cooking

Speaking my Language

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“Cities were always like people, showing their varying personalities to the traveler. Depending on the city and on the traveler, there might begin a mutual love, or dislike, friendship, or enmity. Where one city will rise a certain individual to glory, it will destroy another who is not suited to its personality. Only through travel can we know where we belong or not, where we are loved and where we are rejected" ― Roman Payne, Cities & Countries

After Hue, I headed over the mountain pass, towards to sea and to the small city of Hoi An. I am in love. Hoi An is a magical place. It is the reigning culinary capital of Vietnam, an old Chinese merchant town - a mecca for fabric and food.

Hoi An lies along the Hoia river and during the 16th and 17th centuries was a major merchant town for the Chinese, Dutch, Japanese and Indian traders - somehow remaining untouched during any of the wars. The old town is a 15 block area that architecturally is both European and Asian…tree lined streets, row houses, Chinese assembly halls (temples dedicated to various clans), a Japanese wooden bridge, and so much more. The entire area is a heritage site, so there is no unwanted development, and even better, there are no motorized vehicles allowed in the city center, only bikes and foot traffic.

I knew I wanted to learn to cook Vietnamese food in Hoi An. The location of the city makes it a melting pot of both northern and southern cooking styles. I found a cooking school run by a Vietnamese woman chef named Mrs. Vy. She is a force of nature - an advocate for preservation of Vietnamese street food, the use of local, fresh ingredients and the owner of four restaurants. I was incredibly lucky to be in a small group (again, no Americans), but a Canadian chef, and two people from the UK.

Our day started with a trip by boat to the local market. All of the local restaurants and hotels shop at this outdoor market twice a day to guarantee the freshest ingredients. I learned how to tell if a papaya is ripe, watched a woman tie crabs with banana leaves, tasted herbs (one leaf that tasted exactly like an anchovy), and the difference between the several varieties of garlic available. After the boat trip, we headed back to the kitchen and got to try our hand at making several Vietnamese staples, rice paper wrappers, noodles (much harder than it looks) and tasted some local delicacies (including frog with lemongrass and chili, which I tried, and fried silk worms, which I did not).

After that we set to work making some traditional vietnamese street food, crispy rice pancakes, mango salad, barbecue, cabbage soup…while this sounded simple, each dish was a complex mix of flavors and textures - sweet, salty, bitter, crunchy, soft. Not to mention everything had to be presented in a manner pleasing to the eye. I’m not sure I will ever remember how to make it all, or be able to get the ingredients, but I will remember the tastes.

Hoi An comes alive in the evenings, after the sun has set and the weather has cooled. The chinese lanterns that line the street are lit, the shop owners put out their goods and the street side tables fill with diners. I walked the old town for a few hours, spent a few dollars and am sad knowing that tomorrow I will leave this place, but so glad to have found a city that speaks my language.

The Language of Food

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I lurched away from the table after a few hours feeling like Elvis in Vegas - fat, drugged, and completely out of it. ― Anthony Bourdain, Chef

Chiang Mai is nothing if not the food capital of Thailand, especially street food - from every type of meat or sausage on a stick, to noodles to something that resembles a fried doughnut with black sesame seeds. Everywhere you look, there is someone cooking something. By all accounts, everyone here should weigh 600lbs. They are eating or taking away noodles and soup in plastic bags to eat later, popping dumplings like candy and frying up everything in sight. And I am right there with them, at least that is what it felt like today.

I took a full day cooking class today, with a well-known Thai chef. We got an introduction to Thai ingredients, watched the chef prepare seven different dishes and then we replicated (as best we could) our versions of them. Of course, we had to sample and eat our way through the day too.

I thought I knew something about Thai food, but the complexity of the food and the list of ingredients was amazing. They have 10, count ‘em 10, different soy sauces, 4 types of basil, I don’t know how many types of chilies and list goes on. I took notes like I was in school again and left with a recipe book, so we’ll see what I can do when I get home.

When I got back to my hotel, I fell into a deep food coma. When I came to, I thought I only have a two more nights here and there were places I still wanted to try, so I put on my walking shoes (no tuktuks or taxi tonight) and headed out of town, through the old city gate (1400 years old to be exact) and across the river to a restaurant that I had heard about. It is situated overlooking the Ping river. There was a guy playing crazy good jazz guitar (who knew?) and a mix of locals and expats all trying to get in. There was a wait for a table so I sat at the bar. An Australian, now living in Thailand, and his Thai wife sat down next to me. We started talking and when their table came up they asked me to join them. Initially I refused, because I didn’t want to intrude, but eventually I agreed.

We sat down and the woman started reading the menu and asking the waitress, in Thai of course, which dishes were local and where the ingredients came from. I asked her to order for me too. It was one of the best meals I have had - green mango salad, fresh fish with chili and vegetables, rice…

We talked, ate and drank. I forgot all about trying to figure out how they made the food or what was in my food, and just enjoyed it. So while, I’m glad for the opportunity to have learned what I learned today, I’m more grateful for good company and the prospect of sharing a meal with friends when I get home.