Saturday, October 31, 2009

Deep-Fried Tofu

In modern Vietnam, tofu (đậu phụ>) production is something of a cottage industry, a hereditary skill handed down through generations. Its origins in Vietnam, however, are unclear. We know that tofu originated in ancient China; it was most likely introduced to Vietnam by monks, in association with the development of Buddhism. At first, tofu was an exotic food – people would have had to have gone to the temples to eat it. Later, it was popularized, and today is considered an inexpensive and nutritious staple.

In its early years, tofu served religious, medicinal, and dietary purposes. The rules of the Imperial Court required that vegetarian dishes be placed before the altar whenever the emperor prayed to heaven; tofu's culinary flexibility meant it could easily be included in imperial dishes fit for the gods. As for its medicinal value, early Chinese and Vietnamese doctors ascribed to tofu many health-promoting properties that have largely been corroborated by modern science. Tofu's protein and amino acids undoubtedly helped farmers – accustomed to a rice-centered, high-starch diet – maintain the strength needed to work the fields.

Economically, soybeans have long been an important Vietnamese commodity. The ease with which soybeans are cultivated meant that early farmers could plant them in crop rotations, enabling human survival before the rice harvest or in years when rice production was low. Soybeans can be eaten fresh off the vine or dried and stored, fermented, pickled, sprouted, and of course, made into tofu, which in turn can be dried, fermented, and so on. This means that soybeans, in one form or another, provide year-round sustenance. The economic value of soybeans is evidenced by the fact that in Hanoi's Old Quarter, among its original 36 guild streets, stands Hàng Đậu – "Bean Street" – where soy in all its forms was sold for many years.

Vietnamese tofu tends to be soft, with a pliable, rubbery skin and a custardy, curd-like interior. It frankly lacks the firmness I prefer in certain Japanese tofu varieties. But deep-fried, and served with bún (white noodles), it is one of my favorite street foods.

Bún Đậu Phụ is usually found in makeshift street-corner kitchens or ported by conical-hatted women off the ends of wooden yokes. The soft tofu expands slightly in the oil, developing an almost-crispy exterior and a light, airy core. The vendor cuts the tofu into bite-sized pieces and places it beside a mountain of fresh herbs. The bún served alongside is unlike the normal bún you'd find, for example, with bún chả. The bún served with bún đậu phụ is sticky, like leftover spaghetti, and cut into squares. This consistency enables diners to pop it into their mouths without dealing with the normal noodle stringiness.

Customers have a choice of two sauces, one of which is as ghastly as the other is sublime. The ghastly sauce, mắm tôm, is made of fermented shrimp paste and has a decidedly fecal pungence. Thankfully, the alternative is a standard light, sweet nước chấm, made of watered-down fish sauce, sugar, lime juice, and possibly a few chilis. In combination with the basil, mint, tía tô, and other herbs, bún đậu phụ makes for a nice breakfast or late-morning snack.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Seafood Spring Rolls

I have a joke I tell my Vietnamese friends whenever they see me chowing down on the local cuisine: Tôi có da trắng nhưng bụng Việt Nam ("I have white skin, but a Vietnamese stomach"). This week, I learned just how true this was, when circumstances led me to spend TWO ENTIRE DAYS eating mainly foreign grub. I felt dirty, impure; it was...unnatural. Feeling a need to restore my body's equilibrium, I returned yesterday to my normal fare.

Lunch was bún chả and seafood spring rolls at one of my favorite holes-in-the-wall at 36 Lê Văn Hưu Street. My readers ought to be familiar with
bún chả, one of the culinary specialties of northern Vietnam. It's normally served on street corners at 15,000 VNĐ (approx. US$0.85) for all the fixings. The particular establishment I go to on Lê Văn Hưu charges an astronomical 25,000 VNĐ (US$1.40) for a bún chả that really is that much better than most of its competitors.

But that's not why I go there. It's for the springrolls. Oh...my...ghod...

