Thursday, March 25, 2010

Making Vietnamese Phở

Up till now, I have steadfastly refused to discuss phở, the national dish of Vietnam. It's been a wise decision.

Like New Yorkers with their pizza, Hanoians take their phở seriously. An outsider, commenting on the merits of a particular bowl, had better know what he's talking about. An ill-considered comment will be swiftly rebutted by someone who's been slurping the stuff since babyhood. Passions run hot and connoisseurship is high; if you're not among the cognoscenti, you'd best remain silent.

After 11 months, however, I have begun to understand something about Vietnam's national dish. The validation of this came last week, when Hương at last showed me how to make phở. Not just any phở, but Hanoi phở. The real stuff. My palette had obviously become sufficiently sophisticated for her to begin unveiling the secrets of this subtle dish.

And make no mistake about it: phở is all about the subtleties. A hint of star anise, the fat content of the broth, just the right touch of herbs – these are the elements that distinguish a good phở from one that is euphoric.

What is phở? The simplest translation is "beef noodle soup" – but this prosaic title barely discloses its essence (I am restricting myself to phở bò – beef; chicken is worthy of a separate discussion).

Phở is, more precisely, a deep and rich stock, made of beef bones that have been simmered for hours, layered with meat and spices, and poured over medium-width rice noodles. No two phở preparations are alike...and this adds to its mystique.

Where does phở come from? Its early history is lost, but one detects the French influence in the name (pronounced roughly like "fur"), which conjures up the classic Gallic stew, pot au feu. Like Vietnamese phở, the French dish is made by simmering beef bones for hours, and then adding vegetables and herbs. It's possible that phở is simply a Vietnamese adaptation of that Franch staple.

Historians generally agree that phở bắc, northern phở, is the original phở. Like so many things in Vietnam, north and south do it in diferent ways. The southerners ladle it on thick: they use a lot of fish sauce and serve the phở with a hearty basket of herbs. Northerners are purists: a well-balanced stock and good quality beef are all that is necessary, and all those additional southern touches are generally regarded as detracting from the true phở experience.

How To Make Hanoi Phở. I offer this not as THE definitive Hanoi phở, but as one that will produce an authentic dish. We begin with the ingredients.

Beef bones, beef muscle (bò bắp), cinnamon, ginger, star anise, and shallots form the foundation. Thin-sliced beef tenderloin (bò thăn), green onions, cilantro, and lime are offered at mealtime.

The first step is to boil the bones with a bit of crushed ginger – bring them to a full boil...and throw out all the water. It's true! This removes impurities and helps to clarify the broth.

Once this is done, dry-roast the cinnamon and star anise in a pan, and grind them with a mortar and pestle. Char some shallots and ginger over a flame. Add them along with the roasted spices and the beef muscle (wrapped with thread to maintain its shape), to the bones. Refill the pot with water and simmer slowly.

And I mean slowly. Like any good stock, the longer it simmers, the richer the flavor. Three hours is considered an absolute minimum. A touch of fish sauce (nước mắm) may be added to the pot. But simmer it slowly...slowly...slowly...

...and that's basically it! Briefly boil the rice noodles, and blanch the tenderloin and green onions before tossing them into individual serving bowls with a bit of cilantro. Cut up some of the beef muscle and throw it in as well. Black pepper and lime to taste. White vinegar with slivers of garlic and red chillies is common at phở stalls; we didn't use it, and it wasn't missed. And our phở (okay, Hương's phở), simmered for 5 hours, turned out great!

Sounds simple? It is! That's why it's become one of the staple dishes of Vietnam. But do not let its simplicity fool you; patience, the quality of ingredients, and a certain je ne sais quoi make all the difference.

What Makes a Good Phở? In a word: balance. No single flavor should dominate. In aroma and taste, one should be able to discern the cinnamon, star anise, green onions and cilantro, but not at the expense of the beef. Too much spice spoils the soup; too little makes it flavorless.

The beef must be chosen carefully: fresh and red are all that will do. Make sure the tenderloin slices are still red when thrown into the bowl. The steaming hot broth will continue to cook it.

As for the broth, you want it clear, but slightly fatty. Like any good stock, it must have some body. The noodles, which I've barely discussed, should be al dente, of course. In all, you want the beef to carry the dish, with full support from its neighbors.

