Sunday, October 26, 2008

Fried Fins and Fish Fights

This picture is taken just minutes before 1) it begins to pour and 2) Thuy and I have a fight in the middle of the street.

Thuy picks me up on her motorbike at 3 pm sharp for Sunday Night Cooking. We have planned this has taken many trips to the fabric booth to make sure I have the right ingredients for Elephant Ear Fish salad rolls. I have purchsed the rice paper, seasonings, fresh basil and the lettuce and this morning she gives me a little goodie bag of salt(yay) MSG- that's what Katherine thinks it is (yeah), limes and red peppers.

We drive past Ben Than Market...she has done some asking around and has been told she can only get this particular fish at a market further out. Katherine and I ran into her yesterday while she was eating clams at a little stand in the alley and when we tried them and liked the dipping sauce, she said we were going to make those for our Sunday dinner, too.

So when we arrive at the fish stand, she orders the fish (live in the bucket) and while it's losing its life, she asks for some clams. She takes out her wallet to pay and I say "Thuy, wait, no, I am paying!"

She says, "I pay for these, you pay for fish."

Well, OK.

But she doesn't let me; she pays for the whole thing. "Thuy, you can't do this! There are three of us..." When I try to give her a 200,000 VND bill ($12), she stomps her foot and says, "Maggie, you make me sad!"

And I say, "Thuy, you make ME sad!" We do the fight/dance to give the money and then...

There is a pause and we both laugh. And we also realize that it has started to pour. "Maggie, we go home." But not until she has purchased cooking oil, wet noodles and a few more vegetables.

For the second time this week, I am drenched when I get home, despite my poncho.

She soaks the fish in water (to get rid of the fishy smell) while she makes the dipping sauce: fish sauce, hot water, sugar, red pepper and lime. She cleans the fish under the gills and rubs salt on the inside while she heats an entire bottle of cooking oil in the wok. Katherine and Tarn are present in the living area, checking out the process as it goes, but they are also watching and dancing to Katherine's new pirated DVD: Disco Inferno. The Village People, Sister Sledge, The Jacksons, Donna Summer, James Brown. Thuy stops a few times to laugh at the funky costumes, especially the Village People. I don't think she has ever heard "YMCA" before...

When the oil is hot, she drops the entire fish in and it cooks for probably about 15 minutes. As it cooks, the scales puff out. She also makes a sauce for the top: she fries onions and peppers and mixes it with vinegar and cornstarch. The EE fish is a delicacy. She tells me that she saw it cooked in a restaurant once and that's how she learned to make it.

When the fish is done, it is completely crispy on the outside. She pours the sauce on the whole thing and we set everything on the table. When Tarn and I ate this fish in the Delta, the girl who fixed it for us removed the scales. Thuy does not. She makes us eat the fins first, before we even start to roll the fish up. They are crispy and taste like chicken skin. And the scales make the salad rolls CRUNCHY!
The way you make salad rolls: take a dry, round piece of rice paper and place lettuce, basil and rice noodles in the center. You pick the EE fish apart with chopsticks and place the crunchy yet tender fish on top, roll the whole thing up and dip it in the fish sauce.

I made it clear to Thuy the other day that she HAD to eat with us this time. She agreed, but now she just wants to watch us enjoy it, so I refuse to eat until she has rolled one up for herself. She laughs at my stubbornness, but I laugh right back at her. Yum, the rolls are so so tasty. And the clams are simple- just right when dipped into the sauce.

She gives Tarn most of the head. He is so great to have around (better him eat the head of honor than me)! And she gives Katherine the other, smaller part. Here she is staring at the fish eye (did you know they have eyelashes? she says). And me, well, she just wants me to eat the crunchy fins. She makes us eat the whole fish. And then, at the end, she tells Tarn to "wash up" yet again. Just as abruptly as last week, she says, "I go now."

Here is the "after" picture...note there is no head, because Tarn was required to eat it.

I saw cooking classes listed at a tourist office yesterday...$75 to make a basic meal--a three hour class (a rip off, knowing what things cost here). But our fabric woman is coming to our house and buying our food and making entire meals for us. And she is in for the long friendship haul. It's crazy and cool. I really cannot believe the life we have found in this alley. I'm going to have to think of what to do about her generosity. Maybe I can make her Mexican food one night? I will think it over. Katherine and Tarn are amazed at our fortune, too. No one else at either school has found anything even close to what we have.

Something else interesting happened today. Well, I mean: what I'm going to write about now makes the cut to write about here...everything seems interesting every day and sometimes I cannot decide what to write about. Anyway, I am at Lady Saigon, a women's gym right down the street (Tarn thinks it's a "special house," but it's not), and for the second week in a row, I am alone in the gym except for one woman- the same one as last week. We begin a conversation this time (she is fluent in both Japanese and English) and we end up talking for the entire hour on the treadmill. She is bright and articulate and manages a bunch of people at a Japanese export company. She talks about communism and why most people in Saigon love Americans (I will write about this later this week because it's something that has been brewing) and about her hope for Obama's presidency but her skepticism over whether America will elect someone "with black skin."
To shorten this story for today, at the end of the hour, she is a little sheepish, but she asks if I might be interested in teaching English to the people she manages two nights per week. "Im sure you get so many requests for this..." If they can speak English, she explains, they can deal with the Japanese. She tells me she paid a guy $1800 for three months last year- two nights per week, two hour classes -but she doesn't want to hire him back. She thinks I would be perfect. Her company is in District 7, and she will send a driver out to get me and bring me home. She wouldn't need me until February, so we agree to talk in another month or so. It's an interesting proposition - the pay, for here, is quite spectacular (at least ten dollars an hour over the going rate).

After Linh leaves the gym, I am alone. What do I do? I try the CRAZY exercise machine. The FAT JIGGLER. It's horrible. Not only does it jiggle my fat, but it makes me really, really itchy. My curiosity is now satisfied. Actually, right now, so are both my soul and my stomach.


Brian Bowker said...

Thuy sounds really fun! I wonder how you can convince her to stay and be social after dinner?

You didn't want to try just a little bit of the fish head?? Kristi says that the head is an honor to eat in Japan as well. She tried a little bit once and says it was quite good.

I CAN'T WAIT to hear why the people of HCMC love Americans!

Speaking of Obama and the upcoming US elections... Are people over there very aware of it? Or just this lady?

marjie said...

I did try a little of the head. It's just the eye that is the problem.

About the election, people are aware of it. It seems that mostly, people are aware of how bad the economy is in America and how that will effect them. Most people who say anything about the election are hopeful about Obama.

Michelle said...

Hi Marjie,
I am a friend of Chris'- we belong to the same health club. I shared with him that I was going on a bike tour of Vietnam in February and he sent me a link to your blog. You are so fun to read and it makes me feel so excited for my upcoming adventure. It seems we are both 'foodies' and your many suggestions will all be noted and tried. Thank you for sharing your wonderful adventure!
-Michelle Cougan (Edmonds)

marjie said...

Hi Michelle! Thanks for saying hello...Well, I am envious of your bike trip~ if you are coming through Ho Chi Minh City, be sure to let me know. Any friend of Chris' is welcome at the castle and I would love to hear about your adventure!

Michelle said...

Actually I will be in HMC! That is where my trip ends on March 8th. Thank you for the invitation. I will be there an additional two days and would love to meet you and all your friends! Let's talk!

Brian Bowker said...

@Michelle: Luckyyyy!

marjie said...

Great, Michelle. Perfect. Send me an email and...start picking out patterns for clothes you want to have made here!

kumma said...

Funny - my fat jiggles with every step I take, and I'm always itchy. Who needs a machine?