Monday, September 5, 2011

We made some beer!

Matt has brewed beer with friends before, but our place in San Diego was way too small to do it ourselves. Pretty much as soon as we found out we were moving to Kentucky Matt started getting excited about home brewing. So he ordered a starter kit complete with ingredients for a West Coast Pale Ale recipe from Home Brew Mart in San Diego (where the Ballast Point tasting room is in Linda Vista) and we brewed some beer! I'm still fuzzy on the process so I honestly couldn't explain much of what we did but here are some photos.

We basically used the simplest recipe possible by using dried malt extract. This provides sugar that the yeast will eat and turn into alcohol. In the future, we'll probably purchase some steeping grains from the local home brew supply store, My Old Kentucky Homebrew, but this was a good way to start.

Adding the malt extract.
After a lot of bubbling and stirring, we added hops. Because Matt is making beer with me we made something minimally hop-y, but all beer uses some bittering hops. I'm sure he'll want to dry hop something eventually.

Adding the hops.
Matt ordered a pot meant for an army or something, so it was too big to fit in our sink and we had to cool it in the bathtub. It made it a little tricky but it worked out. As a consequence of having a giant pot around the house I now want to make a huge batch of phở.

Cooling the wort
Once the beer had cooled to the right temperature, we moved it into our primary fermentor. At this point we used a hydrometer to measure the specific gravity or whatever, but unfortunately the recipe from Home Brew Mart didn't include the finishing gravity so really I still don't understand that part or why we did it. I guess it somehow measures the density of the liquid and that reflects how much alcohol is present? I don't really know. Anyway, we added the yeast, which is what turns sugar into alcohol. Yeast does some awesome things for us humans, if you think about it.

Adding the yeast.
Then the waiting game began. We kept an eye on the air lock (which is what allows the gas produced by the yeast to escape without letting naughty, undesirable organisms and contaminants in) to make sure the yeast was doing its work.

All sealed up!
After a week or so, it technically had alcohol, but again, because I don't understand the specific gravity thing I couldn't say how much.

Beer! Sort of.
Then we were ready to put it into a secondary fermentor to . . . ferment some more? Moving it is called "racking." I really don't understand the importance of moving it before it continues to ferment. I'll have to read up on the process before we try this again so I actually understand what's going on.

So then it hung out in this glass carboy, covered with a blanket to keep the light out, for a little more than a week before we were ready to bottle. This is when we added bottling sugar, which is what gives the yeast enough to eat to make carbonation. It doesn't carbonate before that because the air lock lets out those bubbles.

Dissolving the bottling sugar. This will give it bubbles!
Then we put it back into our primary fermentor because that bucket had a handy spigot for bottling, and then we bottled it and put lids on it. The bottling was actually kind of fun, but that may be because Matt did all the sanitizing because he is nice to me.

I should mention that the suckiest thing about home brewing beer is sanitizing everything. It's tedious and feels kind of uncertain. It is super important though because you only want yeast growing in there, not other nasty things. The beer is not quite ready yet as it has only been bottled for nine days, but we decided to try a bit and I dare say it tastes like beer! We're excited and look forward to starting another batch soon.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Remembering Borders

Why hello there August! Say, have you seen July? I'm told it was here for 31 days but it seems I missed it. I guess I was too busy going to Pittsburgh, seeing Harry Potter 7.2, checking out Louisville's small comic book convention, going to Lebowski Fest, making soap, getting a washer and dryer, and taking a tour of Louisville to have time to greet July at all.

So, anyway I used to work at Borders and it is officially going to disappear now. Booksellers across the internet are reminiscing on good/all right/not so great times as they say goodbye to a fixture in their lives. Even though it is no surprise, and even though my time with Borders was relatively brief and not recent, I am still sorry to see it go.