Little spring rolls (
nem) are common lunchtime fare at bún chả joints; you dip them into the broth along with everything else. Most spring rolls are filled with pork, some are filled with crab. The place on Lê Văn Hưu serves GINORMOUS spring rolls (nem hải sản) that are more like savory French pastries, filled with an indulgent assortment of large, succulent pieces of crab meat, fat, juicy prawns, and the like. The pastry itself is light and flaky, and retains its crispiness even after being dipped. Combined with the dipping broth from the bún chả, it presents a mind-numbing combination of flavors and textures: sweet, savory, crispy, chewy; it's a taste of heaven in phyllo dough.
At 18,000 VNĐ (US$1) a pop the spring rolls cost more than the
bún chả at most places, and once you add in a soft drink, the whole meal usually comes in at slightly under US$3, which is considerably more than I usually pay for lunch, and still half the price of the greasy French food my friends took me to eat the other day...which unsettled my stomach and brought back my adolescent acne. It's all a matter of taste, I suppose. One man's fish is another man's poisson.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

New York Philharmonic in Hanoi

It was somewhere in the middle of the second movement of Beethoven's 7th Symphony that I realized how incongruous it was. There I was, sitting on my motor bike, in front of the 100-year-old Hanoi Opera House, watching the New York Philharmonic on a giant outdoor screen with hundreds of other people, while honking motorbikes and wheezing buses growled all around.

Musical diplomacy has become a bit of a schtick for American orchestras, ever since the Boston Symphony Orchestra's 1956 visit to the Soviet Union, at the height of the Cold War. The New York Philharmonic itself paid a controversial visit to North Korea last year, becoming the first western orchestra, and the largest group of Americans, to visit that isolated country since the end of the Korean War. It would be tempting to view the Philharmonic's trip to Hanoi in a similar light.
But the Philharmonic's Hanoi visit – its first ever to Vietnam – was less an act of diplomacy, and more a logical step in a process of rapprochement that has been taking place between the U.S. and Vietnam since 1995. And if the Philharmonic's visit to Pyongyang could be criticized as helping to legitimize one of the world's most isolated and repressive regimes, the orchestra's Hanoi visit should probably be seen as simply one more act in Vietnam's ongoing effort to break out of its longtime isolation and join the community of developed nations.

To be sure, it was hard not to see a certain irony in both the venue, and the price of the tickets. The Hanoi Opera House (Nhà hát lớn Hà Nội) was built as a shrine to European high culture – a replica of the Palais Garnier opera house in Paris – between 1901 and 1911. With its luxurious period seating and world-class acoustics, it was a perfect venue for an evening of classical music.

What truly harkened back to the colonial era, however, were the ticket prices, which ranged from U.S. $80 to over $200 in a country whose median annual income hovers around $1,000. That the seats managed to be filled for two nights shows both the strides Vietnam has taken in terms of economic development, and the social stratification that seems an inevitable component of Vietnam's headlong rush into capitalism. At least the government's decision to broadcast the event for free – albeit into one of Hanoi's most hectic traffic circles – could be seen as a nod to the country's professed socialist values. One only wonders how long Vietnam will continue to give lip service to those ideals.
None of this seemed to matter Saturday night, however, to the few hundred people who sat outside and listened to a wonderful performance by one of the world's premier orchestras. The first act featured Brahms' Violin Concerto in D, and showcased the incredible virtuosic technique of soloist Franz Joseph Zimmerman (playing a 1711 Stradivarius!). After a brief intermission, the orchestra launched into Beethoven's 7th Symphony, with its famous second movement serving as a haunting counterpoint to the Hanoi traffic.

On a comfortable autumn evening, perched atop a 110cc Honda Dream, before one of France's colonial jewels, it was easy to get lost in the music.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Mid-Autumn Heist!

It started as a simple idea: to check out the evening's festivities in Hanoi's Old Quarter, and learn something about the Mid-Autumn Festival. For weeks now, the festival had been building up, with red and gold boxes of "Moon Cakes" (Bánh Trung Thu), paper lanterns, ribbon stars, and other adornments springing up everywhere.

