Monday, February 28, 2011

What We're Listening To: PJ Harvey

PJ Harvey
Let England Shake
Universal/Island Records 2011

A bold concept album about World War I and its effect on the collective psyche of Europe.  The pleasant, high-register of Ms. Polly Jean's songbird warble may momentarily distract the listener from the resonantly dark lyrical content, but this is an affecting listen throughout.  An indictment of modern warfare at its core, the album is a masterpiece of storytelling that is only heightened by the use of unusual instrumentation and sharp, poignant melodies (the autoharp and zither feature prominently). 

Renowned photographer Seamus Murphy's video for "The Words That Maketh Murder"

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Veggy's Market

Just when I thought I would never find it....I found it, right here in Saigon.  Since arriving here, I'd been complaining prodigiously about the lack of ingredients for some our favorite meals at the local super markets.  I'd scanned and scoured the shelves in vain for such things as black beans, cheese that doesn't taste like plastic, avocados, oatmeal, etc.  I finally came to the conclusion that I would just have to revert back to basics - start making foods from scratch like whole-grain breads and fresh homemade tortillas.  Sadly, I was having trouble finding even simple ingredients like yeast, flour, baking powder, and butter.  It became a weekly challenge that left me perplexed as I drifted down bleach-white aisles, staring blankly at foreign bags of powder written in strange words.  This, coupled with the fact that that we don't have an oven, led to petulant fits of rage as I listlessly looked over my favorite recipes.  Finally, I found myself complaining out loud, in mixed company, and was given an answer to all my trouble:

"Have you tried looking at the American store?"

"The WHAT???"

"The American food shop down on Le Thanh Ton St., they have everything."

Gavin and I set out to find this foodie oasis and find it we did.  We must have passed the shop a hundred times, as it's nestled in the heart of Saigon's "ex-pat ghetto" quite near to one of our favorite Japanese spots in town.

Located at 29A Le Thanh Ton, Veggy's is tiny, cramped, and exhilarating!  The neatly packed shelves are loaded with rare goodies: cake mixes, baking supplies, canned soups, breakfast cereals/oats, fresh grainy breads, etc.  A large freezer near the front entrance is filled with frozen berries, pizzas and a fine selection of Amy's Organic frozen meals for the busy, yet conscious crowd.  For the finicky eater, gluten-free and low fat options abound as well.

Don't miss the upstairs!  They have a fine selection of deli meats and cheeses that are sliced fresh by the gals behind the counter.  On our initial visit, we opted for slices of imported prosciutto (Parma ham), Australian goat cheese, and a sharp cheddar.  There is also a huge walk-in refrigerator space with fantastic produce and some assorted dairy products. 

The moment I walked into Veggy's I felt like I was being welcomed home.  While on the pricey side, I was able to pick up everything I was looking for that day - including flour and baking powder for my homemade tortillas, re-fried beans, black beans, and rolled oats (now I can make my veggie burgers without eggs!).  Gavin had to restrain me from going all out.  Two small bags of specialty items at Veggie's does indeed cost more than I usually spend in a week at one of the local shops, but I will be back soon!

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Black Cat

When craving an American-style "gourmet" hamburger on a toasted bun, smothered in cheese, fixings, and a side of fries there is only one place to go in Saigon: Black Cat. Located at 13 Phan Van Dat in District 1.  Sometime last month we got the first urge and we were pleasantly surprised. 

Following a common trend here in Vietnam, the menu is exhaustively extensive and ranges from breakfast classics and sandwiches to classic dinner roasts and Mexican food.  Breaking from local tradition, the staff is friendly and the atmosphere is inviting and relaxed.

Gavin and I were in the mood for burgers on our first visit.   If you are feeling superbly gluttonous, the "Big Cheese" is a daunting, 1.5 kilo burger that will instantly harden your arteries and land a picture of your ambitious deed on the wall.  As usual, we shied from competition and Gavin opted for the "Garfield", which luckily had nothing to do with assassinated presidents or corpulent cats, and everything to do with bacon, cheddar cheese, fresh ruby-red tomatoes, and a hunk of ground beef.

I went for the veggie burger with a side of mixed greens.  I was delighted by the patty, which was obviously made fresh on-site as it was crammed full of vegetable chunks. 

Our return visit came soon enough.  A creature of habit, Gavin went with what he knew, ordered a Garfield, and procaimed half way through his meal that it was even tastier than last time.

I went out on a unstable limb and ordered the Mission-style veggie burrito.  It was quite filling and fleetingly cured my endless hankering for Mexican food.  I also loved the tarro chips on the side.