At its worse, phở is thin, weak, and flavorless. At its best it's heaven poured into a bowl.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Learning Vietnamese Through Television

My friend Terry and I have been having a heated discussion on Facebook, regarding how people learn languages. Central to the discussion has been an idea that should be in the mind of every language learner: that people do not LEARN language so much as they ACQUIRE it.

What's the difference?

Learning is a conscious process. It takes effort. We study grammar, memorize vocabulary, drill dialogs, and so on. It's how most of us who have ever studied language think we're supposed to learn.

Acquisition, on the other hand, is unconsious. It's effortless. It's how children learn. They're exposed to the language around them. They listen for a long time, and the ability to speak develops automatically.

Do adults learn in the same way? The answer, based on half a century of language research, seems to be yes. Most of our language learning comes through acquisition, not study. The more we're surrounded by the target language, the more we "pick it up."

This brings me to something I've been doing a lot lately: watching Vietnamese television. It started a couple of months ago. I turned on the TV, and realized I could understand a fair bit of what was happening! Not everything, mind you. There are still gaps, and at times I barely understand a thing. But more and more, as I listen every day, I find it gets easier and easier.

As a language teacher, I understand what I am doing. I am giving myself exposure to comprehensible input. What does that mean? It means input that is slightly above my current level of understanding.

Input that's too far above your current level is not particularly useful. Oh, you might pick up a few things, and no harm is done in being exposed to the rhythm of the language. But real acquisition comes from input that is just at the edge of your ability. In other words, input that is comprehensible.

It's exciting to me that Vietnamese television has finally become a source of (sometimes) comprehensible input. To heck with school; now's when the real language learning begins!

I generally leave the TV on in the background while I do other things. I do this for a couple of hours every day. But for at least a half hour, I try to consciously focus on a program (usually the news). The visuals help me pick up clues about what's being said. And I find I can usually follow the main themes, even when the details escape me.

This practice does many things. For one, it activates the dormant vocabulary in my brain. For example, I may not be able to immediately translate the phrase "economic development" from English to Vietnamese. But when I hear the news anchor say, "Phát triển kinh tế," I immediately pick up "phát triển," which means development, and "kinh tế" (economy), and am able to put them together.

The other thing this practice does is improve my pronunciation. Yes, listening improves pronunciation! How?

We all have a model in our heads of how a language is supposed to sound. We need a significant amount of input, however, for this model to become developed.

Listening provides this input; once wired, we can more easily correct our mistakes. What's amazing is how often we say something right the first time! The right sound spontaneously emerges from that internal sense of the language that we have magically acquired.

There's a lot of research to indicate that language learners, in the early stages, can benefit from a long period of silent acquisition before they begin to speak. How long this period of silence should be has been the focus of my debate with Terry.

But the benefit of silent acquisition is unquestionable. Again, think of how children learn. They listen for months, even years, without speaking...and then language begins to emerge.

Because we are DNA-wired for language, listening enables unconscious language acquisition to occur. It is not the same as consciously learning, or studying. It's something much more thrilling.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

The Turtle of Hoan Kiem Lake

Hoan Kiem Lake is the soul of this city. With its tree-shaded walkways, the lake is an island of calm in the middle of chaos. Numerous legends, dating back nearly two thousand years, are associated with the lake, making the lake an important symbol connecting Hanoi to its mythic and historic past.

Nothing is more emblemic of Hoan Kiem's mythic qualities than the giant turtle that lives in the lake. Long thought to be a legend, the animal has appeared enough times in recent years for its existence, incredibly, to be confirmed.

The legend of Hoan Kiem can be found in any guidebook. In the 15th century, a fisherman found a sword blade in his fishnet. Believing it to be of divine origin, he gave to the General Lê Lợi (the future Emperor Lê Thái Tổ) for use in the war against the Chinese. With the sword, Lê Lợi drove out the invaders.

Soon after his victory, while boating on the lake, he saw a giant turtle approaching. The king drew his sword to point in the direction of the turtle, at which point the turtle seized the sword, and took it to the bottom of the lake – keeping it safe for the next time Vietnam might have to defend its freedom. The emperor renamed the lake Hồ Hoàn Kiếm: The Lake of the Restored Sword.

