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Food

I sampled the local cuisine

Last weekend a group of us went to Dong Thap (Đồng Tháp) province.  The Consulate’s locally-engaged staff organization arranged for us to volunteer at a summer camp for at-risk teenagers.  It was a lot of fun, I got to interact with some young people, and help out with an NGO’s work to prevent human trafficking.

A team of us did a workshop on “soft skills,” which is a buzzword in Vietnam lately.  Schools here focus on academics, but don’t teach life skills like teamwork, communication, interpersonal skills, and professionalism.  The workshop we did combined English practice and communication skills.  Essentially, we played games.  Even though we were playing a game, I explained to the kids that in order to succeed in the game, they had to listen to what each other were saying, and strategize their own communication.  Yes, OK, we played “20 questions.”  Stop judging me.  It was relevant.  Shut up; it was, too.

We also got to do a little culinary exploration.  When I told some of my coworkers that I was going to Dong Thap, they smiled and nodded knowingly.  They asked if I knew anything about the local cuisine.  Of course I didn’t, because I’m an ignorant foreigner who doesn’t know the intricacies of Vietnamese culture.  That seemed to amuse people even more.

So the night after we finished the workshops, we all went to a local beer garden for dinner.  We got a lot of the usual goodies, beer with ice cubes (you get used to it), and then, a big plate of the local cuisine.

Yup, I ate rat.

And unfortunately, it was delicious.

No arguments from me here.

At a coffee shop in Dong Thap Province:

Topped it

Question: what’s better than an avocado smoothie?

Answer: a homemade avocado and banana smoothie!

Thanks, Vietnam!

Guacamole Brownies

I read somewhere that you can substitute avocado for butter in baking recipes. Of course, that point is often moot.  Pound for pound, butter is a lot cheaper than avocados. But not in Vietnam, which grows a lot of avocados but which has to import all of its butter. Butter is about 25% more expensive here than in America, and avocados here are about 1/4 the price that they are in America.

I can’t believe it’s not butter!

I “needed” to make brownies, and I was out of butter, and I had avocados, and I was feeling adventurous (and too lazy to go buy some butter), so it was experiment time!

For your information, 1/2 avocado = 1/2 cup.

Once I mixed the avocado into the melted chocolate, you couldn’t see any green at all.

Looks normal…

The batter was stiffer than when I use butter. And pretty sticky. It was hard to spread the batter in the pan.

The batter would not pour out.

The batter also didn’t rise as much when they baked, so the brownies are a little flat and dense. But they taste just as great!

A little flat. But just as tasty!

I call this a successful experiment.  A little tweaking and it will be perfect next time.  Maybe next time I’ll add a third egg and more baking powder to add some liquid and leavening.  I “have” to try this again, because I “have” to perfect the recipe.  Right? Right!

Taking a break from cooking

Due to some unfortunate family circumstances, I’ve been by myself at post for a while.  Which means that I have to feed myself.  Cooking for one has a few advantages.  I eat what I want to, for example, and when.  But cooking for one also takes a lot of time, it’s harder to plan, and I wind up with a lot of leftovers.  Luckily for me, there are a lot of other people like me in the city, and the local market has responded.  Enter: meal delivery services!

Unlike food delivery from a restaurant, where you order something from their menu, and the restaurant delivers what you order, a meal delivery service delivers prepared meals based on a preset menu.

I tried one service last year, and hated it.  What I received tasted like the stuff you get on an airplane (note that I did not use the word “food” in that description).  But after cooking for myself for a while, I was really tired of it, and I wanted to free up some time to do more meaningful things.  So I rolled the dice and tried again with  different company.  After one week, I can say that the experiment has been a success.  The service that I used this week is called “SmartMeal.”  They have several options, including “healthy,” “body-building,” and vegetarian.  I opted for the low-carb plan.  Here’s the menu:

Menu for the week. I chose the lunch-dinner option.

I ordered the lunch and dinner option.  I like a plain breakfast, usually granola, which I make for myself.  Every morning this week, a delivery guy came with lunch and dinner.

The delivery guy came to my apartment every morning with this.

The delivery went smoothly, except for Tuesday, when the guy didn’t show up.  I called their “hotline,” and was told that the delivery guy (who, like most other people in the city, drives a scooter) was in an accident.  A different guy stopped by my office an hour later to make the delivery.  My regular guy was back in service on Wednesday.  On a different scooter.  I’m sure there’s an interesting story behind that.

Anyway, the meals come in containers of microwave-safe plastic.

One for the office, one for dinner later tonight.

Here’s what I ate this week.  First, lunches:

Monday.  Yes, that’s quinoa!  Hooray!

Tuesday.  A LES in China called those mushrooms “see-you-tomorrow mushrooms.”

Wednesday

Thursday

Friday

And dinner:

Monday

Tuesday

Wednesday

Thursday

Friday

The food was very tasty, and the portions were OK.  The cuisine was sort of fusion.  Because it’s Vietnam, there was always a sauce of some kind.  That’s just the Vietnam way, I guess.  There was a lot more meat than I’m used to eating, and less vegetable, probably because of the low-carb option.  But more fish than I used to eat, which is good.  I’ll still have to buy fruit, and I might eat salads on the weekends to balance it out.  I might also try the vegetarian option.  But for now, I think it’s worth trying it for another week.

