Category Archives: food

Rice, glorious rice: Vietnam’s staple

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Seasons take on a different meaning in Vietnam.  Whereas all the usual seasons songs in my ESL repertoire are firmly rooted in the northern hemisphere cycle of spring, summer, autumn and winter, this does not match the reality of Central Vietnam.  Autumn – or fall as it now just as easily rolls of my tongue – does not come dressed in golden yellow or burnished red hues; neither are trees unceremoniously defrocked by blustery winds leaving branches bare and waiting to be robed with the sequined sparkle of snow.   Although Tet and the onset of spring in early February is marked with a flurry of yellow buds and flowers on the pavements, in Vietnam the only things that change colour as the seasons progress are the rice paddies….


My first view of the rice paddies in Vietnam was in late August, on a trip to Binh Ninh – an area not too far from Hanoi.  Against the backdrop of impressive karst scenery, lush green fields filled every available stretch of land either side of the waterway coursing through the valley.



On arriving in Quang Ngai, central Vietnam, I did not take much notice of the rice paddies; I was too engrossed in the experiences of exploring a new country.  During my first trips to the beach and the nearby pagoda, I was focusing on memorizing roads, routes and landmarks.  Of course, the verdant fields attracted my attention, but cycling to keep up with others meant that taking photographs had to be postponed to a later time, when I could visit the area at my own leisurely pace.   Early November finally saw me on a solo trip to the beach, phone in hand to take snapshots of the green landscapes of the locality.   With the start of the rainy season and the promise of water galore in the paddy fields, water buffalo wallowed among the rice plants and noisy rafts of ducks splashed in their vastly extended ponds.

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I can only surmise I missed the early winter rice harvest, as only a couple of months later, the abundant greenery had suddenly vanished.  In the gloom of January and early February, brown, muddy fields, bearing the spikey remnants of rice stalks, were already being prepared for the next rice crop.  In central Vietnam, the rice cycle – from seedling to mature plant ripe and ready for harvesting – takes about three months, so farmers can produce at least two crops each year making the most of the wetter and cooler months.


In mid April, I was alerted to the next harvest.  Bags bulging with rice appeared on the pavements  and  mounds of rice were spread out thinly on the roads near my place of work…  Just before the rice is harvested, the paddy fields are drained, leaving the threshed rice kernels damp.  Unless they are thoroughly dried, farmers risk their crop becoming mouldy and no longer fit for consumption.   No better place to dry the grains than on sun-soaked, tarmaced or concreted roads…


So, it looked like the time had come to get back onto my bike and cycle the familiar route to the beach…  Alongside the road the once green and brown fields had turned the telltale yellow shade of grains ripened and ready for harvest.  Ears of rice drooping down, heavy with fat kernels.

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Normally bustling roads were fringed with rice-coated plastic sheets; most courtyards were covered too and offered easy pickings for a lone cockerel.  Even the gates to the military cemetery for soldiers and fighters of the Vietnam War were opened and the path leading up to the memorial was blanketed with more rice grains…


If I was expecting to see farmers toiling with scythes and sharp knives to cut down the rice, I was in for a surprise.  With plenty of low-lying land on the coastal plains, small combine harvesters have made light of that side of the rice harvest.  New technology and mechanisation are slowly but surely transforming how rice gets from the paddies onto the table.



Nevertheless, there still remains a lot of manual labour involved in the rice harvest and the fields are busy with people…often only too happy to pose for a picture..


The Pavement Food Culture of Vietnam.


‘Vietnam is not like China,’ the young bartender assures me.  I guess he must be somewhere in his mid-twenties…  I have taken refuge in a bar, to savour a cool beer and escape the crushing afternoon heat of Hanoi in August.  Inevitably our chit-chat turns to my recent past as we linger on my reasons for being in Vietnam and my less than favourable feelings about China.  ‘Unlike China, we know what goes on in the world, and can freely browse the internet, ’ he continues. ‘Not that long ago, there was yet another war between China and Vietnam.  Maybe it was not reported to the outside world, but it definitely happened…’  Uncle Ho may well have courted China in his bid to win the Vietnam War, but the love has long since been extinguished and replaced by unwavering distrust and suspicion, if not enmity.