The Tortoise Stupa (Tháp Rùa) at the south end of the lake commemorates the event. It was built around 1886 by a corrupt Vietnamese official in the employ of the French, who hoped to bury his father's bones in the pagoda after its completion (he failed in this attempt). Over years, as the stupa has aged and been covered with moss, the memory of its unfortunate pedigree has been forgotten, and the stupa has, in its own right, become a symbol of the capital city in the minds of many Vietnamese.

Hoan Kiem's giant tortoises, such as the one that received Lê Lợi's sword, have rarely been seen, and were long thought by many to be either mythic or extinct. Then in 1967 a turtle was found dead, preserved, and placed on display in the Ngọc Sơn Temple on the north side of the lake.

Since 1991, a live Hoan Kiem turtle has been spotted approximately 400 times – an astonishingly low number for a 400-pound animal that lives in a shallow lake in the middle of a city (the lake is a mere 600 meters long, 200 meters wide, and two meters deep). The turtle was filmed by an amateur videographer in 2005.

Biologists estimate that Hoan Kiem has only one turtle remaining. The Hoan Kiem turtle was given the name Rafetus leloii by Professor Hà Đình Đức, though many scientists now believe it to be a specimen of the rare Swinhoe's soft-shell turtle (Rafetus swinhoei), of which, until recently, only two other specimens were known to exist – both in captivity. Only two years ago, an expedition from the Cleveland Zoo found and photographed a large Swinhoe turtle just west of Hanoi, giving hope to the possibility that more may yet exist in the wild.

According to local folklore, the Hoan Kiem turtle is 500 years old. Not likely – although several tortoises have been claimed to have lived over 200 years, the oldest tortoise officially recorded died at the age of 188. Still, it's enjoyable to entertain the thought that Hoan Kiem's turtle may date back to the time when Lê Thái Tổ fought off the Chinese.

What if this tortoise were the one who seized the king's sword? What memories it would have.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Home in Hanoi

A recurring theme in the life of every expat is the idea of home. On the one hand, this shouldn't be an issue at all: home is where you hang your hat. But when you dig a little deeper, there are a number of psychological and emotional issues associated with having a sense of place. Where do you feel rooted? Where do you have history? This aspect of home – the place where you have history – is sacrificed by every nomad.

The last couple of years have been a whirlwind of activity revolving around the idea of home. At this time two years ago, home was an 1890 Victorian brick building in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, that I had spent the previous few years living in and restoring. Houses have history; they're alive. There is nothing like a house to give one a sense of belonging. To be honest, I miss my house...and the sense of home that it gave me.

But life being what it is, change happened. And I found myself living in Hanoi, Vietnam, and I found myself liking it. And as I've learned the language and begun to understand the country and the culture more, my relationship to the place has deepened. I've begun claiming ownership over Vietnam, as it as begun claiming ownership over me. Will I ever be Vietnamese? Of course not. But I am as much a part of the fabric of today's Hanoi as someone who's family has been here for generations.

Nine months into my Vietnam sojourn, however, I needed a break from it. I found myself missing what I called "my" level of development. The world I come from has shopping malls, plastic-wrapped meats, and Starbuck's. These things I sneer at when I'm stateside became exactly what I missed. Maybe it was the lure of the familiar. For all I try to be a rebel, maybe at heart I'm a middle class bitch.

So I went on vacation into a part of the world that had "my" level of development. And then something funny happened. A few hours into my first Kuala Lumpur shopping mall, I was done with it. Though I continued to explore and enjoy the region, it was clear to me that I could not stay long there. It had "my" level of development, but it wasn't home.

Paul Bowles wrote that one difference between a tourist and a traveler is that a tourist "hurries back home" at the end of a few weeks, whereas a traveler "belongs no more to one place than the next." In Malaysia and Singapore, I was a tourist. But the place that I wanted to "hurry back home" to, funny enough, wasn't Pittburgh. It was Hanoi.

Arriving back in Hanoi's Noi Bai Airport on Sunday, it was hard not to contrast it with my first arrival, nearly ten months earlier. There was the jostling ride back to town over pot-holed roads, the cacophany of horns, the intersections with motorbikes and cars converging from all directions. There were the slow bicyclists and the conical-hatted yoke ladies forcing everyone to weave around them, and the mad drivers going the wrong way against the traffic. It was all the same lunacy that I'd stared at months earlier, with my mouth agape. But this time, it all seemed to make sense.

Conversing (in Vietnamese) with a passenger on the bus back to town, she asked me why I was studying her language. I answered, "Because I live here."