According to a boastful sign out front, CNN has deemed the Black Cat one of the top ten restaurant experiences in the world.  Hyperbole aside, you can find good burgers at the Black Cat.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Kynodontas (Dogtooth) 2009

A (pitch)black comedy by Greek director Giorgos Lanthimos.  Not for the fainthearted, but a truly original look at a family obliviously held hostage by their despotic father.

Brilliantly shot and paced, Kynodontas has been commonly cited as a metaphor for the strangulation of personal liberties by autocratic regimes and an indictment against the paranoid, anachronistic tyrants that sit at their helm.  


 It also works as an exaggerated example of the claustrophobia induced by traditionally restrictive Mediterranean family politics.  For anyone who has spent time in Turkey, Greece, et al., this should be readily apparent. 

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Gỏi cuốn - Remodeled

Gỏi cuốn (Fresh Spring Rolls) are one of my favorite Vietnamese treats.  My only problem with them is that they are commonly laden with slices of fatty roast pork and shrimp.  As I'm on a current mission to cut most sentient beings out of my diet, I have taken to making them at home. So, here is a vegetarian Gỏi cuốn recipe for you.
Start by gathering your ingredients.  You'll need rice paper, vermicelli noodles (called rice sticks in the States, I buy them pre-soaked here, but it's easy to do at home), and vegetables for your filling.
I like to get my filling ready first.  I have used a variety of ingredients in the past, but I tend to like my spring rolls basic, so my favorites are lettuce, noodles, firm tofu and cabbage.
Slice the tofu into strips and brown them in a pan with a bit of oil.
Add purple cabbage to the hot pan and cook until the cabbage is pliable.
While the tofu and cabbage are cooking, wash and cut the lettuce and prepare your noodles.  Also, have a small bowl of clean water ready for moistening the rice paper.
Once your tofu has cooled off, you're ready to start making your rolls.  Start by freeing some rice paper from their packaging.  Be sure to do this with dry hands, otherwise they will start to soften and disaster will strike.
Start by taking a full sheet of rice paper and wet it using your hands and a cup of water.  You can also use a spray bottle if you have one on hand.  You don't want to drown them in water, just moisten and bathe these delicate subjects. 
Next make a pile of your filling on the moistened rice paper.
Fold and roll the rice paper, which should be soft and sticky by now, like you would with a burrito.  Stack your rolls into a nice little pile and claim victory by shouting to the heavens.
Some variations I have tried include carrots, cucumbers, red bell peppers, really anything to give your rolls a little crunch.
Sauces are of course needed for dipping.  I like to use Thai sweet chili sauce (mix in a tablespoon of crunchy peanut butter for a delicious treat.)
Hoison sauce is also a fine accompaniment.  However, just a bit of soy sauce with some sliced hot peppers will do the trick in a bind.
Dip, eat, and repeat.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Mui Ne: Kite Surfing

 Mui Ne is situated along the South China Sea, far enough south that the water is warm, yet far enough north that the seas are affected by cyclones out in the open ocean that create a strong, year-round surf.  There is also an unceasingly strong wind that blows along the coast.  While beach combing you may lose your hat or your mind if it's not pinned down properly.  Due to these unique conditions, one of the most popular activities to do along the main beach is kite surfing.  Apparently back in the 1970's and 80's people tried to put kites on everything - ice skates, roller skates, canoes, surf boards, etc. It was a golden age of recreation. While most of these kite-related activities have fallen out of vogue, kite surfing is alive and well where the proper conditions exist.
 Kite surfers get their massive 12m nylon kites into the air while on the beach.  It is a precarious process, but once the apparatus is soaring high above them, the surfers amble into the water with their board , strap into their bindings, and make their way into the angry sea.  Once up, their kites propel them through the waves, allowing more advanced riders to jump through the air (sometimes over 50 meters) and do fancy tricks.
Apparently, the Russians have been doing this sport for years on frozen ponds and bleak, snowy fields, so the entire stretch of the main beach is littered with tall, muscular, tanned, tow-headed Russian men, barking orders at their small Vietnamese assistants.  Mui Ne was only recently discovered by the sporting community and within the last five years the denizens of Sankt-Peterburg are escaping their frigid winters and arriving in hordes.  Each and every menu/paper/ad in town is in Russian, sometimes even eschewing Vietnamese and English.  Vietnamese folks are prodigious complainers, so take this with a grain of salt, but we consistently heard that Russian visitors in particular can be rather standoffish and unkind to staff at restaurants and bars.  Is this a misinterpretation of the thick, naturally harsh tones of the Slavic languages or simply a knee-jerk reaction to the poor service that is predominant in Mui Ne?  I don't know, but at least this takes some heat off of the perpetual whipping boy of the traveling community - Americans.
What a sight to see, a stunning white sand beach, a blue sea full of crashing waves and hundreds of colorful kites flying through the air.  Although it made swimming a bit hazardous, it was worth the risk to sit back and watch people literally flying through the air.  After talking to a few instructors we met there, I think I will bite the bullet next time we're in Mui Ne and learn to kite surf.  I want to fly as well.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Happy St. Valentine's Day

