Monday, June 27, 2011

Journey from the Fall (Vượt Sóng) 2006

Ham Tran's visually stunning Journey from the Fall is not a favorite of the Party.  To date, this film has never been officially released in Vietnam and was denigrated by politburo press outlets upon its release.  At points, it suffers from uneven pacing and some of the drama is overwrought, but this is a well-acted, heartbreaking account of what occurred in South Vietnam after the fall of Saigon in 1975.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Quán Ăn Chay Thuyền Viên

A few months ago, a friend introduced us to a cavernous vegan cafeteria with a modest brick exterior tucked into a coil of power lines: Com Chay Thuyen Vien.  Located at 11-13 Nguyen Van Dau in Binh Thanh District and immortalized by Andrew X. Pham in his noteworthy Catfish and Mandala, it quickly became a regular neighborhood spot for an expeditious and inexpensive feed.

Their wide selection of vegan-ized traditional foods is astounding, plus the tiny, attached shop has tons of strange meat alternatives and fresh pastries to have a look at.

Lunchtime there is packed with a healthy cross-section of Saigonese residents and is the best time to go as most of the dishes are prepared early.  (Vietnamese productivity is usually centered around the cool morning as the remainder of the day is better left to frivolity, chatter, and naps.)  After getting a cold, uninspiring, and stale dinner there a few weeks ago, we decided to keep it as a strictly daytime spot.

We generally peruse the overflowing counter tops to see if any of the daily specials fit our fancy and then supplement our picks with some items from the menu. The menus can be obtained from any of the helpful, yet unseasonably pale and undernourished waitresses (leave a tip!).  On our most recent visit (and the one we photographed) we stuck to the pre-made, counter-top specials.

The "pork" and "chicken" products below look a little bit too real for my queasy stomach.  Notice the protruding plant stalks moonlighting as bones.

A creature of habit, I went for my usual slice of tofu marinated in lemon grass and ginger, along with a side of vegetables and rice.  The crispy spring rolls (cha gio) are also a necessity if they are relatively fresh.

Gavin went for a simple fried noodle with veggies and imitation barbecue pork, but then decided to be intrepid and adventurous and came back to our rickety metal table with some sort of mystery dish.  But we thought, hey, if it's vegan, it can't be vomit-inducing, right?  Wrong!  It was an incredibly true imitation of some hard, stinky, dark organ.  This offal was awful!  Slimy, gritty texture with the gamy taste of the barnyard thrown in for good measure.

Dipping all of our assortments in tasty nuoc mam, we laughed off the mistake and enjoyed our meal.  There is better vegetarian meals to be had in this city, but if you awake in the mid-morning with a hankering for rice and veggies and are somewhere in the vicinity I recommend it.  It's also good for mid-sized groups as there is more room to spread out here then in your typical com chay.

Afterwards, go check out some unassuming, yet ornate pagodas!  We found two just a stones' throw away (continuing up Nguyen Van Dau). Hai Quang Pagoda has a bright, inviting, latticed facade with a massive jack-fruit tree in its front courtyard.  Glorious!

The other, Linh Chau, was tiny and typically ensnared in power lines, but embellished nicely - fearsome golden warriors and stone lions straddling the entrance, Chinese characters emblazoned across the front, and colorful flags and lanterns everywhere.

Uma In Repose

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Domestic Ordeals: Mercimek Köftesi

In a recent post, I discussed the sharp hankering I sometimes get for Turkish food. The other night, that strange feeling returned, and rather than hop on the steed and drive down to one of the expensive Turkish restaurants in town, I hit the internet and started researching recipes.  I decided my first Turkish cooking attempt would be one of my favorite meze dishes: Mercimek Köftesi (red-lentil meatballs wrapped in lettuce).  After a quick stop at Thai Hoa, where I found my tomato paste, Indian red-lentils, and fine bulgur (I actually opted for fine couscous due to the astronomical price of bulgur, but the alternative was perfect) and a jaunt through the Phu Nhuan Market for my produce, I was ready to start cooking.