From July 2006, my third month there.
I stayed for two more years.
With this news, I'm thinking back on my coworkers and experiences there, remembering customers like the women with their weekly stacks of romance novels, the guy who used his dog to flirt with younger men, the 18-year-olds saying their naked lady magazine is for an "art project," the kids spending their allowance money, the elderly gentleman who carried a huge notebook cataloging his classical CDs so he didn't end up with duplicates, the teachers replacing copies of Cirque du Freak books that their students inevitably stole, the couples stopping by after their date at Gordon Biersch or wherever . . .

Then I ended up looking at some old blog entries I'd made on myspace (that tells you how long it's been since I worked at Borders) and that really brought back some memories. There was a great entry from July of 2007 about a guy who tried to make a fraudulent return. When told by my supervisor that his receipt was not valid, the man yelled, his voice shaking and spit flying from his lips, "Why don't you go f*#% your mother up the ass, and if she's dead dig up her bones and f*#% them!" Then he stormed out. That was during his first visit. The next time, when by some weird chance he again ended up at my register and with the same supervisor on duty, he threw a stuffed owl from a display at my supervisor's head before hurrying out the door.

Then there was a post from way back in 2006 titled, "strange things strange men say to me at work." It described a few awkward exchanges with customers, including one with an older-but-not-old man who asked to see my ring (which is an art nouveau style image of a woman's profile in silver). When I held my hand out to show him, he held it (my HAND) for more than a minute (a long time for a stranger to hold your hand) before releasing it and allowing me to finish the transaction. At the end he joked (admitted?), "It was just an excuse to hold your hand."

Then I remembered the guy my friend Justin dubbed my "Mark David Chapman." Fortunately, this is an   exaggeration and I have not been shot or even properly stalked. Anyway, my MDC was probably about the same age I was, which would have been about 23, although he may have even been a little younger than me. He had dyed black hair that hung heavy with product over his left eye. He was usually wearing a white dress shirt and skinny black tie. Those characteristics should paint a pretty clear picture. He was not one of our regulars. The first time he said anything to me, I was hurrying toward the back to take my break, which is a time when customers tend to ask for help. So when he said, "Excuse me," I was prepared to refer him to the information desk, but I was not prepared to hear, "I just wanted to say that, I, uh . . . think you're really pretty." So I said like, "Uh, thanks," or something, and I went to the back room to take my break.

Later in my shift, I saw him again and he told me he wanted me to have something. It was a small slip of folded paper and as I unfolded it he explained that it had his number on it. It was a special order slip for a CD from some band I'd never heard of (electonica, if I remember correctly) and so it had his name and contact info. I said thanks and he left. I had no intention of calling the guy, but I kind of admired his guts. As Matt would say, you've got to shoot to score, right?

BUT THEN. I came in one day and a couple dudes I work with said that some guy came in looking for me, asking my name and when I would work again. I was mildly amused but not yet annoyed. Then one day I was at the registers and there was a line and right in the middle of a transaction I heard my name. I looked up and there was MDC on the other side of the queue line, peeking over the display of bookmarks or junky beaded pens or whatever, grinning like an idiot saying, "Hey, Michael, that's your name right, Michael? HI!!!!" So I held up a finger to him, finished my customer, and asked for a break. Then I pulled him aside and explained that I was flattered but it wasn't really appropriate to interrupt me at work, because I was, y'know working and he got completely embarrassed and announced that he would never come back. I said that was his choice, he was certainly welcome in the store, free country and all that, but he insisted. And then he never came back again, at least not while I was there.

Of course, there was also the eccentric cast of coworkers that made up store number 225: from the loud eater to the gym-obsessed dude learning Italian (mostly the dirty bits), from the fab goth horror writer to the creep who ended every sentence with "ladies" (see Demetri Martin), from the pot smoking vegetarian grandma to the too-pretty-for-words-how-does-he-do-his-make-up walking manga character in the cafe, from the over-qualified doctorate holders to the shockingly dumb. They were sometimes annoying, sometimes fabulous, but pretty much always interesting. We had some good times. I wish all of my former workmates (even the ones that were less than a pleasure to work with) the best of luck in the future. 

