Sunday, September 20, 2009

Enough Soup Already

What else can you do to ensure that your teeny tiny Vietnamese girlfriends never call you "fat" again - other than lose the weight you gained over the summer (plus more, just to make double, triple sure you never get the 'fat waist hands' again)? Try taking them out for American hamburgers, fries, onion rings and Cokes that equal a week's worth of calories for them and make them gain weight themselves. You go down, they go up.

Actually - although this may be a good plan - I took them to get burgers because Thuy had requested that I take her to eat a "good" American burger at the end of last year. The only one she had ever tasted was at KFC...which surprised me. I didn't think KFC had them on the menu, and most everyone says they don't. Whatever she had, she thought it was terrible. So I heard about a place not far from the castle that had a good reputation, and that reputation was well- deserved. The burgers were great.

When they first laid eyes on the (very tall) bacon cheese burgers, though, four Vietnamese eyes almost popped out of two Vietnamese heads. Thuy said, "Cannot!" and literally gagged when she saw me squish the tall burger into a manageable height and take a bite. But Thanh attacked hers. Thuy could only eat about a third; Thanh ate it all (and in a sisterly competitive tone, proclaimed, "I win!" at Thuy). Thuy got the rest of hers to go, along with the leftover onion rings and fries.

The verdict? Both of them loved the burger and called it "Number One! Delicious!" But, in the very same fashion that followed our Indian food outing last year, they insisted that next weekend, we all go out for Vietnamese barbecue.

As for me, after a month of lots of soup and exercise, the burger tasted good. Really, really good. So I'm going to bed feeling very patriotic (and full).

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Two Bowls of Hu Tieu Mi

Remember last year when Nam took me to his village to eat soup? Well every time I eat Hu Tieu Mi now, I can see his lips forming the correct pronunciation: "Hoo- Tee Yoo - Mee." One day we had to practice saying this all the way home from school, and he made me form the "oo" sound by sticking my lips out in a very unnatural way.

(Btw, I just shuddered when I wrote "practice saying this all the way home from school" - it's so nice to be grown up now).

I don't go to Nam's village to eat it anymore, because the last time (when K and I took her mom and dad), too many rats were running around the construction site near there and no matter how good a soup is, rat presence diminishes flavor. But Nam made me aware that my "won ton soup guy" actually made something mainstream, and that there was a whole wide world of these soups both on and right outside my street. So I have added the quest for a new Hu Tieu Mi spot to my Soup Search, and yesterday I made Saturday into kind of a contest, having it for both breakfast and early dinner. I'm doing all of this for my family. Talk about sacrifice.

Here is a breakdown of what Hu Tieu Mi is:

Hu Tieu= rice noodle soup

Mi= egg noodle soup

Hu tieu mi= rice noodle and egg noodle soup

The rice noodles are white and the egg noodles are yellow - both are thin. Go ahead and say it, and stick your lips out in a very unnatural way when you do it.

Hu Tieu Mi can come with many fun additions, as well, like my won ton guy's tasty little wontons and hard crunchy wafers. Shrimp often drops in, as do "pork balls," groud pork, lettuce, bean sprouts and lettuce.

So for breakfast I went outside of the alley and crossed our street (Nguyen Canh Chan) to this little cart. If you look closely above the cart - just to the left of the steam - you can see across the street to the sign that says "pho." Well, that is where K and I get our weekly dose of pho from the most smiley and gracious women, and the thing is that I had to walk past them to get to the Hu Tieu Mi cart. I felt funny doing that, because of course the chicken pho is quite popular in the mornings and they saw me cross. Memories of the Pineapple Lady Scolding came to me, but I crossed anyway, feeling very disloyal but that my soup search required this act.

Here is it: I guess it is only Hu Tieu because no yellow egg noodles made it in, but as you can see, it came with a prawn and ground pork. Oh, and it also came with liver...little slices of liver.

Even just those little slices permeated the soup with liver flavor. I made a note of it for my dad's soup list (since he digs liver), paid $1 and got sideways glances and no wide smiles from my pho women on my journey back to the castle.

I like the market soups much better. The ones without liver and that require no perfidy.