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The young man speaks surprisingly good English, although he admits that topics unrelated to food leave him rather lost for words, English ones that is.  Whilst he has lived in Vietnam all his life, he has a younger sister (or maybe half-sister, I did not probe too deeply), born and raised in Germany.  As she does not speak Vietnamese and the bartender has never felt the need to learn this European language, their Skype conversations depend on the one language they have in common:  English, and the one passion they share: food.  His rather limited vocabulary suits me, I love food too and have been told by Vietnamese friends in China that street food in Vietnam is the way to go, it is absolutely the best…  Did I detect some bias here??  And what about hygiene??  Best to avoid the empty looking restaurants  and stands and head for busy, well-attended eateries ignoring the mouth-watering waft from tender and tasty pork morsels, chicken pieces, flavoursome mince cigars using betel leaves…  ‘These days, you eat street food at your own peril,’ my Vietnamese friends advise.


True to my friends’ and the bartender’s words though, food is everywhere in Hanoi.  On the pavements street vendors and shopkeepers flaunt their wares, a cornucopia of bright colours fresh from the field (I hope) and exotic, tantalising fruits to tempt passers-by.


Fish, painfully heaving to catch their final breath, vie for attention with large slabs of pork, pink and succulent.


Others peddle their goods from baskets suspended on their bicycles, moving on and attracting customers along the way, or visiting their regular clientele.   And who can miss the hard-working sellers eking out a meagre living carrying quang ganh (two baskets on either end of a long bamboo stick) on their shoulders, weighted with an abundance of  household goods or produce.  For many, life in Vietnam is still tough; progress and development has far from reached all echelons of society here.

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In the meantime,  the bartender, eager to practise his English, proves an excellent source of information.   He is local and directs me to a rather unusual restaurant where they cook poussin (baby chicken) in empty drinks cans.  Talking about taking recycling another step further…  My curiosity piqued and Google-Map enabled, I set out to find out the street.  ‘Mind you get there before six or seven in the evening,’ the bartender calls out as I am ready to leave. ‘Vietnamese people eat early, and they may have sold out if you get there too late.’   I make it to the shop before the rush, plenty of hapless chicks still on display.


I cannot say that looking at those pitiable blackened feet and wretched heads works wonders for my appetite as I watch the cook prise one ready-to-eat bird from its container.  To the contrary, I have tried chicken feet in China and, no thank you, I am not quite ready to suck the brains out from a baby chicken’s head… I go in search of more familiar, and to me, palatable restaurant dinner options:  fish baked in banana leaf sounds more like it… and some Vietnamese spring rolls.  Delectable.



And the winner of ‘The Best Texan Chilli’ is ….


I love cooking… so when the opportunity to take part in the ‘First Hangzhou Chilli Cook Off’ competition  presented itself I was not going to turn it down!!   Adverts for the event cluttered all the expat websites tempting budding chefs, not just Americans and foreigners who know what a chilli should taste like, but also local Chinese cooks.  Let’s try to integrate and promote a sense of community, the message rang.  Proceeds to go to charity! The leaflet did not exactly specify which one, but it sounded like a good cause nonetheless.  Plenty of orphanages and disadvantaged children to be cared for, we thought.

Being in the company of Indians, we left the Chilli to the Americans/Europeans and plumped for the ‘Non-Chilli Spicy Food’ class, concocting an Indian curry instead.  Our initial team of three shrunk to just two members on the day, we set off laden with ingredients, banners and bunting to jolly up our stall.


As the non-Indian member of my team, I focused mainly on chopping and stirring, leaving the adding of spices to the ‘One In The Know’ and kept fingers crossed.  We were working on Indian intuition, not a recipe book in sight…  And although P had tried out the curry before, she had not cooked it in the large quantities we were expected to produce…  Neither were we prepared for the cooking conditions:  a huge pot on a rather small burner giving off a paltry heat unable to cope with the vast amounts of onions to be sweated and browned…


So at the 10 am start of the event, our curry was still bubbling away and aromatizing, slowly gaining the optimum flavour to present to the judges and the public.  Our next door neighbours, definitely in the right spirit and dressing the part, were keen chilli fans, the pleasant odours of their wares wafting across…  We shared their beers, which was a lot cheaper than buying our drinks in the pub/restaurant run by an American who was clearly making a mint on the day…

Visitors came to our stall and sampled our curry, nodding their heads in approval at finally savouring a proper curry in Hangzhou, one that resembled Indian food, as eaten in India…  We were confident…

The afternoon lingered on with plenty of tasters.  And in the background, the obligatory ‘Eat the most hamburgers’, ‘Eat the most pies’ and ‘Eat the most cake’ (without vomiting) competitions carried on.  We could have been at any Chilli Cook Off in the US of A…  But the day eventually drew to a close when all the chillies had been consumed and everyone was eagerly anticipating the announcement of the winners…