The Mid-Autumn Festival (Têt Trung Thu) is, along with Têt – the Vietnamese New Year – one of the major festivals on the lunar calendar. It is celebrated on the 15th day of the 8th lunar month – the full moon nearest the autumn equinox. The festival is related to a number of agricultural festivals celebrated throughout the world, festivals that traditionally celebrate the harvest, along with the shortening of the days, and the lengthening of the nights.

Têt Trung Thu is a holiday ripe with myths and folktales, many of them honoring the moon. People tell stories about the moon princess (who was banished to the moon after urinating on the sacred banyan), children wear masks to scare off the demon who would eat the moon, and of course, everyone eats moon cakes. Additionally, there are lion dances, dragon dances, and a host of decorations that carry deep mythic significance. These are truly the vestiges of ancient rituals and tales that have survived into modern times.
Hàng Mã Street, one of the original 36 guild streets of Hanoi's Old Quarter, serves as a center for the festivities; it is where people go to buy the lanterns, animal-shaped fruits, masks and toys needed to celebrate the festival in style. And so, when the day of the festival arrived, it seemed right to go to Hàng Mã and see what the fuss was all about.

Ironically, at least two people had warned me about the pickpockets that worked the crowd, and I, the native New Yorker, the experienced world traveler, the seasoned veteran of numerous shady deals, had made light of it. I even boasted with foolish bravado to one acquaintance, "I don't have to watch out for them, they have to watch out for me!" Smugly, I took the normal precaution of moving my wallet to the front pocket of my jeans, and headed to the fair.

In less than two minutes, my wallet was gone.

Here's how it happened: the crowd on Hàng Mã was, as expected, thicker than moose snot, with a tightly-pressed mass of people trying to move up and down the narrow street. I gave my pocket a last squeeze, moved to the edge of the swarm, and it sucked me in. Almost immediately I felt a sharp elbow press up against my side; a thin, middle-aged woman, it seemed, was trying to move past me. I rose my arm slightly to block her...and I believe that was it. Whether she or a companion did the lifting, I will never know.

It was clearly a professional job. Soon as I noticed my wallet was gone, a wave of heads started popping up from the crowd, each one complaining about a missing phone, wallet, or purse. My suspicion is that a team of pickpockets moved in, hit us, and moved out. Like bony-fingered wraiths, they floated through unnoticed, and we never even knew what hit us.

My first thought was revenge; I tried turning the tables. I picked up a piece of styrofoam I found on the ground, put it in my pocket, and tried to walk like a dumbshit tourist waiting to be robbed. I frankly intended to kick the ass out of anyone I caught trying to lift me. But of course, I fooled no one. Most probably, whoever had gotten me was long gone by the time I, and the others who got robbed, got wise to them.

Luckily, the loss was of little consequence: about US$12 in cash, and a VISA and bank card that were both immediately canceled. The wallet itself was worth about $3. Add the $6 it took to replace my bank card, and the whole experience cost me around $20 – a small price to pay for an interesting adventure (of course, adventure is what we call in retrospect that which is a pain in the ass when it occurs).

On the whole, Vietnam is not a dangerous country; by US standards it is quite safe. Violent crime is rare, and what crime there is tends to be by stealth. But if I took Hanoi's pickpockets lightly before, let me say they have earned my respect! Bravado aside, I am not an easy target. I have traveled the world with very few mishaps and I stand by the notion that New York provides good survival training. Additionally, it takes soft hands and steely nerves to be a pickpocket; it is, in its way, an art. So the person, or people, who got my wallet were total pros – artists, if you will – and for that I commend them. Congratufuckinglations.

Pictures from the festival:

Thursday, October 8, 2009

EAS 2

Twice in my life, I have seen a class fall in love. The first time was in my freshman year in college. The students and faculty members of The Evergreen State College's Democracy and Tyranny program gave our hearts and souls to our program. Our studies became our passion, and we bonded in a way that went beyond the normal classroom comraderie; it transformed our lives.

