Thursday, May 29, 2008

Tropical Fruit Heaven

One of the great advantages of living in a tropical climate is the availability of tropical fruit. Most of the fruit are local so no guilt about eating UN-locally! The Boyfriend and I have been having our fair share of fruit that are mainstream back home: bananas, papaya, pineapples, watermelon and mangoes (which The Boyfriend professes to be THE BEST fruit!). They are all delicious! However, there is quite a bit of fruit that people might be unfamiliar with them that are just as good. So here’s a little round-up of some of my favourites:

Mit (jackfruit). Like durian, jackfruit can be a very big fruit, without the big, dangerous spikes! They also have yellow flesh, but much brighter in colour. You can pull strips of flesh around the numerous seeds. This fruit is incredibly sweet! It has a bit of a smell, not as strong as durian, but The Boyfriend likes this one!

Mang cau (custard apple). This fruit has many seeds but it is definitely worthwhile to eat it and spit them out. Its white flesh has a hint of pear taste and texture. It’s hard to describe these fruit since they are so unique. This picture is one of three that I got my sister to blow up as a birthday gift for my mom. It’s hanging in her new kitchen now. Can’t wait to do the same when I get home! Not only do these fruit taste good, but they look good too!

Chom chom (rambutan). These alien looking little fruit are similar in size as lychees or longan fruit. Similarly, they also have a seed in the middle and taste quite good, with a milder flavour. I recently bought some that were quite green; I was worried they were not ripe but was told that they’re Thai rambutan.

Mang cut (mangosteen). I had been awaiting mangosteen season since I arrived in Vietnam. I remember buying some in Bangkok and my ex-roommate loving it. The Boyfriend thinks its taste is reminiscent of plum. The six segments inside the thick purple shell have the perfect combination of sweetness and tartness. The only issue with this fruit is that a good portion will not be edible (not sure if it's because they're not ripe). So you have to pick them carefully (a soft shell is a good indicator of a ripe fruit).

Bon bon (langsat). My mom has suggested I buy this fruit but I didn’t get to taste it until The Gastronomer gave me some. They were delicious and I immediately bought 1 kg! These little fruit have a grapefruit flavour without the tartness. They also have segments which remind me of the mangosteen. The Boyfriend loved them when I brought them home. As for looks, they’re not very pretty; they look like dirty bruised longan. Their outer skin is soft like a fig’s though.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head

We’re officially in the rainy season here in Vietnam. This means that if there’s one thing that you can count on, is that it will rain. It can be hot and sunny, and suddenly big black clouds will swoop in and you’re soaking wet in no time. The rain is needed as respite from the heat. When it doesn’t rain, it gets pretty hot.

This has affected my life in a few ways:
- I’ve abandoned my Birkenstock for flip flops. Birkenstock are more orthopedically friendly but they get soaked;
- I go straight for the shower after every outing to wash off my feet and legs from the dirt and mud;
- I must carry my yellow umbrella all the time, just in case;
- I schedule activities around the rain, trying to predict the rain, either quickly before it comes or waiting until it’s done.

In Vietnam, large water tanks are found on most rooftops. This holds water and keeps it hot using natural sunlight. This means that we have not needed to turn on the water heater for hot showers. It’s surprising how hot the water gets without any artificial heating! We will now have to start using the water heater as there is not sufficient sunlight to keep water hot.

Water tank on neighbour's rooftop.

I have surprised myself and have not become a hermit. I have come to accept the rain and have even gone out during a full rain shower. It seems I’m one of the rare ones in Vietnam with an umbrella. Most people have rain ponchos; these are more convenient on a motorbike I guess. A girl once joined me under my umbrella to protect herself from the rain and walked the few steps to her destination. She chitchatted and seemed nice but kind of shoved me out of the umbrella and so I ended up being half wet!

It’s true that most often, when it rains, it pours. Often, The Boyfriend and I will be caught at a restaurant and try to wait out the rain. Fortunately, restaurants here are far too polite to kick anyone out for lingering around too long.

I like taking pictures when it rains. It often rains so hard and always seems so impressive. However, the pictures never seem to capture the sudden coolness and the sound of the rain.

We were comfortably sitting on a patio watching the rain.

A woman got her rain poncho in time.

These people found refuge in the telephone booth.

