What the hell happened? New years 2011 I remember pulling Tarot cards that were a bit ominous, the Seven of Swords or something, and getting so drunk I kinda blanked on what me and my friends got up to in the secret attic-den in the back of our apartment. Deep shit or acrobatics or just guitars and whiskey sours, probably. But the point is, I once lived with 8 (+) people on a key street corner in the Mile End part of Montreal, and life was easy and thoughtless. I had a boring job I was perfect at. I had a boyfriend who was intriguing but not quite right for me. I saw my family intermittently and I went out dancing sometimes. It was a good life. I had time and space to make art.
There’s a small phở shack high in the Tam Đảo mountains. Seventy kilometres away from Hanoi, two hours by car, maybe more by motorbike, nondescript in every way, and perfect. My first impression might have been coloured by the fact that it was midnight and I was drunk, and I know that there’s superlative soup in the city, too… but it didn’t stop me from ranting about poesy while the marbled beef melted away in my mouth, and the noodles responded to the simple action of my chopsticks as if inhabited by their own spirit. This woman, whoever she was, could cook.
(Yes, I came back the next morning for more. Wouldn’t you?)
Maybe it’s the nature of remote places in countries with long culinary traditions. Not much to do when surrounded by pristine mountain air except perfect a craft, and forget that modernity (ie: corner-cutting) exists, right? Morning after, I stumbled out of our hotel to mists thick enough to hide a hangover in, walked a few metres to the shack-of-delights, and ordered a stack of bánh cuốn – paper-thin rolls of fresh steamed rice crepes flecked with bits of pork and wood-ear mushrooms and topped with fried onion. Flaky flat bundles, and gossamer-tender – this is the bánh cuốn I’ve been wanting to try and hadn’t found in Hanoi. Matched by a few perfectly charred pork-batons floating in a subtle sweet broth, the warm plate was soon touched at the edges with cold mountain air, and I hurried to gobble it up with a few slender sprigs of cilantro, before jumping back into bed with my BF in our ancient darkwood hotel room and sleeping in until noon. Bliss!
We eventually emerged to a sunny day, and played silly tourist trying to capture the languid beauty of the town. It was originally built by the French in 1907, evidenced by a giant stone church (over-run with amateur wedding photography sessions) and lots of villas, but these days it’s a getaway for Vietnamese to escape from the heat and motorbike stench of the city and take in the slow, cool air perfumed by rocks, mist, and lush fields of susu greens (aka chayote, usually fried simply with garlic and chili).
We never did get around to trying the susu, but we did eat our fill of another specialty common in the mountains of north and central Vietnam. Bypassing the shops selling cơm and noodles, and the many empty restaurants built to accommodate crowds of families on vacation, we zero’d in right away on the alluring puffs of black smoke coming from the grillers on the street.
It’s so delightfully, perfectly simple. Just point, and communicate the number of items you’d like (this is a good time to break out any minor knowledge of the Vietnamese numbering system), and a few minutes later you’re given piping hot and smoky treats to munch on over beer. The standards seemed to be the toothsome and less-sweet white corn that is really starting to grow on me, tiny eggs dipped in crushed peanuts & MSG, fatty skewers of pork, and the coolest thing – sticky rice steamed in young bamboo, called cơm lam here and khao lam in Thailand. It’s simple, but deceptively more-ish, and fun to eat no matter how you do it (just watch out for splinters!).
For more photos, check out the Flickr gallery.
The most poetic beer I ever had was a crystalline and lightly carbonated panacea that splintered through my aching and drippy head for long enough to pass a few clear thoughts through a funky impending flu and the layers of dust in the chaotic Vietnamese airline cargo office in backwoods Noi Bai. It was the night staff that actually brushed away all the crumpled discarded forms on the floor, but it was definitely the beer that let me feel like a bit of a badass (with a totally uncool sniffle), and gave me the patience to wait a few more minutes clutching a bundle of indecipherable forms that I didn’t have the right information to fill out. I blessed whoever decided to put that canteen there, and my pocket for having the 15,000 VND (about $0.75) needed for a canister of distraction.
The place had technically closed ten minutes earlier, and my cat was somewhere in the warehouse downstairs. My boyfriend had disappeared with most of her documents fifteen minutes before that, and all I could do was wait, and maybe get a taste for what the past few days must have been like for her. Powerless, shuffled about in loud and dirty places, with no companionship or idea of what was going on, random giggling staff poking through the holes in her carrier, and a rightful small bit of rage at being abandoned for a whole month in Montreal while we’d fruitlessly tried to find someone to take care of her in Canada.