Friday, June 10, 2011

My Name Revisited

So in a previous post I gave a little back story on my name, which kind of explains the former title of my blog. Basically, I found that I often introduced myself by saying, "I'm Michael . . . like the guys' name." This cut down on a lot of questions, and since I was on the phone for work, it was a handy crutch.

Here in Kentucky, I have realized I don't say it as much. It may be partly because I'm usually introducing myself in person. Whatever the reason, the phrase has organically dropped from my speech patterns. Now, when people ask my name, I find myself replying, "Michael, actually." And that's only if I use any kind of a qualifier at all; sometimes, I just say "Michael."

We've been in town for a while, and I've met people here and there, and no one--NO ONE--has asked me about my name. It's really . . . refreshing. And strange. Matt has suggested that maybe it's Southern politeness. Who knows? I won't be surprised if people ask as we get to know them better. But names tend to be such small chat fodder that I was prepared to field all manner of questions as we met new people. Slowly but surely, we are getting out in order to build our roster of friends and acquaintances (so far, no one has made the team, but it'll happen).

So, in honor of my new introduction, and because I have never really loved the title of my blog anyway, I am re-branding my blog as Michael, Actually. Because really, I'm not blogging about travel or food or politics or fashion or whatever else. This blog is all about me, actually. So that's the new name! It's probably a little weird to change the name of a blog after more than a year, but it just felt . . . right? Plus it's shorter, which I like. The url is still the same, so hopefully there won't be too much confusion. So what do you think? Is it weird, do you hate it? You hate it, don't you? Or do you?

Monday, June 6, 2011

A Reflection on Impactful Books

So the internet is all aflutter with responses to this article about "dark" literature for teens. I heard about this from Maybe Genius, and while her response is short she shares a few links to a couple pieces that pick at the original text in more detail. I don't plan on delving into the issues with the original piece; this is more a story about me. So if it interests you, I suggest reading the original and a few responses if you haven't already.

If you just want the gist of it, basically this woman, Megan Cox Gurdon, wrote a piece for the WSJ complaining that books for teens these days deal too much with rape, abuse, self-mutilation and whatever other thing she deems inappropriate. She argues that it "normalizes" these things. She attacks some specific books as well as the publishing industry and the ALA. I couldn't even read the whole thing the first time I tried because I was too disgusted with what she had to say. But I finally read it all the way through, and she ends with, "No family is obliged to acquiesce when publishers use the vehicle of fundamental free-expression principles to try to bulldoze coarseness or misery into their children's lives." So it seems she wants to shelter teens from reading about sad and terrible events and situations, even though we can't shelter teens, or anyone, from experiencing sad and terrible events and situations.

Many have responded to explain that this literature actually helps teens get through these issues. And that is so true. Really, I can't fathom how she feels justified in complaining about this. The fact is (and I'm sure someone out there in the blogosphere or twitterverse has expressed this already) if she doesn't approve, that's between her and her kid (who I'm sure is very normal and well adjusted and happy ALL THE TIME, like most teenagers). Why does she want to limit what others can access because of her opinion? The woman just sounds very anti-knowledge to me.

Anyway, the point of this whole summary (because I haven't added anything to this discussion) is to provide background for a personal anecdote. I started thinking about books that cover "dark" topics and also about the fact that my mom never restricted what I read. And then I recalled there was one book that my mom didn't like me reading but let me finish anyway. The book is Alicia: My Story and it is an autobiography written by a Holocaust survivor.

Now, I'm guessing that Mrs. Gurdon wouldn't oppose the reading of this book by a thirteen year old girl. It doesn't cover any of the topics that seem to rile her, and there's the historical element, so surely she wouldn't be bothered. But my mother was bothered, because I would stay up late reading it (I stayed up late reading a lot back then) and would end up bawling constantly. My mom hated seeing me this upset by something. During certain parts of the books, I would just break down shaking and sobbing. I'd cry out loud. I'd curse the world for making anyone suffer as the Jewish people had. I'd already read The Diary of Anne Frank but had only cried at the end. This story had me weeping the whole way through, as Alicia Appleman-Jurman loses family member after family member, lives in a ghetto, escapes from a train crammed with people heading to certain death, goes into hiding, nearly ends up in a mass grave, and lives through many more horrors. Those are just the bits I can still remember, nearly 15 years after reading the book, once.

