Friday, May 8, 2015

Lotus Field Feasting

I took a(nother) trip down to the Mekong Delta last week with my friend and student Hieu. I don't know exactly where we were, and Siri didn't either, and the best Google maps just said 'location unknown'. So I can't be more specific or help you find this place, sorry. I'm positive I couldn't find it again if my life depended on it.

One of the day trips we did from our little home base was to this restaurant in the middle of a lotus field. I don't know what it was called, I'm not even sure if it had a name. We had to drive a couple hours to find it and then down a long, narrow, single-car-spaced road raised above the rest of the river/swampy ground. Then we parked the car and walked a few minutes to get to the restaurant itself.

 Pictures can describe the setup much better than words can!

Every group got their own little hut/pavilion and a double-sided, single-page laminated menu. A lot of the food was lotus-related. The main course was fish, which could be seen swimming around in the pond over which we walked to get to our pavilion. Talk about farm-fresh!

Then the food was brought out to us in baskets when it was ready.

The walkways were pretty narrow, and I promise you, would pass exactly no safety inspection or regulation in the US. Oh, well. What's life without a little danger?

 We had a little pot of coals on which to cook our soup, plus some bowls of rice, two big white fish, vegetables, and rice paper that you dip in water to soften, then wrap things in to make spring rolls.

 Here is me un-ironically wearing a leaf as a hat. It was 38C/101F and there was no AC or even fans.

There was a raised patch of dry ground and you could walk on it through the lotus fields.

Our total came to something like $30 for fresh lunch for five people. Great, simple meal.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Indian cooking class

I took a cooking class! Hooray for updating my housewife CV.

Seriously though. I decided that while I'm living in Asia I should learn how to make ethnic foods from a Real Live Asian Person. Sure, I could look up recipes on the Internet and bumble through them on my own (which I frequently do), but why not take advantage of having so many different kinds of people living here, and their superior knowledge, while I can?

So that's what I did. I asked around for anyone teaching any kind of Asian cooking: Thai, Vietnamese, Chinese, Cambodian, Indian, etc. A few people recommended me to contact Sassy Kitchen, run by a lovely lady called Riccha, and when I called, she said she had an open space in an Indian class she was teaching coming up. 

I signed up.

The class was scheduled to last for two hours and cost 400k VND/$20 USD, including all materials and ingredients. Woohoo! 

The first thing Riccha did was to explain a few of the many, many kinds of Indian spices.

 Red chili powder next to the mustard seed (imagine how many mountains you could move with that), coriander seed powder, cumin seed and um, a couple others that I don't remember. One of them was ginger. I think.

After that Riccha showed us how to mix dough for paratha, which was easy and required no yeast. We made the dough and then let it sit while we moved into the kitchen for the mains.

I'm not going to go into precise detail about every step but if you're interested, you can find the full recipe here. For the butter chicken you have to shallow fry it and cook it about 90% then set it aside while you make the paste, which takes longer.

I apparently neglected to take pictures of the paste-making process, probably because I was paying such rapt attention to Riccha at the time, if that's a good excuse. Refer to the recipe for details. Essentially you use the leftover oil from the chicken fry and add a number of other spices, plus tomatoes, onions and cashews, let it simmer, then grind it all up in a blender for the thick paste you might be familiar with if you eat curry regularly. There are a couple of different kinds of curry; some have a thin gravy, but this recipe has a thicker one.

Next we sliced potatoes and coated them with salt, coriander and red chili powder, then set them in a butter/oil mixture to fry, flipping them once after a few minutes.

 They look like apples but they're not. PO-TA-TOES.

Once the chicken and potatoes were done, we rolled balls of dough to make paratha. Once we rolled a plain ball of dough out, we lightly coated it with oil, pressed some fresh coriander/cilantro into it, folded it up like a little parcel, and rolled it out again into a circle (or vague mutated square-ish shape, in my case).

Riccha showed up how to fry them up once and then we did the rest of them ourselves. Both those in the pans are just about finished.

Tada! The completed butter chicken to the left and potatoes to the right, garnished with coriander/cilantro. 

Note about that: my family had an unexpectedly passionate argument about whether coriander and cilantro are the same thing and it was never fully resolved, so leave me a comment and give me your opinion on the subject, unless it's different than my opinion, in which case I don't want to hear it. I think the two are interchangeable because it's sold under the name 'coriander' here and it's definitely the same thing as 'cilantro' in the States. Also my English friends use 'coriander' exclusively. Some of you cooking fiends would probably know better than I would. Anyway. You're the judge, although I make no promises about adhering to whatever conclusions you may come to.

Group shot! I'm thinking of turning us into a reality show called Six and a Half Asians. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Asian? The possibilities are endless, and yet somehow the studios aren't returning my calls.

Over and out!

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Everday Life

 Somebody guilt-tripped me into writing this blog post. I'm not going to name names. You know who you are.

 Anyway, I was persuaded by the anonymous entity who is not anonymous to anyone following the link from my Facebook page, which is probably most of you, to write this post. My argument that I have not gone anywhere or done anything interesting recently was apparently insufficient.