Monday, May 19, 2008

The Stinky Fruit

It is durian season in Vietnam, which means you’ll see trucks full of durians, motorbikes with baskets full of durians and vendors everywhere selling durians.

What is durian? Well, if you’ve ever smelt it, you would know. Durian is known as “King of fruit” in Southeast Asia. The Boyfriend calls it Ass Fruit. In Vietnamese, it's called sau rieng. It's quite a big fruit, weighing up to 10 lbs. and very prickly on the outside.

Since I do enjoy durian, it’s hard for me to describe it objectively. I will admit it has a strong smell, but the smell makes me crave durian. It’s banned in most hotels in South East Asia due to its smell, although I did sneak it in years ago at my fancy Bangkok hotel.

This is a sign on the wikipedia durian page from Singapore.

Smell is relative. My Vietnamese teacher came in once to my room after I enjoyed durian and said it smelt good! So here are some more observations I’ve found on the internet.

“… there are occasional wafts of flavour that call to mind cream-cheese, onion-sauce, sherry-wine, and other incongruous dishes. […] it is in itself perfect. […] the more you eat of it the less you feel inclined to stop. In fact, to eat Durians is a new sensation worth a voyage to the East to experience. ... as producing a food of the most exquisite flavour it is unsurpassed.”
British naturalist Rusell Wallace, 1856.

"completely rotten, mushy onions."
Andrew Zimmern from Bizarre Food (I watched this episode this episode. He’s the freaking Bizarre Food Guy and spit it out – Booh!)

Its taste can only be described as indescribable. Something that you either love or despise and afterwards your breath will smell as if you’ve been French kissing your dead grandmother. (while tasting the fruit) That’s awesome. That’s a noble fruit. Like a sweet, custardy, it’s kind of Vacherin like. But pungent, runny French cheeses not your idea of an appetizing description of fruit? It is in my book.”
Anthony Bourdain, No Reservation: Indonesia

These days, you can find all sorts of durian flavoured food: ice cream, xoi (sticky rice), pastries, candies, cake, etc. People love it here! Aside from its strong flavour though, I actually enjoy the texture of durian. It is like eating a creamy, sweet custard!

These durian vendors are in front of our alleyway every day. They asked me to take a picture of them and develop it. In exchange, I saved 2000 dong...!

Supposedly, the thick prickly skin cracking open is a sign of the fruit being ripe.

The vendors will cut up the fruit for you to take home. Durian has many segments that are housed in "compartments".

Durian in styrofoam container ready to take home. Durian segments range from pale beige to a nice yellow. I like the yellow best. They are currently selling two types: with small and big seeds. Small seeds (hot lep) mean more flesh to eat!

Because it is a fruit, The Boyfriend was willing to have a very small taste of it in the shape of my sinh to (fruit shake). He did not enjoy it, to say the least. He also had a taste accidentally once when his pineapple pastry ended up being durian flavoured. His students also keep giving him durian flavoured candies.

Like most fruit, I like eating my durian cold. However, the smell does permeate everything and The Boyfriend ends up eating durian-smelling bread. My solution is to leave my durian in our landlady's fridge. Every time I do, she tells me her granddaughter really likes it; this makes me worry that it will all be eaten! Today, she told me to be careful because I could get fat from eating too much durian... Getting fat from eating durian is the least of my worries!

I am going to take full advantage of durian season and enjoying it while I can. It is sold in Canada, fresh and frozen, but it is quite expensive.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Street Food II

One thing I have learnt about street food is seizing the opportunity. You have to get it when you see it because it might not be there when you want it a few days, or even hours later.

Nem nuong, 13,000 dong. On my way to meeting The Boyfriend for lunch, I stopped to get a piece of banh chuoi (banana cake) for dessert. Just next door (or rather next stall), a man was grilling nem nuong (grilled pork meatballs) that smelt mouth-watering (can smells be mouth-watering?). They were just the perfect colour (not the weird, artificial red you see at restaurants back home) and grilled perfectly. I couldn’t help buying a stick, even though I was heading for lunch. As I walked down the street, men were laughing at me as I was enjoying my meatballs. They’re one of the best I’ve had!