This book forced "coarseness" and "misery" into my life, more than any other book I read as a teen, although I did read some featuring rape and abuse. It had a profound and lasting effect on me, making the things I learned in history classes real and terrible. I felt disappointed in humanity a bit (it wouldn't be the last time). But it was so important that I read this. Not because it helped me through something, like many young adult books can, but because it taught me something about the human condition, which is what books do at their best. And those books attacked by Gurdon, don't they provide the same service?

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Birds Don't Have Teeth and Other Silly Complaints About Louisville

From the Wikipedia article about UofL Athletics.
So far, I am really digging Louisville. We have tried a number of good restaurants, there are trees everywhere, and we even have a couple leads on friends. But, since I am a whiner and contrarian, I will share a few impressions that are less than positive.
  1. Before we even knew we were moving here, Matt pointed out (most likely in the context of college basketball) that the U of L Cardinal has teeth. Now I can't stop thinking about it. As a side note, it turns out some birds do in fact have teeth, or at least teeth-like anatomy within their beaks (I'm looking at you, geese), which is really a terrifying discovery because I don't need any more reasons for birds to star in my nightmares.
  2. I love ice cream. I love it a lot. But honestly, what is wrong with the portions out here?! A scoop of ice cream should be about the size of my fist. Every time I have ordered ice cream I have received a scoop the size of Andre the Giant's fist. It's too much, even for me, and the other night I was forced to admit to Matt (and myself) that yes, maybe I am mildly lactose intolerant. No human being needs that much ice cream in one sitting!
  3. People out here seem to think that phone numbers don't need area codes, as evidenced by everything from "For Rent" signs to business ads. It's 2011 people! We all have cell phones and relocation is possible, frequent, and sometimes necessary in this day and age. I think the area code around these parts is 502? But how should I know? The local public transit system doesn't even provide an area code for the information line on the nearly useless signs posted at their stops (nearly useless because they only say "Board Here" and don't specify the bus number).
  4. Humidity. I have straight hair but it gets kind of . . . flippy? And suddenly my short haircut is no longer sleek. And while we're talking about weather, the clouds have really dumped on us so far. I'm told this is irregular, which is good, because I moved to the South, y'all, not the Pacific Northwest. If I have to put up with this much rain I should I least get driving distance access to Seattle, Portland, and my awesome friends in that area.
  5. Apex Theaters, a pair of local indie movie theaters, show more mainstream movies than indie movies, but I guess they're better than nothing. I haven't actually been to the Baxter Avenue location, even though it is in our neighborhood, but the Village 8 location is SUPER cheap and has some decent offerings mixed in with the regular stuff. Still, they're no Landmark Theatres, which I could rely on to pretty much tell me what movies I'd like. 

There's more, like that produce is more expensive (oh avocados, how I miss you), Trader Joe's does not yet have a location here, and even though we have had some good Mexican food we can't seem to find a decent tortilla. And of course, it goes without saying that the lamest thing about relocating to Louisville is that I couldn't force all my friends to relocate with me.

In unrelated news, Snoopy is back to her Snoopariffic self. She doesn't yet seem comfortable outside, but she's down to hang out with the people in her household. No complaints there.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

A Bit Heavy

I've been meaning to post for while and this week I have no excuse since things have settled down a bit. I was so focused on finishing up my tales of my February trip that I haven't really updated much about the move or anything like that.

From the living room of our new place.
I'm in Louisville now, and I had plenty of posts planned about all the things I'll miss about San Diego, or all the things I look forward to about Kentucky, or about notions of home. Plus, it's National Library Week, so I have been meaning to post about that. But somehow I just haven't been in the mood . . . And then I feel guilty for not keeping up with my blog, even though it's something I choose to do and therefore should be fun.