I had looked around earlier and tried several of the chillies and curries entered by the other teams.  Apart from the professional amateurs from the Americas and Europeans regions, a sprinkling of local Chinese and Indian businesses also cooked chillies and curries.  And I was glad I was not the one to be judging the competition, although the Chicken Tikka Massala  cooked by the chef of a local Indian restaurant had all the hallmarks of too much sauce, too much food colouring and too little resemblance to anything Indian that I have eaten in India..  You know the kind of Chicken Tikka Massala that comes out of a jar…

But we should have taken more notice of the local businesses sponsoring the event and their lavish contributions to the raffle prizes…  Indeed when the winners were announced, not a single American entry was deemed the best.  You would have thought they should have been able to cook up ‘The Best Texan Chilli’.  The trophy went to the Chinese chefs of the restaurant that donated generous raffle prizes…  And the best non-Chilli dish trophy went to the Indian chef of a restaurant supporting the event…   And at the last minute, the organisers announced a surprise new category: the invention of a new chilli dish … which was given to a Chinese business selling chilli ice cream…  And the charity we supported???  A local ladies football team….

Thank goodness we made our own fun that day, but I wonder how many non-Chinese entrants will be rushing back for the Second Hangzhou Chilli Cook-Off….  Maybe sponsors of the event should be in a separate category????

And if you wonder about the spelling of ‘chili’; blame the Americans…




Food shopping Chinese style.

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I love food and, by now, have mastered the art of eating with chopsticks almost as expertly as any Chinese person… But the novelty of free school canteen food has long since worn off, and finally my first pay cheque has come through.  Shopping time!!!  After yet another trip to the local IKEA store I now am the proud owner of a wok AND a proper frying pan!  I have managed to sizzle bacon to a crisp and  rustle up French toast with fried bananas in the hollow of my wok , but believe you me, a wok and omelettes???

If getting proper utensils, cooking equipment, crockery and cutlery was half the battle, the other challenge is getting the right ingredients.  Although living in a more Westernised part of China, and in the vicinity of a branch of Wal-Mart, means I am not totally deprived of recognisable foods, they come at a price, an exorbitant price.  Cheese comes wrapped in plastic,  at about £4 for 200g.  Exotic cheeses such as Camembert are encased in protective tins, not quite authentic but the taste is not that bad…  Bacon and butter are available and a luxury I cannot do without.  And as for coffee?   Even at £9 for 1oog of instant, coffee is a must as I would struggle to start the day without it.  And when I next venture to IKEA, I will invest in a cafetière or other coffee making device and buy some real ground coffee to tickle my pampered taste buds…


On the upside, the Chinese love their greens and there is an abundance of vegetables on display in the supermarket, in the little vegetable shop around the corner or in the fruit and vegetable market.  After India, or the little hamlet of N in Kerala to be more precise (my Indian friends keep on pointing out that my view of all things Indian is pretty much warped because of living in a village rather than a town) where the scarceness of green vegetables all but dampened my excitement about food preparation, here the choice is myriad. From the familiar pak choy, spinach, leeks, broccoli and Chinese cabbage, to the more exotic such as lotus roots, all kinds of mushrooms and weird vegetables morphing into Laughing Buddhas.  It is vegetable heaven!!!  I still have to discover how to prevent each dish from having the distinct flavours of soy sauce, ginger and garlic, but I am working on that.


And then there is the meat… It takes some getting used to seeing raw chicken in a ‘free-for-all’ display and to watching Chinese shoppers delve into the delicacy of chicken feet.  In the supermarket, pork and beef are carefully sheltered behind plastic barriers and kept under a watchful eye, but in the market meat is on display on large metal or wooden tables, a rich selection.  Only, I am not so sure about buying my meat there in a few weeks time when the summer heat and humidity are bound to bring flies and other unwanted buzzy things in their wake.