The price is pretty good, too, if you’re an ex-pat.  I pay 850,000 Vietnamese Dong for five lunches and five dinners, with no charge for delivery.  That’s about $37.  This is outrageously expensive by the standard of the local market.  I could cook for myself for less than half of that.  But by US standards, it’s a great deal.  I’m eating well, and healthily, for less than $8 per day.  Plus I don’t have to shop, cook, and wash dishes.  The company will also take back the containers (I hope they’re recycling them responsibly).

Now that food preparation is off the schedule for now, I have no excuses not to work on my own projects. Onward and upward.

 

Avocados are in season!

And they’re wonderfully inexpensive in Vietnam. Even better, I was pleasantly surprised to discover they Vietnamese avocados don’t oxidize and turn brown. So you don’t have to eat it immediately after cutting it open. I can slice one up the night before and put it on my salad, and it’s still green the next day.

In my enthusiasm, I bought too many at the grocery store. They were starting to turn towards the end of the week. I couldn’t eat them fast enough. A spoiled avocado is a very sad thing. So I added a way to enjoy them. This morning I made a paleo breakfast: baked eggs in avocado halves. Yum yum!

My beautiful life: baked egg in avocado.

A TDYer brings embarrassing news

Summer is usually the busy season in consular sections.  Everybody wants a visa.  Students are applying for their student visas to go study in America, and families want to travel to America during their summer vacation.  The volume of visa applicants usually starts to increase in May, then spikes in July, and gets back to “normal” (if there is such a thing) in September.  This means that our work load increases, but our staffing doesn’t change.  So the Department shifts people around between posts, on a temporary basis, to balance the staffing and meet the demand.  Posts that already have a large volume, like Ho Chi Minh City, ask for help from other posts that don’t have the same workload.

When I was in China, the demand for U.S. visas was spiking.  One summer we were interviewing 2-3 times the number of people that we processed when I first arrived at post.  With the same number of permanent staff.  We asked for a lot of temporary duty (TDY) support that year, and we had a number of people come in from other posts to help.  Of course, the requirement was that they spoke Chinese, but luckily we were able to get enough TDYers (that’s a word in the State Department) to meet our demand.

Since that spike, demand in China has gone back down to a reasonable volume (still almost double what it was when I first arrived there in 2014).  So posts in China are able to spare some officers to go to other posts to help with their volume.  Instead of importing TDYers, China can loan out a few people.  I’m actually a little disappointed.  I was hoping to do a short TDY visit back to my old post in China and see my dear friends in the consulate.  But oh well.  Maybe next tour.

Anyway, one of the TDYers in Ho Chi Minh City is now here from Shenyang.  We were catching up the other day, swapping gossip and stories about life in Northeast China.  She says that the local staff all say hello.  That part of the conversation was fun.  Then it got ugly.  She mentioned that the community there is still eating my kidney beans. She said that she personally has a few bags.

OMG.  It’s been two years since I left post.  How can there still be kidney beans?  When will this end?!

Don’t get comfort until you need it.

The city where I served in my first posting was large, but not very international. Western food (beyond McDonald’s) wasn’t very popular there. After too many disappointments, I gave up looking for decent pizza. Tex-Mex was another scarcity. Chinese people tend not to like it, so it’s pretty rare in China. There was one Mexican food place in town. One of my friends said that it was a good idea not to eat at that place too soon after arriving in China, it was better to wait until you had been in China for several months before going there. This was because although it was pretty good, it wasn’t quite the same as in America.

That point was driven home for me yesterday when a group of us went to eat at an American style diner in Ho Chi Minh City. The decor of the place was really good, it felt like a typical small American restaurant. The menu was also full of very familiar options. We were all very impressed, and look forward to our comfort food. I ordered a breakfast entrée, because what’s more comforting than an American breakfast?

The food was not disappointing. My smoked salmon and Swiss cheese scrambled eggs was just what the doctor ordered. All of us were very happy with our food.

Now, to be honest, it wasn’t exactly, 100% the same as American diner food. I think if I had gone to that restaurant right after leaving America, I would have been disappointed, or at least I would have had a very different opinion of the food. However, after having been away from American food for several months, it was a nice taste of home. I will be back.

But maybe not for a few weeks.

By the way, the place is called “The Diner V.” You can Google it.

Finally had a bowl of Pho that I liked

One of the national dishes of Vietnam is “pho.” It’s spelled “phở.” To  pronounce it correctly, start to drop the f-bomb, and leave off the final “k” sound.  Or start to say “full” and leave off the final “ll” sound. It’s a noodle soup, usually with beef or chicken.  It’s very mild.  Vietnamese people see it as comfort food.  I see it as boring.  Usually.

By Codename5281 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=23216056

A few days ago, I got a stomach bug that was really debilitating (I was lying in bed all afternoon today with stomach cramps).  This evening I wasn’t really hungry, but I needed to get something in my stomach, so I went out for some pho. It isn’t hard to find pho in Vietnam.  It’s everywhere, from streetside bistros to upscale restaurants.  I chose a middle-of-the-road chain called Pho 24.

Usually I don’t like pho.  It’s so mild that it’s boring.  But this time, it was just what the doctor ordered.  The rice noodles are easy to digest, and the warm broth feels good on an upset tummy. Maybe pho is Vietnam’s answer to chicken soup. If chicken soup is Jewish penicillin, maybe pho is Vietnamese penicillin.

It took me a minute

Until I realized that they mean that it tastes very good.