I guess I feel guilty for more than just not blogging. Instead of being productive by unpacking or looking for a job or even writing I'm squandering my time on the internet, playing trivia games or reading semi-informative but humorous blogs or not at all informative but wicked funny blogs or discovering new (to me) webcomics or browsing wikipedia for hours on end and then realizing I'm reading about Jack the Ripper or horrible sea creatures (aren't they all horrible?) when that wasn't my intention.

If you want insight into my brain and my life, go read this incredibly relatable Hyperbole and a Half post about being an adult. Even if you don't want the insight, read it anyway because the blogger is hilarious. This is basically what happened with my promise to correspond with a bunch of strangers, and I'd like to get that started again but I need to get to a point where I can trust myself to follow through, because everything went well for a few months but then I just . . . got distracted or something and again, the guilt has prevented me from picking up where I left off. For any of my pen pals that are reading this, I am sorry if I let you down.

Another thing that's bothering me is the behavior of our cat, who has been spending pretty much all of her time in the attic. If this door is closed, she will scratch, meow and pace in front of it until we open it. We don't open it when she scratches, but if she asks (meows) then we open it to let her explore.

Normally, she is a cuddle monster whose only desire is to sit on a lap and be petted. But since we let her come into the attic of our new place with us, all she wants to do is go back up there. She spends hours up there, just hanging out by herself. It would be different if she were a different cat. Plenty of cats are aloof and spend their time wandering around and maybe come to visit you for a few minutes a day. But not Snoopy. She lives for snuggles. In San Diego, when we were home she wanted to be in the room with us, preferably curled up on Matt's lap.

Besides, ignore her unusually social ways and she's still a cat, which means she should still come running for tuna. Well, she wasn't even interested in the tuna I gave her yesterday. I'd be worried that she got into something up there that was unhealthy for her but she seems to be eating, and when she does grace us with her presence she's not lethargic and demonstrates all signs of a healthy cat. Just not the healthy cat I know. I would blame the move, but until I opened the attic door to check it out and let her come along, she seemed like she was getting comfortable. Matt says it's probably a phase and I'm sure he's right, but I miss having her around.

Sorry to be heavy but I kind of felt like I needed to get that out. I don't really even feel lonely yet but I guess all the changes have me in a funk. On the positive side of things, I do like what I have seen of Louisville so far, and I'm meeting Matt downtown for dinner and a play tonight so that will be fun. Incidentally, for National Library Week I suggest you check out this NPR piece which points out many of the joys of a public library and is kind of targeted toward skeptics. As for me, I plan to get my Louisville library card before the week is through.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011


The famed Angkor Wat
Our time in Siem Reap, Cambodia was pretty much exclusively dedicated to the temples of Angkor. We only had part of two days there, as we arrived on February 22 and left on February 23. Consequently, our time there was jam packed with sight seeing and I'm actually really glad we didn't spend much time looking around town because the ancient monuments were worth it.

Since I was too busy moving to blog about this sooner, I have unfortunately forgot much in the last month. I do remember seeing Angkor Wat, Ta Prohm, and Angkor Thom. As my memory is poor, I resort to sharing some photos. Really, words and photos cannot accurately describe what it's like to see these wonders anyway.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Kem: Ice Cream in Vietnam

At Công Trường
So I haven't posted about it much, but the fact is I am an ice cream monster. Matt likes to joke about my "ice cream stomach," which is how I find room for ice cream even though I am otherwise full (the best part of being a grown up is that I don't have to finish my dinner to get dessert!). Naturally, before going to Vietnam I did a little research on ice cream and sweets. Most of what I read suggested that the Vietnamese don't really do dessert the way we do here, or that they usually have fruit for dessert. That may be true, but it was not hard to find sweets there. I learned to spot kem, the Vietnamese word for ice cream, very quickly.

In Hanoi, we went to Kem Tràng Tiền, which we read described as a "motorbike drive-in." I can honestly think of no better way to describe it.

Teenagers dig this joint, based on what we saw. Many of them seemed to be on dates. It was really quite cute. They apparently do sell cones, but they were out. We tried their popsicles instead, and honestly, I found the flavor to be just okay and the texture to be grainy and completely disappointing. At least the atmosphere was good.