About ten hours later, I was ready for Hu Tieu Mi Round 2 and finally tried this bright yellow spot, which is about a twenty-minute walk from the castle on the main, main street, Tran Hung Dao. It's called Tung Hung - Pork Chop Noodle - and it is always bursting with people day and night. I've been meaning to try it forever. Now look at how beautiful this soup is:

It had everything...the wontons, the shrimp, the pork balls, and both yellow and white noodles. The best part, though, was the "pork chop." The pork came on two bones, and it fell right off of them when touched, and I'm sure it's what made the broth so tasty. The wontons were especially delicious, too, and I got my new favorite juice mixture to go with it, which is carrot/strawberry. I guess that, in general, the rule is that if a place is bursting with people day and night, what they are serving is probably bursting with flavor, too.

The cost of this soup: $2.30. But I will definitely pay the extra money and walk the extra distance for that pork and the broth that comes from it.

Back to Nam - the cowboy who introduced me to high quality Hu Tieu Mi and so much other great food. I see him almost every day when I pass him in his spot on Tran Hung Dao. He is usually reclining back on his seat, relaxing, looking very happy not to be driving me around every morning. But what do I know? Maybe, someday when he is drunk he will bring Minh to the castle and I will find out that he really misses me.

But for now, he usually just looks up out from under his Seattle Firefighter baseball cap and gives me a nod, a smile and a wave as I pass, and then goes back to passing the day comfortably.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

What is a Squid's Fly?

Or how about "Fly of Pig's Intestine"?
"Fly of Potato"?
"Fly of pork"?
(From a (way overpriced) little Japanese restaurant on my way home from school, in Little Japan of Saigon (they have teeny tiny portions, too - see all the squid's fly in the picture? I only got four!).)

Monday, September 14, 2009

Slurping Soup All Day Long

When I'm sick back home, I go out and buy a can of Campbell's Chicken Noodle Soup. Usually, I feel worse after eating it.

Here, when I am sick (did I mention I am sick? not Swine Flu Sick, though), I walk about 100 paces from the castle and sit down on a mini-plastic chair at one of the ubiquitous soup carts in our market for the most delicious, nutritious soup on the planet. And when I eat this soup, I feel like Superwoman. Superwoman with a runny nose, however; it's hot and spicy to get a good, healthy sweat going in the humidity. You kind of feel like you are sweating out the Sick.

For some reason, last year I was a bit shy about sitting down at these stands. It's a pretty intimate situation, ovbiously, and often you have to shift your seat when the motorbikes make their way through the crowded alley. But I am seeking the best soups for when my family comes in December. My dad, especially, loves soup, so I just endure the soup makers' and patrons' staring and snickering as they watch me fumble with using the spoon and chopsticks at the same time.

I'm trying to imagine all eight of us sitting down on these tiny chairs in the alley. Maybe I will have to send everyone out in twos and make a schedule to shift them through all of the best carts or something.

Anyway, this woman's soup is my current favorite. Look at all the goodies she puts into it: pork, pork rind fat, huge prawns, thick round rice noodles (you can barely see them peeking through the bottom) and lots of tasty, crunchy greens and lime.

And- I know I have mentioned this before- but most of the really great soups are served for breakfast. Yep, this culture slurps noodles all day long.

Katherine and I are hooked on the pho stand right around the corner at night...I kind of alternate between that one and my Chinese wonton soup cart and end up eating soup about four nights a week. Now I'm eating it in the mornings, too (more to add for my new definition of "normal").

Since I had my camera out, I decided to take pictures of the two women who have a daily morning contest to say "Hell-O" to me first as I walk by. They are set up right across from one another - one sells onions,
whole garlic, minced garlic, shallots and minced shallots, limes
, whole peppers and crushed peppers (so muc
h of the work is done for you here), the other sells men's gym shorts and towels. So when I asked Garlic Lady if I could take her picture, in the same competitive passion that she displays each day, Towel Lady says, "Me, me!" That is why she is laughing so hard in the picture.

Since I had soup so early this morning, I will try for round two at 11, before the market closes for the day. But for now, Superwoman is going to take a nap during her Swine Flu Time, Day II.

Saturday, September 12, 2009


I haven't been blogging lately because my definition for "normal" has changed so much... I ride my motorbike to school every morning feeling like an ant among many blaring cows, ride the three final blocks against traffic on the sidewalk - at times in the pouring rain, in a dress - teach in what feels like an earthquake school all day because of the construction outside, reboot my computer often when the powerlines are cut, teach 6th graders English English English all day, then go to the most expensive gym in Saigon when I'm done with work.