So here it is. A series of pictures which, all jokes aside, I was perfectly happy to put together, having been convinced that people would find it interesting.

Most of them are not connected with each other. They're just photos I took while out and about in the city and are a pretty solid demonstration of everyday life for me.

To start, here's where I live, in District 7.

 My garden and courtyard! I rent from a lovely Vietnamese family who all speak good English. I'm incredibly glad to have found them. Where I live is like a small apartment attached to the main house, except with a private entrance, private gate, etc. The gray wall you can see above separates my apartment from the main house.

 I absolutely love living here. I'm going to miss it when I eventually leave this country.

Relatively tidy kitchen.

Aaaaand here's my motorbike/scooter. Nothing particularly flashy, but it gets me around, and gas is about $2 a week :-)

Up next is my gym. I know how boring that sounds. It looks like every gym in America, but that's why I wanted to include it - so you guys could see how advanced some of the things over here in this developing country are. It's on the first and second floors of one of these high-rise towers called Sunrise City.

Interior shot below.

There are weights and yoga and zumba classes, too, but I didn't think you needed the whole nine yards for this particular thing. You know what a gym looks like. I'm sure there's a joke about New Year's resolutions and fitness in there somewhere.

This is the view from the treadmill which, yes, I do use, thank you very much.

Here is something a little more interesting. This is the view from a corner of the gym. It's a construction site building new luxury homes and apartment buildings. If you look straight ahead you can see little huts or shacks that look like temporarily rest areas for the workers. They're not. The workers often live there, sometimes for months at a time, and sleep in hammocks strung up between supports. I don't know exactly how much they get paid but it's typically an amount that would barely cover a fancy drink at Starbucks - per day.

This is your average parking lot. When you go somewhere, they give you a paper slip with your plate number written on it. When you leave, you have to hand the security guard the paper plus the parking fee, which is usually 3,000 - 5,000 VND...fifteen to twenty-five cents USD. If you're somewhere a bit nicer like the luxury malls they have a machine where they scan a card and give it to you, which you have to then give to the guard on your way out. The card connects somehow to the cameras in the machine so they can make sure you are taking your own bike out and not someone else - it's an anti-theft measure, which I probably should have said in the first couple of sentences. Talk about burying the lede.

Anyway, car parking lots do exist, but only rich people have cars because on average cars cost about 3x as much as they do in the States because of taxes. A Mercedes that costs $45,000 in the US will cost someone here about $120,000.

This was taken from my old house. The safety measures in most of this part of the world consist of 'don't do anything stupid and if you do whatever happens is your fault'. No one bats an eye at this sort of behavior. She's about three stories up, by the way. And she literally just climbed out of a window to get there.

Small, outdoor and non-air conditioned cafes like this are a dime a dozen. Maybe more common than that, even; there are usually four or five to a block. They have little chairs and serve coffee and tea and sometimes little pastries.

What I'm drinking in that picture is called cafe sua da, which is coffee with sweetened condensed milk. It's great! I can't believe we haven't done that in the States. Regular black coffee is just cafe da. And it is like a shot of espresso - one cafe sua da will have me bouncing off the walls for a couple of hours after I drink one, and this is from someone who had generally thought herself immune to caffeine after years of reckless coffee consumption.

Rainy season! This happens between May and September approximately, a bit like our hurricane season. You just expect the streets to flood. You expect to get wet. Less of a problem if you have a car, which I don't.

This is right outside my house. I didn't realize the streets had flooded so I opened my gate intending to go to the store, took one look, went 'haha nope' and turned right back around and went inside.

Street food is ubiquitous here. I don't eat much of it mostly because I enjoy cooking on my own but when you want a cheap, tasty meal or snack, street food is the way to go. The soup below was 75 cents.

Next is a meal I made on my own, a variety of shabu shabu aka hotpot. You take thin sliced beef, or sea food, or just vegetables, and boil/cook them in a broth base. I like to wrap the beef and vegetables in softened rice papers as shown in the upper left hand corner photo, to make sort of spring rolls. You can add noodles, too, or rice, at the end. It's incredibly healthy and it's very filling!

Finally, below, just for fun is a passive-aggressive trash can judging your choices, found at a nearby grocery store.

So there you go, Rev. Freddy...oh, I named names after all. Oops. Anyway, I hope this post lived up to your expectations. If it didn't don't tell me.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Singapore Botanical Gardens & Supertree Grove

This post is dedicated to grandmother Joanne and to the memory of my grandmother Lucy for their great love of all different kinds of flowers and growing things. :-)

Sunday I was tired from the adventures of the previous day so I slept in a little later til about 8:30 and then convinced myself to get up and enjoy the day.

I planned to go to the Singapore National Botanic Gardens, because they're free! :-) I also intended to mail some post cards and one of the few post offices open Sundays was, incidentally, very near the bus stop I planned to use to reach the gardens.