Kem NZ was a place I read about quite a bit before our trip. As near as I can tell, it's a New Zealand chain, so I wasn't planning on trying it because it wasn't actually Vietnamese. However, our hotel in Hue had a Kem NZ at the hotel, so we had some. I tried the sticky rice flavor, which was interesting. I don't remember what Matt had, but I remember his dad had the durian flavor so I tried a bite and learned that WOW, durian is not for me (his dad loved it though; durian is nothing if not polarizing). Overall though, the ice cream was pretty good, with an atmosphere more like what I would expect to see in the States (bright colors, trendy design).

Note the sign is even in English
On our second night in Hue we had some really good sorbet at the restaurant where we had dinner. Unfortunately I don't remember the name of the place but the "lemon" sorbet was wonderfully refreshing with an intense flavor. Notably, everywhere we went in Vietnam limes were referred to as lemons. I don't remember if we ever saw what I would call a lemon there. So it was really lime sorbet. I need to try to make lime sorbet sometime, because I do love it.

In Ho Chi Minh City, it was hot so Matt and I shared a scoop from a street vendor selling cones from the back of his bicycle. As with many of our street food experiences, we just held up a finger (as we were just getting one) and took whatever they guy gave us. It appeared to be chocolate, which I tried to stay away from, because I'm sorry but Vietnam just doesn't seem to have quality chocolate. When I tasted it, I was glad we only ordered one cone because it was chocolate with durian swirl. Fortunately, Matt likes durian.

Moments before discovering the flavor.
The best ice cream we had though, and my favorite eating experience in all of Vietnam, was at Công Trường. In researching places to eat, I discovered the Gastronomer, who has a food blog that was incredibly useful for our trip. Based on her reviews of San Diego restaurants, I felt pretty confident she was a reliable source so we took her advice on a few dishes and places. One such place was Công Trường. I found nothing about it anywhere else, but after reading her review I made Matt hunt it down with me. It was not near our hotel but we walked to find it. We ordered the kem dua, which was recommended by the Gastronomer. It's coconut ice cream, served in a coconut, with the juice on the side, and with bits of fruit and nuts on top. It is amazing.

The consistency of the ice cream itself was wonderfully smooth; the addition of the nuts and dried fruit and the fresh coconut from the bowl adds a textural element that complements the ice cream perfectly. The flavor was intense and sweet. The whole experience was made better by the hot weather, which made the ice cream doubly refreshing. I recommend checking out the Gastronomer's post for a better description, as she puts the experience into words very well.

Flushed from walking in the heat but happy.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

City Snapshot: Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)

Ho Chi Minh City was our final stop in Vietnam. We were told in advance it would be the most Western, and I can definitely see where it gets that reputation. The French style of architecture is more prevalent here, a lot of the streets seem very modern. You can sort of see that in the photo, which was from the roof of the Rex Hotel. War buffs will recall that the hotel was the host of many a press conference during the American-Vietnam war.

By the time we reached this city we had been traveling incessantly, I was still dehydrated from a brief illness, and we were confronted with the hot and humid weather that we had expected but somehow had avoided in the northern and central regions. For these reasons, I wasn't as on top of pictures here as I was during the early part of our trip, which is a shame because this city is a fabulous place to observe the contrast of capitalism and communism. Walking down the street, we passed department stores and plenty of Western name-brand places (the kind I can't afford). We also continued to see the colorful, blocky propaganda posters that undoubtedly address about each person's important place as part of the whole, and also undoubtedly reference good ol' Uncle Ho.

We went into a department store that had its own food court and bowling alley. We went to a restaurant so trendy that we had to dine in the lounge area because we didn't have reservations. Matt and I had drinks on the roof of the Rex Hotel and my mojito cost seven dollars. Sitting on the roof, surrounded by old white people and looking out at the view in the photo above, I almost forgot I was in Vietnam.