Banh mi ga nuong (Turkish style), 14,000 dong. I would meet The Boyfriend to grab some Shawarma by his workplace. Supposedly, the owner learned to make these in Germany, where he spent some time and learnt how to make Turkish kebabs. He offers chicken shawarmas, but many teachers from The Boyfriend’s school, such as himself, get vegetarian ones. They have purple cabbage, lettuce, onion, tomatoes and tzatziki that has a good amount of dill! He uses bread similar to ciabatta and presses it in a panini grill! Perfect for those Middle Eastern cravings!

Banh mi bo duong, 5000 dong. Following dinner, The Boyfriend needed a sweet treat so we went to a vendor across from our alley selling bread with butter and sugar. The Boyfriend used to have something similar with the addition of cinnamon. I remember my mom’s friend’s son, that I just saw recently, used to have this!

Com binh dan. Com means rice and it is served daily at lunch time in our alleyway with a variety of meat, fish and vegetables. Here we have thit heo kho (braised pork) at the bottom left, and clockwise: ca kho (braised fish), xiu mai (ground pork patties), sautéed choux, pickled vegetables, chicken, fried fish and pork ribs. They set up around 11:00 am and by 11:30, people are waiting in line or sitting at the plastic chairs and tables, eating.

Canh. Canh is a simple broth and a vegetable served at every meal. The canh was being kept warm above hot charcoals. Today’s was made with napa cabbage.

Com, 18,000 dong. I picked an egg that was cooked with braised pork, fried fish fillet, some vegetables and the broth. The fish was on the salty side but very good and crispy. Sauce is placed in a little baggy. Vendors are expert at placing sauces in bags.

Che dau hu, 2500 dong. Che is the generic term for Vietnamese liquid dessert. Some are like puddings, some more like sweet soups. I'm not a big fan of che, but there are a few ones I like, including this tofu one. This is something I enjoy, oddly cold. They serve it hot with two additions I'm not used to: coconut milk and tapioca. I went without the coconut because it’s too heavy for me. The tapioca balls were ok, kind of chewy.

Bot chien, 10,000 dong. I pass by this vendor every day. I’ve been curious about bot chien, meaning fried dough, because I’ve never seen this dish until I got here. I’ve waited a while because it looks on the grea-Z-y side and I thought it’d be a bit too heavy. I don’t know what I was thinking! I LOVE grea-Z-y! The lady has a big pan of dough frying; she’ll add how many eggs you want, scramble it on top. It is served with some green papaya and a really good soy sauce. It’s all about the sauce! This is good; I may have a problem!

Bo bia ngot, 3,000 dong. After lunch with my mom’s friends and their families from Montreal (how the “kids” have grown! no longer kids!), I spotted this vendor. I know all about bo bia, a savoury roll of jicama and carrots, but ngot (sweet)? It consisted of a very thin crepe, stuffed with candied sugar, coconut and some sesame seeds. Roll it and you have a nice little treat. My mom’s friends thought we got gypped, even at that price.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Di Xem Phim II

I did not think I would have much else to say about our second movie outing. I have to say I enjoy doing regular things, like going to see a movie, in a foreign country and finding little differences; I look at them as novelties. However, some differences can just be annoying!

The Boyfriend and I selected to see Jumper. By the way, Jumper came out on February 14 in North America so we’re about 3 months behind. By the way #2, many of the Detroit scenes were shot in Peterborough. We learnt our lesson last time and decided on an evening movie to ensure there would be popcorn available. When we bought our tickets, we were given assigned seats; this did not happen last time.

We were early and noticed a store so went to check it out. They sold books, crayons and DVD’s. To our great amusement and bewilderment, the DVD’s included burned copies of Jumper, the movie we were about to see!! We could have just bought it and watched it at home! They also had 10,000 BC, the movie The Boyfriend had wanted to see, but its run had just ended.

Excited to buy our popcorn, we went to check our options. Even though the signs had sizes small and large, it seemed there was only one size. We each got one popcorn and Pepsi for 27,000 dong each. (1 USD =16,000 dong and our tickets were 60,000 dong each.)

Sizes seem to be normal here, for now anyway, unlike our crazy SUPER-sizes!

The popcorn seemed to glisten more than usual and I just assumed it was very buttery. We tried to get into the theatre but it was still too early so we sat down to enjoy our popcorn. We were quite surprised to taste SWEET popcorn! Do people only eat SWEET popcorn in Vietnam? As I went to complain, The Boyfriend was still unhappily munching away.