It has been 28 years since that class, and in the intervening years I have received vocational training, earned professional certification, and obtained both an undergraduate and a master's degree. I have taught hundreds of classes in various subject fields to children and adults in corporate, college, and foreign language school settings. And while I've been privileged to work with many excellent educators and some truly special students, I have never felt so bonded to a group of fellow scholars as I did that freshman year, when I was so young and eager to learn.

Until now. This evening was the last session of my beloved EAS 2 class. I handed out the certificates my students had so richly earned, and then we all went out to dinner and silliness at a karaoke club. As the majority of students were in their mid-teens, the evening ended early, and I am now home at ten o'clock, as I often am on the nights I teach. But this evening is tinged with a bittersweet flavor, for while I am happy for the time I got to spend with my students, I am anticipating the emptiness I will soon feel on Monday, Wednesday and Friday nights.

The EAS, or English for Academic Success, program at Language Link is designed primarily for teens and young adults who intend to study abroad. The program teaches the reading, writing, speaking, and listening skills students need to succeed in an English-language university. EAS 1 is designed for pre-intermediate students (just above elementary ability), EAS 2 is for intermediate-level students, and EAS 3 is upper-intermediate. The program is intensive: classes meet for three hours, three times a week, and students must complete a number of challenging writing assignments, deliver oral presentations, understand academic lectures, and perform well on a pair of grueling three-hour exams. And the program lasts three months.

I remember the first night of class, three months ago, in a cramped seventh-story classroom, on a July evening that was still sticky with the heat of a Hanoi summer day. I walked in, and could sense the mixture of anticipation and dread that students always bring to the first day of school. I started as I usually do, by having the students ask me questions so they could get to know their teacher. Then I introduced an activity to get them out of their seats, and getting to know each other.

It was like unyoking a team of wild horses. The students burst from their seats with a boisterous enthusiasm that took me by surprise. There erupted a din of conversation and laughter that I am certain would have carried on for hours if I hadn't channeled them into the next activity. That night established a pattern that was to persist for the rest of the term; once they got started talking, they were impossible to shut up! This is a teacher's dream, but that first night of class, I wondered what the hell I had gotten myself into.

I soon learned that I had been given a strong group of learners, with solid English skills, who were eager to absorb anything I could give them. Additionally, they were a cast of characters, each of whom brought an important flavor to the class. Like most teachers, I work hard to create a sense of community in my classes, and with an intensive class like EAS, it is vitally important to establish a sense of trust. But a teacher can only do so much. Like a gardener, a teacher can cultivate and nurture, but only nature can make things grow. With this class, the trust developed quickly, and the growing affection between the students – and between the students and me – soon became nourishing and palpable.

I don't think my students ever realized how much I grew professionally and personally. As a teacher, I had the freedom to try things out that I had never before tried in the classroom, knowing that if they didn't work out, my students would handle the experience with tolerance and humor, and move easily onto the next thing. While it takes a great deal of work to prepare nine hours of lessons every week, I frequently said over the course of the term that Language Link only paid me for preparing; going to class was something I did for fun. I frankly had nothing I preferred to do on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday nights.

EAS 2 became a close-knit family – something that occurs too rarely in life. I felt and continue to feel a deep sense of loyalty to my students. And if there was any question remaining over whether moving to Vietnam was the right decision for me, EAS 2 answered it. A year ago, I was in the midst of divorce proceedings and about to lose a job I honestly didn't care to hold onto. Today, I bid farewell to a group of young people for whom the experience of a class was, I hope, something they will continue to remember with gratitude when they reach my age, and recall the experiences of their youth.

Space does not permit me to give each of my students the individual thanks I would like to give them, so let me just say: Loc, Quang, Big Linh, Little Linh, Chi, Little Ha, Nhi Ha, Hai Ha, Ngoc, Trung, Trang, Hoang Anh, Nhung, Thuy, and Hien - it's been a beautiful ride, and I'm going to miss you all very much. Be well, my young friends.
Chi, My Linh, Hai Ha, Little Ha, Nhi Ha, Nhung, Loc, Quang, Trang, Trung, Big Linh (missing: Ngoc, Hoang Anh, Thuy, Hien)