However, the city streets still share much with the country's northern capital. We found street food (we ate banh mi here) and a crowded, bustling market indistinguishable from those we saw earlier on our trip. Ribbons of incense smoke twisted out of temples and assaulted our noses. We saw a barbershop set up on a street, the entirety of the shop being a mirror hanging on a fence, a chair in front of it, and the barber with a bag of supplies.

If I ever have an opportunity to return to Vietnam, I hope to make Ho Chi Minh City the primary destination.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Missing Dairy and Learning to Like Fish

Breakfast pho
So, I enjoy the occasional bowl of phở, but my taste buds are wired for Western food. I love cereal with milk for breakfast, I'm used to corn as a major grain (I live in the US, after all), and I come from a very steak and potatoes kind of family. As a (soon to be former) San Diegan, Mexican food is pretty much just "food" to me. Growing up, the only fish I ate was tuna, and while I have expanded my seafood appreciation to include ceviche and the occasional sushi dinner, I am not a seafood person.

I knew going into our trip to Vietnam that it would be a long two weeks for my tongue and stomach, and used our breakfasts at the hotels as a reprieve from Vietnamese food. At the same time, we wanted to try as many legit places (the kind with Vietnamese patrons) as possible while also trying some famous dishes, because sometimes things make it into every guidebook for a reason, right? I could fill a lengthy tome describing our culinary experiences, but I'm going to limit it to a few of my favorite dishes.

In Hanoi, we decided that regardless of my feelings for fish, we had to try the famed cha ca. It's a dish of bite-size pieces of monkfish that has been marinaded in galangal, turmeric and some other stuff, and then it's cooked at your table with dill and other herbs and served with rice noodles. There are a number of restaurants that serve it; in fact, there's a whole street called Cha Ca that you can visit to get your fill. For our first dinner in Hanoi, we chose Cha Ca La Vong, a generations-old family business that claims to be the origin of the dish and where the only menu item is cha ca.

They are prepared for tourists.

It was a-mazing. For me, it was all about the dill. The turmeric marinade was delicious as well. I got seconds. OF FISH. That never happens. Probably the second favorite thing I ate in the country (the favorite will be divulged in another post).

Just before entering our bellies.
In Hội An, in addition to our fantastic and tasty cooking class, Matt and I ventured into the market for food and drink. During an afternoon walk we stopped for some extremely delicious fresh juice, which I later realized was an extremely big mistake on my part. I ordered lime juice, which was almost certainly watered down with tap water to make the tartness palatable. I am nearly positive that this is what lead to me getting "holiday tummy," which was the only tolerable euphemism I can find to describe it.

My cursed lime juice and Matt's smart choice of carrot juice.

We had better luck that day for dinner, when we decided to try Hội An's most famous dish, cao lầu. Our meal wasn't obtained without a little searching though, because while we had visited several local markets at that point, we still weren't what you'd call savvy so we didn't realize how early many of the vendors close shop. Fortunately, we could never take too many steps in Vietnam without being solicited to try food or buy wares, so a pair women welcomed us as their last customer's of the day.

I could never find it again in a million years.

The legend about this dish is that the noodles are made with water drawn from a secret Cham well. I'm not sure I buy it, but it's a nice story. We watched them plate our food (as we did nearly everywhere), starting with the noodles, then adding greens, marinated pork, and at last, the delicious crispy toppings (some sources tell me it's fried dough, some say pig skin). Were the noodles good? Yes. But I enjoyed the tender pork and delicious mystery crisps far more.

The noodles.

"Tourist Pork," according to our cooking instructor,
is the lean pork that the Vietnamese don't want.

The masterpiece.
In Ho Chi Minh City (you may know it as Saigon), the standout dish was our first meal there. Our flight was late and so we arrived in the first sweltering hot city on our itinerary with an empty stomach. While our traveling companions headed off to find air conditioning, we found a street vendor selling banh mi (complete with dodgy mayonnaise).

Stumbling distance from our hotel.