In Wal-mart, barrels and barrels of dried fish in all shapes and shades of grey entice greedy hands to fill enormous bags.  Shrimps, prawns and langoustine, barely defrosted, are available at prices that make them an affordable treat. Of course, there are the live specimens where you can ‘pick your own’ with freshness guaranteed.   I have not been brave enough to try; a whole fish for one seems just a little over the top and not knowing which fish is which, I have avoided that challenge so far and, when on special offer or reduced in price,  stuck to rosy coloured salmon all neatly packed and wrapped…

And as for pigs cheeks, pig heads and other interesting meaty things getting perfumed by the fresh and polluted air…  I keep on the look-out for vegetarian protein whilst I conjure up memories of India with its mouthwatering dahls and finger-licking paneer dishes.  Tofu just doesn’t do it for me…










Sunday Afternoon at The Curry Leaf

kingfisherThis is bliss, sitting in the cool sea breeze overlooking the still turbulent monsoon waves, whiling away Sunday afternoon with a refreshing Indian beer, in the company of just my iPad and keyboard…

From my viewpoint at the top floor of the restaurant, overlooking the beach, I can watch the Indian locals and tourists frolicking in the water and taunting the waves, only a few weeks after five young men were swept away.  There is a red flag, frayed and torn, hanging limply after constantly being soaked – no match for the unrelenting Westerly wind that brought monsoon rains to all of India, bar the Southern tip where I am – and no deterrent for the overheating tourists looking for a reprieve from the roasting of the sun-rays.  And occasionally, the whoosh of the wind and waves is disturbed by the piercing whistle of a frantic lifeguard trying to keep everyone safe. Today the beach is heaving with visitors; it has been a long weekend with lots of holidays starting on Friday with the Hindu’s equivalent to All Soul’s Day, followed by Independence Day on Saturday and according to the waiter apparently there is another holiday coming up tomorrow in preparation of Kerala’s main Festival of Harvest…but as this one is not mentioned in the school’s diary I suppose we better turn up at school just in case.


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Who can blame the Indian sea revellers! I will be joining them later on on my way back; I can never resist feeling the sea water lapping at my feet, or even accidentally being engulfed by unexpected high waves, soaking my shorts or dress…  Today, I came prepared, wearing my bikini under my dress and even though I will be the only white spectacle on display if I choose to disrobe, life is too short to worry about what other people may think…  There are a few umbrellas, but they are only used by women to shield themselves from too much sun in the hope of retaining a paler skin, so much sought after and idolised by Indian media.

So finally, after having spent four dry months in India during my first stint, I have now discovered how and where to get a proper drink!!!  At a price, I have to admit, but still nowhere near the cost of a pint in an English pub.  The hotel where I stay has a bar, obviously, but rather tucked away out of view and last month I was the only customer there having an interesting conversation with the bartender lingering over a Pina Colada, which he quite liberally kept on lacing with more rum.  Varkala also panders to the Western tastes and alcohol is easy to come by…  I have now found a cocktail bar, although I would not recommend their Tequila Sunrise – too sickly sweet – and most restaurants indeed serve beer to menfolk and Western women alike.  Although last night’s Heineken, which accompanied my evening meal at the hotel, indeed drew some attention from the Indian women at the surrounding tables because in India women do not drink!!  And then there is the Curry Leaf in Kovalam, of course, where A and I often come at the weekends just to have a coffee or a lassi and escape from the boredom of the hamlet of N, or indeed today have my lunch WITH Kingfisher…the whole 650ml of it…so it takes me all afternoon to finish it.  Which is fine, it oils the writing.

So, to avoid paying premium prices for a little of relaxation with a drink, A and I have been trying to find somewhere to buy a beer, or a bottle of wine, to drink at home in the evenings…  There are indeed shops in N where alcohol is sold, but only men ever go there to buy it.  And thinking about our reputation, and the school’s reputation, we have not yet ventured in those shops in case it would get the gossipy tongues wagging.  Try Trivandum, someone suggested, it is a big place, no one would know you…  It was a plan…until I heard an Estonian girl visiting India for the first time who frequented such place and described the rather louche and unsavoury feelings that accompanied the buying of alcohol..  It sounded like a thing best avoided.  In the end, I asked a trusted auto rickshaw driver, whom I have used a couple of times and who understands just enough English to explain our predicament.  And he came up trumps!!  Whilst I waited patiently in the back of his rickshaw, he went into the shop and bought some prime specimens of contraband…  There are indeed ways and means in India, and often it is a case of knowing the right people to get things done…


Tequila Sunrise Pancakes for Breakfast.

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Emptying a house is not all doom and gloom… especially when it involves dealing with several bottles of spirits that have been maturing for a few years.  No point in letting these go to waste, or indeed pass them onto the children…  So I decided to apply my sense of adventure to the kitchen to invent or re-invent alcohol spiked foods,  and to improve on tried and tested recipes by adding booze.   It probably  would be more sensible to add the liquor to coffee or pour it over ice, but then as a single glass of wine sends me over the edge and into a wobble, I might never get to the bottom of them…  And I LOOOOOOVE cooking, so why leave all the fun to Jamie Oliver!!!