The gardens are near Orchard Ion shopping plaza. Now, in case you're not familiar with Orchard Road, it is an absolutely stunning stretch of every material good one could possibly want. If you had the funds for it you could probably spend weeks there. I had the funds for about an hour, if we were to measure it that way, so I didn't buy much!

This is Ion Orchard, and it houses all the top brands and fashion houses of the world - you know, the ones with huge stores with only, like, four things in the whole place, low lights and beautiful salespeople. My personal take on it is that the farther apart things are spaced in a shop the less likely I'll be able to afford anything there. Cause those Chanel bags, I guess maybe they only need to sell one a day because they're so expensive. 

Here's a picture of some gelato, just for fun. I got there right as the place opened so the huge mountains of gelato were perfectly intact. :-)

I actually ended up wandering around Ion for a lot longer than I intended, meandering in slack-jawed awe at 'deals' advertised such as 'spend $5,000 in a single day and get a free limo ride to the airport!'. I kid you not. Part of the wandering was that I got lost in the mall more than once, and part of it was that outside was REALLY hot and inside Ion was icy cold, exactly the way I like it. 

Anyway, I had a coffee at Dunkin Donuts. Every single other restaurant was either 5-star style dining or casual but upscale cafes, where was found the $20 scrambled eggs. To be fair, the eggs were cooked in white truffle oil, so...I guess that's worth it? Anyway, I did not indulge in rich person eggs partly out of principle but also out of the fast-shriveling sensation happening in my wallet. Dunkin Donuts is good enough for me for now :-)

I went to the concierge and asked for directions to the bus stop and from there, to the gardens, and she provided hand-written instructions on the location of the bus stop from where we were and which bus to take, etc. Bus rides in Singapore are $2 each no matter the destination or duration.

It was a 10 minute walk from the bus stop to the gardens, but in the sweltering heat and thick humidity, it felt much longer. My feet dragged and I wondered if I wasn't better off inside Ion, even if I couldn't afford to buy anything or eat anything. At least the air was free. And the AC, which seemed at least as important as air at that point.

Anyway I kept going because I had written on my post cards on Saturday that that was Sunday's plan, and I didn't want to have to tell people that I was too wimpy if they asked why I didn't go. If you ever suspect you might wimp out of something you should never tell people about it ahead of time so they can't bring it up later.

Just to preemptively squash any skepticism, here is a photo of me at the special orchid section of the gardens, to prove that I sucked it up, braved the heat, went to the gardens and did not just pull photos off the Internet.

The orchid garden cost $5 for entry which I paid happily - these were some fantastic flowers! Plus they had a section mimicking a mountainous climate, aka it was air-conditioned. I lingered in there a lot longer than I needed to look at the flowers.

After that I returned to the hostel for a few hours, took a shower, changed clothes etc., and then went out again. By that time it was nearly dark and had cooled down to tolerable temperatures.

Now you might have seen this picture before (stolen shamelessly from Google - not mine):

That's at this hotel (this photo IS mine):

This is Marina Bay Sands, and boy is it pretty! Unfortunately, you must be a guest at the hotel to use to the pool, so maybe another time I'll be able to do that, but for now, I was impressed enough just by the hotel itself. If you're wondering, rooms at this hotel start at $300 or so for your regular room and climb steadily upwards to several thousand dollars per night. There are also a few suites that you can't even reserve, you have to be invited, which is how you know you're in a nice place, if you literally can't even buy your way in. Actually, $300 a night isn't too bad by luxury hotel costs - there are lots of resorts just along St. Pete Beach that cost that much, too. Still, it's more than my budget at the moment, so I just took some pictures from the park below. Marina Bay Sands also has a casino and its own shopping mall and SkyPark with bar, etc.

The real reason I was in this part of town was to see the Supertree Grove!

I went up on the walkway for $5, which was pretty great! I don't really know exactly how to explain the Supertrees - they're exactly what they look like, metal structures created to look like huge trees, also with plants growing in and around them. They harvest solar energy, apparently, and use it at night when they put on a lights show with music, so their energy use cancels itself out and costs the earth nothing.

This is what the inside of the trees looks like, if you were curious. I took the elevator up but stairs down so I could take a photo of the metal/organic structure. Not too attractive from the inside, I guess. :-)

Here's a final photo, the best night shot I was able to get without a tripod necessary for those long exposure shots.

The ferris wheel is called the Singapore Flyer, which I guess is Singapore's response to the London Eye. Tickets are $25 or so and I didn't go because I didn't think it would be much fun to go alone, but I had fun seeing it all lit up from afar!

This was a great day also although as you've probably gathered the heat really struck me hard, more than on Saturday. Oh well! Late that night I went to Changi Airport and slept there because I had an early flight back to Vietnam. I should add that immigration at Singapore is the fastest I have EVER gone through - it literally look less than a minute. So far it's second only to Japan, which was an average of 2-3 minutes on the 4 times I've been through immigration there. I guess maybe that's a bit of a nerdy thing to point out but you start to sort of document these things in your head when you travel internationally a lot.

Of course as always thanks for reading! :-)