Can you notice the extra glistening from the syrup? The popcorn wasn’t overly sweet, but it was still disconcerting to eat sweet popcorn at the movies. If I want sweet popcorn, I'll get caramel popcorn! This actually wasn't sweet enough for caramel popcorn.

When I asked the girl behind the counter whether they had salty popcorn, she said yes. When I asked if I could exchange mine, she looked at my bag and gave me a hard time because it wasn’t full anymore. I had eaten like 5 pieces!!! Are you serious? She did exchange it begrudgingly. When I got back to The Boyfriend, he had already eaten a significant portion that I didn’t think I could exchange.

We finally got in to our assigned seating. We then decided we needed a third bag of popcorn to replace the sweet one. After waiting in line with a lady trying to push her little girl in front of me (I would not give them an inch!), I specifically ordered a salty popcorn. I looked at my glistening popcorn and asked if this was salty. After mumbling something, the boy behind the counter gave me the right one.

When I got back in the theatre, there were about 6 people in our row, all sitting next to each other. They had not scattered assigned seating, so there were empty seats all around us and clumps of people randomly spread.

Previews started with my favourite rap about etiquette at the movies!!

The pictures are terribly blurry because we were in the dark and I was worried I'd get kicked out for taking pictures. I just couldn't resist because I find this so funny. I think the second panel says "Be smart when you're watching a movie", but I'm not sure.

People kept coming in late during the first 20 minutes of the movie. Typical Vietnamese! This was even more annoying because they had to sit at their assigned seats. We were sitting in the aisle, so people had to go past us to get to their seats. The ushers then realized that the couple next to us was in the wrong seats so they had to leave and another couple sat there. Sigh!

It was funny, the audience reacted loudly whenever there was an “exciting” part in the movie (for example, when the hero would suddenly teleport to a crazy location like the Grand Canyon). It would sort of be like a loud gasp and laugh with some chatter.

The people behind and in front of us were also whispering throughout. In the middle of the movie, we actually heard “you have a message” from a telephone. And someone's son kept talking out loud. Why won’t anyone respect the rap song?

The theatre wasn’t very well sound proofed either since we could hear the movie next door.

I want to see Iron Man next week and I’m determined to get it right on our third time!!

Monday, May 5, 2008

Mekong Delta – Early Day 2 (May 4)

When we found out we had to wake up at 6 am on our second day in the Delta to catch the activities at the Cai Rang Floating Market, I thought The Boyfriend was going to kill me!! Sleep is sacred to him now that he’s working long days.

This market is the largest in the area. Between the market and the visit to the fruit plantations later in the day, I took many fruit pictures. Bear with me because it’s going to get fruit-y!

The Boyfriend and me. Friends complain I don’t put enough people pictures, so here’s one!

A boat full of jackfruit.

Baskets of long ngan fruit.

Advertising poles. As the pole advertises, this boat sold everything: garlic, onion, carrots, lettuce…

How about some jicama for bo bia?

A boat of watermelons.

Rice Husking Mill. Between fruit activities, we also visited a rice husking mill. This shows the various stages of rice husking. We passed on the 8:30 am offer of rice wine with 50% alcohol though.

Rice Reserves. These could be worth a lot with rice prices increasing!

Boat ride. Our boat ride to the fruit orchard was quite laborious at times due to the low tide. All sorts of things (plastic, clothes, plants) would get stuck on the propeller and would have to be removed.

Warm welcome. We were regularly greeted by cheerful HELLO and WHAT YOUR NAME? from kids running out of their houses along the river.

And now for pictures of fruit still on trees!

Bananas. With the beautiful flower still attached.

Jackfruit. They can get quite big.

A row of papaya trees.

Pineapple growing crooked.

Purple chili peppers.

Khe (starfruit).

Mang fruit (or rose apples), looking like two perfect bells.

And let’s not forget the mighty mango! This was the nicest cluster I found; never mind the bathroom as background…

All this in one morning!

Uncle Ho in Can Tho. I hope my mother will forgive me for this picture...

After we took the ferry leaving Can Tho, we had to wait for our bus since it wasn't on the ferry with us. As we waited, I wandered around an area with vendors catering to passengers from the ferry. I bought these fruit - I believe them to be marian plum. They look like apricots, but had the texture of a ripe plum, tasted very sour with some strong mango flavour!