Rice Fields in Ha Tay

cánh đồng ở Hà Tây

Background:

I took a picture of this road last winter while driving around the countryside and this place stuck out to me in my mind because it’s a road that felt familiar to me even though I’d only been on it a couple of times.  On my first visit to my wife’s countryside in 2008, Hang took me around her house and the surrounding area to sight-see.  Her hometown is something a westerner would imagine in a fairytale book resembling a hamlet in which much of the original farming community hasn’t changed in the past century including roads with high brick walls resembling corridors, a picturesque lake, a central fairground area, the marketplace and the surrounding rice fields. I clearly remember stopping on this road with Hang taking turns to snap pictures of each other.  Hang was so happy to be back after several years away in Saigon and I felt like I just landed on another planet, off the radar where nobody could ever find me.

This past autumn, Hang’s grandmother passed away and it was the first time I took part in a Vietnamese funeral as a family member.  Droves of people from all over the village and far away came to pay respects for what seemed like a statesman’s procession with family members standing dutifully for three sleepless days, people lining up to place incense on the coffin and endless twangy melancholy notes in the background played by the funeral band.  It was on day three that we did the final march to bury Hang’s grandmother slowly and somberly marching the casket from her house, through the narrow village corridors and finally down this same road.  Hundreds of us walking in the drizzling rain feeling tired yet strong amongst the support of hundreds of friends and family.

To locals this road is called ‘cánh đồng’ meaning the rice fields referring to the general area and it leads east to the secondary school Hang attended in the neighboring bigger town, to the factories of modern day Ha Tay, and further to Hanoi where I live nowadays.  More importantly this road leads to the cemetery where the bodies of past generations go to as their final resting place before their spirits leave this world.  It’s not just any road, but a road I ventured on with my once to be wife and later lead her grandmother to rest.   It’s a place I often like to drive to when I go to visit the in-laws that gives me a feeling of peace.  It is the rice fields in Ha Tay.

Style:

Acrylic on Canvas 90 X 120 cm.  The idea for this painting was from the pictures I took mentioned earlier, but the idea of the style came from my wife mentioning another painting we saw at our apartment complex.  To her dismay, my painting isn’t as eye catching with bright fiery colors, but it does capture the spirit of using a palette knife to create texture with the paint. The background sky is actually from another picture of my daughter behind our apartment building. After picking her up from school she was saying to me how beautiful the scenery behind our place was so I stopped and took a picture of her sitting on the motorbike remembering the luminous sky in the background. Lastly, another inspiration was the idea to make this a centerpiece for our new living room.  Since there is already a theme of purple and violet in the decor, I decided to use just 4 colors in the entire painting using blue, red, black and white to blend and create various shades.

IMG_20131223_113888

[photos of Ha Tay from February 2014]

Ten Health Secrets about Vietnamese Cuisine

What makes Vietnamese food unique is that it uses the abundant local fresh produce and the attitude that goes along with it.  Vietnamese cuisine is what Anthony Bourdain described as “Culinary Inhibition” because of its innovative cooks, passionate eaters as well as decades of foreign influences like Chinese and French, yet remaining unmistakably Vietnamese. Eating together is one of the most cherished pastimes in Vietnam and the cuisine has purposes rooted deep in traditions such as weddings, funerals and holidays.  You might have heard an apple a day keeps the doctor away and in Vietnam there are similar old wives’ tales passed down from generation to generation about eating certain foods that come with the tagline ăn cái này, tốt cho…” which translates to, eat this, it’s good for…

1. Nước mắm/nɜ:k mʌm/ or fish sauce is eaten daily with meals as an additive or a dipping sauce and usually not eaten in its pure form, but diluted with water, lemon juice, minced garlic, sugar and small slices of chili pepper. Derived from potent fermented fish, it is high in protein and iron, fish sauce is very healthy for blood circulation.  As westerners are used to adding salt, pepper or condiments like ketchup, mustard and salsa; Vietnamese can’t even start to eat if there’s no fish sauce to dip their food in.

2. Đậu phụ /ðəʊ fu:/ – Rich in calcium and vitamin E, tofu it’s the vegetarian’s choice for meat substitutions.  Soy and its extracts are known to prevent cancer and osteoporosis. Did you know that tofu in large quantities is also known cause impotence?  This might be more than a coincidence for monks who eat it regularly and wish to avoid unwanted emotions known to be aroused by eating meat.

3. đu đủ, ổi & chuối /ðu: ðu:/ /ɔɪ/ /ʧu:i:/

Rich in fiber, many vitamins and crucial for good digestion, though locals here don’t just eat any fruit when feeling a little clogged up.  Papaya is said to be a great natural laxative as are bananas that are rich in potassium and said to make you smart.  However, for upset stomach that is giving you the runs Guava will help slow things down and is rich in fiber.