But what to do with a hardly touched bottle of Tequila???  It must have had a culinary purpose once, otherwise it would not have made its way into my cupboard.   And the only thing that springs to mind is Tequila Sunrise: a most seductive cocktail  stirring up fuzzy memories of a sultry summer’s night near the Mexican border in rather attractive company about a life time ago…  And as the images, although shrouded in a nebular mist, suggest a not entirely unpleasant experience, recreating it as a breakfast dish should certainly bring out the smiles.

So, here is my take on Tequila Sunrise for  breakfast: A deconstructed* Tequila Sunrise against a backdrop of pancakes: Tequila Sunrise Pancakes…   Definitely one to be included in the cookbooks of the brave at heart.   Although some of you may raise an eyebrow at having Tequila for breakfast, in my book SUNRISE is clearly connected with the sun coming up which traditionally happens in the morning, even in the land down under…

* If unfamiliar with the term ‘deconstructed’ you are clearly not watching enough of Master Chef and Bake Off…

Recipe and Ingredients:

  • Pancakes : flour, sugar (optional), egg and milk. As I have not used a recipe for pancakes in years, nor ever bother to measure or weigh the ingredients – and made no exception on this occasion – it would be my advice to follow your instinct and make a batter that looks the right consistency.  Or if in doubt, consult a cookery book or the internet.
  • Orange: Just add some grated rind of an orange to the batter, but not too much as the rest of the orange will grace your plate to add a little interest and décor.  It also counts towards the healthy part of your breakfast.
  • Tequila: amount up to personal preference.  I needed about a quarter of a bottle, but this was mainly due to the impracticalities of trying to produce a flambéed variety.  Heating the alcohol, striking a match, pouring the flaming Tequila AND trying to take a reasonable snap of the action meant that many takes were required to obtain a presentable photograph as I did not have a little helper, as Jamie Oliver would.  Well, he probably would have a whole crew at his disposal to document the event.  Also,  accompanying  the pancakes with an unadulterated Tequila shot is optional, but will certainly add to the sunshine…

Word of warning: it is advisable to turn off the extractor fan when flambéing unless you intend to alter your hairstyle to the singed look… or set the house on fire…

Slightly fuzzy... not enough hands!!!

Slightly fuzzy… not enough hands!!!

  • Pomegranate: the grenadine that gives Tequila Sunrise its red layer is a concoction of sugar and pomegranate juice.  Having discovered the pleasures of pomegranate during my recent stay in India, I am a staunch convert and know it needs no sugar…. so liberally increase your intake of the pure version, adding to your Five A Day!
  • Recipe: garnish the plate with slices of orange and pomegranate seeds, make pancakes, warm Tequila and set alight (read caution above and take care) , pour over pancakes and ENJOY!!!!   So simple, but really divine…  Will definitely feature again on the menu!

Remnants of a bottle of Bell’s Scotch Whisky were the next to be turned into breakfast fayre.  And as I ritually take liberties with English customs, freshly baked scones with clotted cream and home made jam are definitely a morning food in my house!  Using last season’s frozen strawberries, still lingering in my freezer, I made jam this week adding liberal portions of Whisky.  The internet was vague on whether the alcohol should be added at the beginning or after cooking, so I included both options to ensure we would be able to savour the full flavour and effect on our scones at the weekend.  And the raspberry liqueur still languishing in the cupboard is destined to increase the zing factor in my next batch of raspberry jam!


The pleasures of Tia Maria can also be experienced at breakfast time as leftovers of Nigella Lawson’s ‘Chocolate Espresso Cake with Caffe Latte’ laced with oodles of Tia Maria is recommended as the perfect morning pick-me-up combining chocolate and espresso coffee; the alcohol is just an added extra to make the start of the day even more appealing.


That just leaves me with a rather full bottle of Brandy to turn into a breakfast dish…  And a new take on French Toast strikes me as the obvious choice.  Dousing Eggy Bread in Maple Syrup sounds so yesterday!  ’ The more’s the pity’,  Canadians may think, but all good things come to an end eventually.   Although my version is still in its embryonic phase, it will centre around French Fine Cognac and apples and obviously some bread, egg and milk and a splash of brandy to replace the vanilla essence??? …  Watch this space….  You read it here first!!! ..

Maybe I have missed my calling and I should have become a chef…  ‘Breakfast Food and Alcohol: A Marriage Made in Heaven’ sounds like a good title for a cookery book…