This is probably the one Vietnamese dish I'd tried the most before my visit, and probably the single best thing to come out of French occupation of Vietnam. The French contributed the tasty, crusty bread, and the Vietnamese contributed the delicious fillings. In the US, I usually order BBQ pork, and it's served with cucumber, carrot, jicama, cilantro, jalapenos, and mayo. In HCMC, we took two of whatever they were making, which included like three different meats/meat products (including one pate) and all of the usual veggies except the jalapeno. Instead, it was smothered with hot sauce. We took our sandwiches to the park across the street and ate what turned out to be one of my favorite meals.

Whew, okay, so despite my intentions this turned out to be quite lengthy. But honestly, the food was like, 50% of my experience there so it's hard not to gush about it!

Thursday, March 10, 2011

City Snapshot: Hoi An

After Hue, we traveled through Đà Nẵng to Hội An by van. Hội An is an old town, and it is quaint and charming to the point of feeling contrived. It seems like the public face of small towns in Vietnam, where all the women weaáo dàis and everyone puts on a happy face for tourists, which are everywhere in town. I didn't like that it felt like an act.

But it's hard not to fall for the ivy covered buildings, the wooden boats, the glow of the paper lanterns in the evening. Contrived or not, it's a beautiful place. Much to my delight, pedestrians dominate the streets. There are motorbikes and even a few cars, but they are far fewer than in any other city we visited. It made our time in Hội An feel slower and more relaxed, and allowed us to drop our guard a bit while walking to better take in our surroundings. Hội An has a nearby beach, which Matt and I did not visit, but we did make use of one of the many cooking classes offered around town, which included a market tour and several incredible dishes that we got to make and eat.

We also found time to drink fresh beer, try the famed cao lầu noodles and enjoy a walk in a less touristed area with riverside homes, roaming chickens, and children that chirped hellos to us as we passed.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Cars and Bicycles and Motorbikes, Oh My!

Hi friends, here comes another post about our trip to Vietnam. This one is about traffic, which is probably the singular most striking thing about my visit there. There are more motorbikes than cars (I mean a lot more), and far fewer traffic lights than you find in the United States, but really, it's the lack of order and regulation that stands out. The drivers purposefully maneuver their vehicles with a startling lack of regard for road safety.

I took this short video while we drank fresh beer in the Old Quarter. It's not a very busy corner but you can get a sense of the variety of conveyances and the traffic patterns. You can also see Matt's video, which is a little longer and features me eating a donut, here.

We arrived in Vietnam at 10 pm and our guide and driver for our time in Hanoi picked us up at the airport. It was dark, traffic was light, and we were exhausted, but we still noticed a motorbike piled high with flowers, the driver on the way to a nighttime wholesale market.

photo by Matt
Our guide seemed accustomed to the awe we expressed and she explained that the following day, she would teach us how to cross the street. Her instructions: don't run, don't stop, keep a steady pace and they vehicles will go around you.

Let me tell you, I don't even like jay-walking in San Diego. But that is the only option here. Even if you find a rare street light, chances are, people turning (either direction) will just go right through the red light. Vehicles will use both sides and the middle of the road, and motorbikes will use the sidewalks, for both driving and parking. You would think this kind of chaos would deter pedestrians and bicyclists, but people have to get around, and they do so in any way that they can. I would be terrified to ride a bike there. I was on edge most of the time because the sidewalks are so crowded we often found ourselves walking in the street.

photo by Matt
And I'm not sure there are limits to what the people there will put on motorbikes. In addition to flowers, we saw cases of beer with nothing tying them down, trees, a bicycle, and of course, children of all ages--on the back of the bike, standing on the foot rest of a scooter, and sandwiched between other riders.

Family car
The crazy thing is, even though the drivers all have to be really aggressive (they'd never get anywhere if they weren't), drivers seem to be more aware of the other vehicles and movement around them, and the average speed seems to be significantly slower. As a result, we only saw one accident the entire time we were there. It was on our last day in Ho Chi Minh City, a girl was heading straight for a car and lost control of her scooter, which slid. Fortunately, she was able to pick herself up, and she seemed to generally be okay.