4. Phở /fʌ/ – Pho is Vietnam’s national dish and not only is it a favorable beef noodle soup, it also a great food when a cold is coming on.  Similar to mom’s chicken soup remedy, Pho has many nutrients and vitamins, plus add a few chili peppers and you’ll get a good sweat going to shake off a cold or even a fever.

5. Cháo /ʧaʊ/ – is a rice porridge that most Vietnamese know as their first meal since it’s what all babies eat.  Not only does it go down easily, but it’s also a great comfort food when sick.  Similar to Pho, you can add some kick to it with sliced ginger and really get a good sweat going to heat your body temperature.

6. Rau muống /raʊ mu:ŋ/ – translates to morning glory or water spinach that grows like a weed in any swamp area.  This bountiful and hearty vegetable is a common staple with meals commonly sautéed with garlic packing a lot of flavor, vitamins, and really helps your digestive tract.

7. Cua & ốc /ku:ə/ & /əp/

Crab and snails are a hearty source of calcium and since Vietnam is a coastal country shellfish is abundant.   Dairy hasn’t always been abundant, therefore the seas natural produce has been a well known diet and especially recommended for pregnant women who need extra calcium.

8. kho tộ /kə kəʊ təʊ/ – Braised fish pot is cooked in clay pot for a high heat and caramelizing.  It is rich in Omega-3 fatty acids, something our body cannot produce naturally, and a good fat that is helpful for memory and reducing heart disease which can get from eating most types of fatty fish.

9. Trà xanh & Hạt sen /ʧə  sæŋ/ /hæt en/

Green tea is had with most meals and commonly diluted with fresh water and ice served as a refreshment known as trà đá or iced tea in the South.  It is a great way to wash down your meal and plus tea has antioxidants known to stave off cancer and is much lighter than sugar loaded soft drinks.

Lotus seed is commonly eaten as a dessert known as chè by which consists of beans or seeds are boiled with sugar and later served on ice as a cool refreshing sweet.  Lotus seed is also known to have soothing benefits such as reducing anxiety and insomnia.

10. Canh bí đỏ /kæn bi: ðɒ/

Pumkin Soup or canh, is actually lighter and more like a broth and is usually eaten at the end of the meal to cleanse your system.  It’s not uncommon to eat a meal wondering what else you can eat afterward and canh helps you get over the unsatisfied feeling at the end of a meal by filling your stomach with hearty nutrients.   While some might go for a soft drink or a cold beer, many Vietnamese crave canh saying their meal is dry without this balance.  There are many types broths the Vietnamese eat at the end of the meal, canh bí đỏ is packed with vitamins C and E, plus known to alleviate headaches.

10+ Cơm /kʌm/

Last but not least, rice is synonymous with the word meal and it’s no mistake since rice is the staple of every meal.  Rice is eaten in many shapes and forms such as long grain, rice noodle and rice paper to name a few.  The Vietnamese jokingly say that Pho is your girlfriend as rice is your wife signifying the sanctity of rice in this culture. I once heard my friend even say that her mom goes through withdrawal if she doesn’t eat rice for 1 day.  It is certainly comforting, gives people energy by serving as the carbohydrate base of every meal.

The market capital metropolis Ho Chi Minh City has numerous international restaurants from French, Italian, Indian, Thai, to Japanese cuisine and while the locals eagerly try them, they always go back to what they know and love.  Not only is Vietnamese food fresh, most meals are a variety of dishes offering flavors that are a balance of sweet, sour, salty, and spicy.  Listen to your stomach and you’ll feel satisfied and your body will thank you too remembering the famous wives’ tale, “eat it’s good for you. “

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Reply

It seems all you do is eat and drink

“Great photos!  It seems all you do is eat and drink” were my uncle Harri’s comments about my pictures.  I can’t argue with that statement and actually question whether my family or friends have any idea about what living in Vietnam is like by just seeing me holding a beer or documenting my cooking experiments.

Thinking about this again, I can’t think of a better way to learn Vietnamese language and culture.  Vietnamese are passionate about their food, love to make it, love to eat it and unsurprisingly love talking about it too.  If you want to learn about Vietnam, learn the food!  Hang and I always joke saying we’re a great team because she loves to cook, I love to eat.  These days I’m also trying my hand in the kitchen with Hang showing me how.

10-29-2009 Bun Cha

Sticking to simple recipes, my last attempt was Bún chả which is vermicelli noodles with barbecued pork.  This is a popular dish in the north and I try to eat it for breakfast as much as possible when we visit Hang’s parents.  I get hungry just remembering waking up  on a cool winter morning, slurping down noodles and the most delicious pork patties wrapped in fragrant Lá lốt, aka pepper leaves.  Another simple, yet delicious dish!

