me a disservice if all of it tastes like this.  I doubt it does, since everywhere else isn't Tsukiji.  Snappy and sweet, it broke into thin squares in my mouth.

I had never tasted this before.  The generous portion, trailing endlessly over the pat of rice, even over the edge of the counter, had a flavor like both hamachi and toro but also wholly unlike either.

I have eaten live uni from the shell in Redondo Beach, CA.  I've eaten it marinated in salad.  I've eaten it mixed into pasta as a buttery sauce.  I've eaten it countless times plain, straight from the sushi section at various Asian markets.  This, like the toro, was the best of its kind.  Pinker and browner than the bright orange I'm used to, I was wary at first.  It turned out to be the marinade.  How can marinade make something taste more unadulterated than it would have had it actually been unadulterated?

Live clam
This clam was still waving its 'limbs' as it was set in front of me.  Convincing myself it was just nerve twitchings and not death throes of agony, I placed it in my mouth and let it wiggle between my teeth.  While wriggly and new, I still prefer my clams wok-fried and served with peanuts and onions, Vietnamese style.  They don't have enough flavor, even alive, to make their chewing gum texture worth it.

Normally a hit-or-miss fish, this undeniable hit of a split slice poured citrus and ocean notes under my tongue like a waterfall as I chewed it.

Akami, the lean back of a tuna, looks like maguro, and I normally don't like maguro.  I don't know why this was so different.  Lean tuna's usually such a mealy, vaguely fish-counter flavored bland experience that I wonder how this silky, scentless wonder managed to overcome it.

Spanish Mackerel
 A rare find at sushi bars in the U.S., this seared, flaky, tender and strong tidbit made my top three along with the uni and toro.  Mackerel is unabashedly bold, and this piece combined it with a smoky aftertaste.

Perhaps sadly, perhaps not, this anago did not impress me.  The bones stuck me in the gums and the whole mouthful tasted vaguely like sardines. I found myself thinking of Kuni's sweet, slightly crispy, expertly rolled and patted anago and cucumber handrolls that he always stood ready to make for my mom, as they were her favorite.

I wish I could tell Kuni that even sitting at the epicenter of fresh fish, at a restaurant that had access and choices he could only dream of, and after a meal that easily ranked in the top three of my life, the memory of his handrolls in Chicago still had the power to make me wistful.


Next up, the other side of sushi: sushi from a Japanese supermarket!

Monday, September 2, 2013

Quận Bình Dân, Part 2

...continued from Part 1.

One of the best things about Bình Dân district was how friendly, open, patient, and just plain kind everyone was.  There was a fairly significant language barrier even after my four month crash course in Vietnamese, as the audiobooks I used featured a Hanoi accent, and everyone in HCMC (obviously) has a southern accent.  I could talk to people, but as soon as they delightedly exclaimed that I knew Vietnamese and started chattering back to me, it became clear that I couldn't understand a word out of their mouths.

This didn't deter the people in the neighborhood.  Every morning and evening when we came walking down our small side street, everyone waved and said hello.  And the day we left, unsteadily toting our suitcases down the uneven gravel, people spilled out their doors to say goodbye.

A group of ladies a few storefronts down from us had a sinh tố (fruit smoothie) operation running early morning to late evening, and they always stopped what they were doing (gnawing corn on the cob and gossiping, usually) to fix us strawberry, durian, avocado, mango, sapoche, or passionfruit drinks for $0.60.

Another thing that would happen regularly is that a random English-speaker would show up at the most opportune times and lend their services.

In the local market, chợ An Lạc, I wanted to buy some candied ginger, but didn't know how to convey the concept of 'half-a-kilo'.  No worries, a college student showed up behind me from out of nowhere and negotiated the transaction!

Down the street by the park badminton courts, I wanted to buy a cheese bánh mì to fortify myself for a bracing game of hot and humid badminton.  But I had forgotten how to say 'cheese' (it's not a common ingredient in Vietnamese cooking).  Not a problem!  A worker selling New Year mooncakes came running across the street to translate.

At a restaurant advertising cơm gà Hải Nam in giant yellow letters, the English menu had 50 items, none of which were Hainan chicken.  A waiter rushed over to point out that this was actually a category of dishes, and that I could choose from duck, pork, chicken, intestines, or any combination thereof and order it Hainan style.  Then he apologized for his poor English.  I couldn't tell him he was being ridiculous because my mouth was full of melting pork fat and wonderful ginger sauce.

(Bottom dish) $2.75
There was only one exception to the 'exceptionally friendly' rule.

In a surprisingly spacious area for a place that served only one dish, bánh xeo, I sat down one table away from a group of boisterous men who were getting unabashedly sloshed at 4:30 in the afternoon.  Accustomed to respectful curiosity from everyone that I'd met, I remained open to the possibility of civil conversation when one approached me.

This was not to be the case.  He sat with his face three inches from mine as he slurred Vietnamese questions at me.  When I didn't understand them (I could understand most questions spoken at a clear, slow pace, but Drunken Slurring is not a dialect my course had covered) he would smack my arm or leg with his hand and repeat them in exactly the same way, but louder and more spitty.  The owner of the restaurant looked on with detached amusement as his friends roared with laughter and pointed fingers.

I put up with this for exactly three minutes before I grabbed my food and took it to a faraway table. 

Since I ate at lightning speed to escape this situation, and I didn't take photos lest Drunken Man grab my phone and use it to slap my arm, I have little to say about the food other than that it sustained me long enough to walk to the bò lá lốt I wrote about in my last entry.  It only cost $1, though.