No mothers to annoy me, eating soup every night...absolutely nothing to report.

Well, here's something: I do find it entertaining how many people like to hold conversations with me while we are riding next to each other in such heavy traffic. Women laugh, embarrassed, and say "hello, Madame" to me all the time. Children on the back of bikes also snicker and say "hello!" Last night, a guy says, "Miss! Your lights aren't on!" and then, "Where you from?" and then, "Obama!" and then, "Will you be my friend?" all while driving down the busiest street in Saigon.

And I guess I could tell you that the pedicurist at the Bum Bum took a part of my heel off when she was doing the dead skin scraping thing last week and all the Bum Bum Girls gasped at the amount of blood that was pouring out of my heel and then one opened a cigarette to apply tabacco to the open wound (which wouldn't stop bleeding and the tabacco hurt so so so much my eyes watered...) They felt so bad that they didn't even charge me the 60 usual cents.

All of this is now in my definition of "normal."

Oh, and: just received a confirmed case of swine flu at the middle school. School closed Monday and Tuesday.

Yeah, so Swine Flu at the middle school and now a little story about the visit from the castle landlords:

This morning, the Landlord Family came to do a few repairs around the castle. While the landlord, Khanh, and his brother were upstairs repairing my shower, his wife and daughter stayed downstairs with me. The daughter speaks pretty good English, but it is strained. After a bit of polite conversation, I continued to make the babaganouj I had been making when they came. I took the roasted eggplant (that I get in the market for 20 cents), mashed it up, added Tahini, lemon, garlic, salt and olive oil. I was mashing, mashing, mashing when the daughter, Thao, comes into the kitchen and very modestly asks, "Excuse me, what are you making?"

Try to explain "babaganouj" to someone who has never had it. I got the end of the eggplant out of the trash, showed her the Tahini and the lemon. Of course, it has taken us a long time to find lemons and Tahini in this city, so she had never seen either before. I hadn't picked up any naan from the Indian restaurant yet, but wanted her and her mother (who had also crept into the kitchen, fascinated at what I was doing) to taste it. So I got a piece of thick Italian bread out, grilled it in olive oil, cut it up and spread some of the dip onto the pieces.

Both of them thought it was delicious. Thao wanted the recipe, so I began to write it down.

"Maybe I use mayonnaise instead of tahini?" (because I couldn't explain where to buy the tahini) she asks me.

"No," I answer. "It wouldn't be good."


Then I show her the lemon and say, "You must find this, too."

She points to a lime on the table and says, "I can't use this?"

"No," I say, "that wouldn't be good."

I'm trying to imagine what babaganouj would taste like with lime and mayonnaise. I don't think they would have liked that babaganouj.

Next time they come, I plan to have a take-out menu from the Mediterranean restaurant in town with me. I will circle things they should order and see if they try it; seems that many of the foreign restaurants only attract ex-pat crowds...Vietnamese people tend to stay away and eat their own delicious food.

So now I will contemplate what to do with all of my Swine Flu Time for the next few days. Hopefully, it will not be taken up with symptoms of the swine flu, because then my life would not be "normal" (unless compared to the students at Washington State University).

Monday, September 07, 2009

What Stuff and Squid Costs

Thanks so much to everyone for insightful comments about cross-cultural weight issues. Wow, is it ever confusing.

While I understand it can be "positive" in many cultures, here in Vietnam being heavy is not positive.

(It's positive when Sweet Seamstress gives me the skinny waist hands, though, which she did the other day...)

I did think it was culturally interesting that so many of my friends emailed me to tell me how great I looked in the summer, and how not fat I am. It's so ingrained in us, isn't it?

Anyway, back to this post...this past summer I told a lot of people that it's possible to rent a bungalow on the beach for really is a breakdown of what it could cost you (although you can definitely get really, really upscale bungalows for a variety of prices) based on what ten of us did this past weekend in Mui Ne, which is about a five-hour drive from Ho Chi Minh City

The bungalow pictured above, right on the beach = $10 per bed, per person, per night.

A hired driver with a van, shared by 10 people (three Brits, two Austrians and Five Americans (four of those Seattleites!) = $17 each

(A bus ticket to Mui Ne (with recliner sleeping seats), on the other hand, would cost about $8.)