Thoroughly rinse one cup of red lentils and cook in two cups of water.  Cook for about 20 minutes on low heat or until the lentils have turned to a decadent mush.

Turn off the heat and add a half cup of fine bulgur (or couscous) and salt.  Stir vigorously until they are well assimilated, cover lid, and let sit for a few minutes until the bulgur softens.  Let cool.

In a separate pan, saute a half cup of minced onions in two tablespoons of olive oil until soft. ( I used a bit less due to Gavin's onion intolerance, but the finished product was still overtly edible.)  Also, finely chop a few stalks of raw green onion and roughly chop about a half cups' worth of parsley.

Add the sauteed onions, green onions, parsley and about a tablespoon of tomato paste to your cooled lentil mixture.  Stir thoroughly until the aforementioned ingredients have combined well.

With your capable paws, form the mixture into shapely little logs.

Serve them wrapped in crisp lettuce leaves with liberal amounts of lemon squeezed on top.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Anh Ba Khía

Enter Anh Ba Khía through a tiny storefront embellished with bamboo at 466 Hai Ba Trung.  'The Crab Shack", as Gavin and I have so fondly christened it, specializes in Cháo Cua Đồng, a pragmatic rice porridge teeming with crab fat, mushrooms, green onions, and pork (if you are so inclined).  

After the perfunctory exchange of pleasantries, we ordered ourselves two steaming bowls and took a seat in an over-sized and shockingly comfortable bamboo chair.  By now the wooden motif was slightly overwhelming and we took in the fibrous restaurant around us while our soups were prepared in the roadside, makeshift kitchen.

A straw hut, bamboo wall decorations, woven baskets springing forth from the walls, a vibrant palm tree, and even stuffed monkeys.  The rainforest is alive and well here, blooming forth from a minuscule storefront straddling a poisonous canal and a monolith-lined slab of worn concrete (Hai Ba Trung). 

When our porridge arrived, we were excited to see it accompanied by a type of new swamp roughage and other toppings.

After a healthy dousing of oily, ground chili peppers, we topped our soup with tasty leaves that looked suspiciously like tiny lily pads that fragile froglets perch on.  We also achieved our recommended daily dosage of vitamin C by aggressively squeezing green oranges into the porridge.

I was a bit dismayed to find a chunk of pork in mine; but plowed onwards in the name of hunger, avoiding any suspicious-looking lumps.  We both found the porridge to be filling and delightful.

Often in Vietnam, goodies are left on the table for patrons to eat at their own discretion.  Depending on the eatery, you may encounter packaged nuts, fried breads, or assorted meats and jellies wrapped in banana leaves.  At Anh Ba Khía, their goodie plate included a bag full of Banh Bò Thốt Nốt - thinly sliced pieces of delicate, spongy sweet bread flavored with palm sugar.  A subtle, honey-combed confection that should not be overlooked.

We close today with a small, non-denominational prayer: May "The Crab Shack" prosper and all who have sampled the porridge cross the threshold fulfilled.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

The Purple Mangosteen

Another day, another idiosyncratic tropical fruit to try.

This time around, I picked up a few purple mangosteens (Garcinia mangostana) from the local outdoor market.  The small, fibrous, golf ball-sized purple spheres are rigid and appear to be chronically unripe. 

But, don't let a thick skin deter you - use those digits wisely and apply pressure with your thumbs, cracking through the thick rind and the crimson membrane until you hit fragrant white bulbs.  This translucent, milky flesh is actually the inner layer of their ovaries and makes for a subtly sweet, tangy bite. 

Appearing eerily similar to a clove of garlic, the edible portion of the mangosteen is a true treasure.  After your tireless labor, separate the cloves, and place them in a dish to be delicately savored. 

Mangosteen has been used traditionally in Southeast Asia as an anti-inflammatory and has only been available in the US since 2007, when a long-standing ban on their import (due to fears of sinister fruit flies arriving with the bounty) was lifted.

Saturday, June 18, 2011