Ingredients:

  • Vermicelli Noodles (1 kg)
  • Ground Pork (300 grams)
  • Bag full of Pepper Leaves to wrap the patties (lá lốt) – optional
  • Shallots (5 small ones)
  • Lettuce (1 head)
  • Peanuts (optional)

Steps:

  • Chop up the shallots to mix in the ground pork
  • Add a bit of salt and pepper for seasoning
  • Make small patties (spoonful size) of pork and wrap them in the leaves
  • Fry in oil / barbecue over flame until cooked
  • Serve over fresh noodles, lettuce and peanuts, and dip into fish sauce

Fish Sauce (nước chấm)

  • 1 teaspoon of fish sauce (be careful this is strong)
  • 2 teaspoons of sugar
  • 1 minced red Thai chile or jalepeno (remove seeds if don’t want spicy)
  • 1 small clove of garlic, finely minced
  • 1 & 1/2 tablespoons of of water
  • 2 tablespoons fresh squeezed lime juice (about 1 lime)

make this to taste in a rice bowl or small dish

If too sweet, add a bit of fish sauce for more salt
If too salty, add some more sugar.
If too fish, add more water to dilute, etc etc…

yA OURrr

‘Sữa chua’ (sour milk), also known as ‘yaourt,’ pronounced ya ourrr in Saigon, used to be just something I picked up for Hang at the grocery store.  Like many of my coworkers and other people in Vietnam, Hang is an avid reader of VNExpress website from which she has collected many recipes that she wants to try; one being yogurt.

I haven’t given much attention to the benefits of yogurt and ate it on and off growing up.  Yogurt is good for your stomach, bones, and skin to name a couple of things I can remember.  I didn’t realize till coming to Vietnam that one thing that really turned me off about yogurt is that supermarkets back in the US mostly sell yogurt that is mixed with fruits and a lot of sugar to make it more appealing.  They have this in Vietnam too, however most people eat yogurt plain and in small quantity which is just enough.

After watching Hang make yogurt I asked her to show me which she’s always happy to do with a smile plastered on her face that comes with the expectation that I will make whatever she showed me the next time.  So the yogurt making began.  To start with, Hang and I are about making things that are simple and easy.  You might find similar recipes, but you can’t get any easier for this dessert in my opinion.

Yogurt 10 26 2009

The ingredients:

3/4 can of condensed milk
1 cup of boiled water
3/4 cup of milk
1 small container of yogurt (optional to speed up the curdling process)

Steps:

Pour condensed milk into a bowl, add the hot water, then milk and yogurt.  Mix gently for a minute.
Pour the mix into the canisters
Put the canisters into a pot (i used a rice cooker) to contain the heat
Wrap the pot in a blanket to keep warm
Let sit overnight (approximately 8 hours); the longer you let it sit the more sour it will be so you can do it longer if you prefer
Place the canisters in the fridge for a few hours to congeal
Eat!

Top Ramen!

I love Ramen! Growing up I religiously ate ramen, oriental flavor to be exact. How the hell did they come up with that flavor? I can just imagine the marketing meeting. Okay, we have chicken, beef and shrimp. Them orientals love this stuff. How about we just call this one Oriental!

This diet of mine was usally a pre-meal snack to which I would add my twist, a dab of peanut butter. Because everything is better with peanut sauce!

Like other college students, ramen was a late night staple as was ordering Dominos Pizza or a trip Denny’s.

Crossing over to Vietnam or any Asian country for that matter, I’m in heaven! Ramen Ramen Ramen. There’s not only beef, chicken, shrimp and oriental flavor, but instant noodles from all the neighboring countries: Thailand, Japan, Korea, etc.. Instant noodle isn’t just some item you find in the aisle, it takes up an entire aisle with approximately 200 varieties.

Hang going for A-One..can't go wrong with a name like that!  Yummy Stir fried instant noodles with beef and vegetables

Hang going for A-One..can't go wrong with a name like that! Yummy Stir fried instant noodles with beef and vegetables

So how do you make instant noodles or mi goi (packaged noodles) as the Vietnamese say? The easiest and most common way is to boil water and pour it over the noodles and let the noodles soften, add the spice packages and wait a few minutes. Voila!

However, just as instant noodles come in all sorts of varieties, you can eat them many ways here: as a soup, as a stir fry with meat and vegetables or even dry with sauteed meat and vegetables on top.

Am Vegan and Green. Save The World

While I’ve heard slogans like save the cheerleader, save the world or  save a cow, eat vegetarian,  but saving the world trumps them all !

Hang and I checked out this vegetarian (vegan to be exact) restaurant Au Lac near my apt and these bumper stickers are alll over the walls. This place is really good and cheap too. Once person can get a good filling rice meal for about $2.

The Vietnamese make eating vegetarian a pleasure. I’m not talking about imitation burgers, turkey or just a plate of vegetables. What we have here is every imaginable so-called regular dish like sweet and sour fish, fried egg, or fried pork …all made with tofu, mushroom and vegetables. What you can’t believe is that these dishes are so much like the meat substance they portray down to the texture. Even the must-have Vietnamese fish sauce (nuoc mam) is a vegan substitute.

One up on saving a cow

One up on saving a cow