Seared sea bass on top of a bed of mashed cauliflower and potatoes with olive tapenade, sun dried tomato relish and orange reduction sauce with a glass of really nice New Zealand white wine at the Sailing Club (you walk down a torchlit path to a beautiful dining area next to the pool and beach) = $14 (delicious)

Squid with garlic (at the bungalow hotel restaurant) = $3

Squid with cashew nuts = $3

Squid with lemongrass = $3

Grilled squid with spicy = $3

Deep Fried Squids = $3

I ate a lot of squid.

I even ate a lot of deep fried squid because I am so not fat.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Better and Less Expensive Than a Weight Scale

The first week I was back, Thuy and Thanh were over cooking with Katherine, Tarn and me. They mashed up a bunch of white fish, molded it around huge Vietnamese shrimp, dipped them in egg and flour, and fried them in oil. They also made a mayonnaise/chili dipping sauce.

While we were all standing in the kitchen waiting to devour this greasy treat, Thanh said, quite casually, "Maggie go to Seattle and get fat!" And then she laughed.

Read that comment again. Let it sink into your American, westernized psyches.

This is not a new thing to me nor Katherine. Not only are we Amazons in this country and especially in this non-foreigner neighborhood, but every time we gain a little weight, someone lets us know it. The day I returned, when Sweet Seamstress laid eyes on me-and-my-extra-five pounds, she said "Hi Maggie!", looked at my waist and then made a wide gesture with both hands. Then she came over and touched my stomach. She has done this before. Last year, our housekeeper made the same gesture at Katherine.

After that, Katherine suggested that we should just burst into tears the next time it happens, to get our cultural message across.

When Sweet Seamstress made the gesture and touched my stomach, I just laughed and said, "Yes, America!" as in, "Yes, I come from a culture of fat and I went home and my culture made me fat. Your culture does not make you or me fat."

But when Thanh said these words to me, Katherine told her, "That's a mean thing to say in our country. That makes us feel sad." But all this scolding produced was uncontrollable laughter out of both Thuy and Thanh. I was never one of those kids to be pointed at and called "fat" in junior high, but this little episode brought me to that feeling place, for sure. It felt awful.

Katherine and I have analyzed this pretty completely between last year's incidents and this one; Katherine - being a PE teacher - is very well-read and studied on the issue of body image. She begins all of her health and PE classes talking about all-around health... including relationships with friends and family, eating well, exercising, etc. It is her passion as a PE teacher. So the fact that our culture tells us to eat more and then turns on us and tells us to hate the result of eating more makes her feel that the teaching of a healthy life balance is her most important message for kids: healthy bodies come in all shapes and sizes.

So what we have come up with, the two of us, is this: their way is probably better. Just like the honking of the motorbikes stating "I am here" is anything but mean, Thanh's comment, "Maggie went to Seattle and got fat" was a statement of truth (although, I must say, the five pounds didn't really feel "fat" - see, I can't even say it about myself...I was "swollen from the heat..." "a bit heavier...") and was not at all loaded as it would be in our culture. Thanh is anything but mean. She is lovely and giving and sweet. And truthful. And the Vietnamese culture does not encourage you to eat more, more, more. Their portion sizes are reasonable. There is no such thing as Super Sizing anything. Even Cokes are regular sized...nothing giant exists. Ice cream bars are little and there are no ice cream shops where you can order three scoops in a waffle cone. Yep, their way is better, again.

But you know what? Even though I can see all of this culturally and objectively, I do hold it against them, someplace where I can't get rid of it. That statement has been tagged as one of the meanest statements in our culture of fat. We Americans can say it like it is in so many situations, but in that one, we remain quiet liars.

So, how did I respond? That night I got really quiet and melancholy. T and T asked me if I was "sad."

"Just tired," I answered. And I ate way less of the greasy shrimp (which were extremely delicious) than I would have, otherwise.

But then I went on to respond in the way any respectable American woman would, by losing that *&^% five pounds within about ten days (at the most expensive gym in Saigon). If you think getting on a weight scale is motivation for keeping your weight down, try having a Sweet Seamstress three doors down who will make a wide gesture with her hands if you gain a pound. That, I'm telling you, is much better incentive to keep yourself in line.

And it's also free.