"Mirrors and copulation are abominable, for they multiply the number of mankind." - Jorge Luis Borges, The Garden of Forking Paths

That said, here is a soundtrack for making babies...

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Mui Ne: Jeep Excursion

Our days in Mui Ne were molasses slow - time fails to pass quickly when you're reading under the sun, taking dips in the frothy sea, and wandering lustily from meal to meal.  Our daily cycle of decadent sloth was only interrupted once - and a welcome interruption it turned out to be. We were at first hesitant to hire a Jeep to explore the sand dunes located just 40km out of town.  Early seventies neocolonialism at its finest - being chauffeured around the Vietnamese countryside in an army-issue jeep while bumping obnoxious, driver-provided Western techno.  We had seen many of these cacophonous voyages pass us on the street and it didn't seem like our cup of tea.  However, we had our limbs twisted by a number of acquaintances and ended up splitting the journey with a young, optimistic Canadian named Andrew, whom we met a few nights before at our hotel.
 Our excursion commenced after lunch.  Our driver picked us up at our hotel and preceded to turn up the music as we made our way to the first destination: The Fairy Stream.  We made our way down a dusty alley that passed a local fish sauce factory (industrial wasteland), choking on the thick fumes emanating from the sun-baked baskets until we came to a wooded area, fresh air, and the famous stream.

We gave our shoes to some locals at the entrance, unsure if we would ever see them again or what the bounty would be to collect them.

We made our way up the dingy, shallow stream wondering why we had come, until the canyon began...

The juxtaposition of the burnt-orange cliffs and the verdant jungle were a photographers dream.

Our adventure up the stream continued past the local gangsters, who tricked Gavin into stepping in quicksand and laughed as he fell in the stream...watching a giant fall from grace will get a laugh out of anyone!

We marched up a small hill through a rice patty.

We got a glimpse of the minuscule waterfall at the end before heading back towards our waiting driver.
Our driver continued into the town proper of Mui Ne.  As it turns out, the resort area filled with tanned tourists in bikinis slinking from beach chair to bar couldn't be more different from the rustic fishing village a few kilometers away.  Our ten minute photo opt quickly turned into a nightmare as we were beckoned down to the beach by some of the local fishermen.

One of the fisherman somehow persuaded us to get into his boat.  If you can call it that.  It's more of a bucket with an oar if you ask me.  Very reminiscent of the nursery rhyme...

He took us out into the bay and even had Andrew rowing at one point.  While I was terrified of drowning the whole time, we quaintly bobbed around the bay and laughed at our misfortune (these boats are made for 100 pound Vietnamese guys, not 500+ pounds of westerners).

Luckily our driver was patiently waiting for us when we returned and the tour continued to the majestic white sand dunes.

After a short trek through a swampy, lakeside copse, we stumbled upon the Sahara Desert, or at least a place that looked eerily similar.  White sand stretched as far as the eye could see in some directions.  Feeling like Lawrence of Vietnam, we set out for the steepest precipice we could find.
The activity of choice at the sand dunes?  Sliding down the hills face first on sand sleds (sheets of plastic).  After a few failed attempts, Gavin and Andrew perfected the art of dune sliding and proceeded to do it until they thoroughly wore themselves out.

Covered in a layer of sand, sun burnt and parched, we retreated across the dunes, back through the swamp and finally to a shady cafe for the most delicious Revive I've ever had in my life.  Can't knock it until you've had it.  I also played with a few caged squirrels.  Their lives looked pretty miserable.

After the excitement of the dunes, we were exhausted, yet still had two more destinations.  We briefly stopped off at a startlingly picturesque red river bed.  It appeared to still be active for part of the year, carrying excess water during the wet season down to the sea.

Our final stop on the tour was the Red Sand Dunes.  Although they're not nearly as breathtaking and clean as the more grandiose white version, they were a perfect place to relax and watch the sun fall from the horizon before returning back to our hotel.