At home in Hanoi, I saw the ghost of her tail more than once. We’d lit incense for her. We gave offerings of flowers and cookies on our terrace shrine, and blessed the blue cat statue that had come with our apartment, as if in some way, our love would be transferred and our foolish decision to have her flown here would turn out ok, and that she wouldn’t hate us.
(She doesn’t hate us.)
Despite running from one un-named airport building to another, from one vaguely-titled office kiosk to the next; up and down floors, passed back and forth between all sorts of personnel and even having to walk two kilometres through the forest in order to find the live animal control desk… the moment when her carrier came into view eventually happened. (I admit it, I cried). 3 hours spent searching, 30+ forms later and 45 minutes after closing, we grabbed onto her and booked it to a taxi.
(Our home street had never had so much colour before. Things I’d never noticed were suddenly places.)
I finally surrendered to the flu that night. Crisis passed, through a mountain of tissues, I watched her pad gleefully around our apartment, flopping in joy on the rainbow quilt that signifies home to her (and us), meeting the blue cat statue for the first time, and talking nonstop, maybe about her trip, maybe about love, I don’t know.
I spent the whole next day shivering, half-delirious and less-than-half conscious, but my purring grey moonstone was safe, and vibrating softly against me…
If you have any questions about transporting a pet overseas, send me a message and I’ll offer any information I’ve got.
Moving to Hanoi is not something that idlers and the idyllically inclined should do. The city breathes fumes – the thick paste-grey in the sky owes to the never ending rush of scooters that race around the warren-like streets… and is matched only by the billowing wafts of steam and woodsmoke that puff out from every street corner, advertising the specialty of each vendor as you walk past. The drab parts I understand, for the city itself is over 1000 years old, and you have to admire a place where the roofs are thatched with whatever seems waterproof, and the closer to the dirt you have to sit to eat, the more likely it is to be symphonic with deliciousness. Continue reading
STARDATE: FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 21, 2012
MISSION: THROW A GOING-AWAY PARTY
** note: the memory card for my camera corrupted a few days ago, so this text is simply what it is and no pictures to interrupt it… all’s the better. I’ll be writing down all the recipes mentioned later, too **
Today is my last day in Montreal. So, it’s in this morning, to stare at the unfortunately grey sky and put together the final orchestral movements on the feast I’ve made for my goodbye party tonight, and hope I’ve made enough wonderful things to eat to show them the depth and the field of my love. A kind of nostalgic and wild cook-off that will, I hope, empty my fridge to bareness.
- 01. Brine pork shoulder for banh mi sandwiches
- 02. Marinate firm tofu slices in lemongrass, soy and ginger. also for banh mi sandwiches.
(the ability to properly cook meat has, I’ve decided, no malevolent characteristics. It is a gentle sashay away from death. It is a transformation of death into soul, mobility, and colour. The ability to cook tofu requires force. and garlic)
And I’ve decided that I don’t find much interest in doing things “one last time,” so my final days have been very normal. No desire to eat crackly sweet sesame rings from St-Viateur or Fairmount bagel shops. No need to fill my senses with the carnival of growing things that is the Jean-Talon market. The mountain is no fun when it’s raining like today, and the museum of contemporary art does call my name, but not out of nostalgia, just interest, and I do not have time.
- 03. Make a run to buy one tablespoon of ginger. Put that into gingersnap batter. Turn (some) gingersnaps into crumb crust for key lime bars. Frost others with pink strawberry glaze.
- 04. Make meringue.
(Despite the implied uniformity of the icebox cookie’s geometrically cylindrical shape, it’s probably this very expectation of perfection that stymies it. A drop cookie – oatmeal, say – may be as nubbly, off-form and craggily as it wishes, but an ill-shapen icebox cookie is particularly unsatisfying. That is why I reshape all the ones that require it back into adequately perfect circles before I bake. Gingerbread rhomboids suck)
I’ve even left my dancing shoes in the closet… I’ve been fading from the after-dark scene in Montreal, and no approaching departure date could really make me want to pretend to like partying with hipsters anymore. They’re super nice people, but it’s been the same party for seven years, and I’m not fresh out of art school anymore and I don’t do the drugs that they do. Or any at all these days.
- 05. Assemble raw ingredients for dips – Hummus, salsa, and avocado-edamame – in correctly sized containers for blending later. Can’t make too much noise now, the house is still asleep.
- 06. Finely julienne 2 combined pounds of carrot and daikon. Pickle them in (yet another) brine.
(Ingredients combined together while still being distinct is one of my favourite phases of food. It’s the introductory bits of a relationship, the parts where everything’s still exciting as the butter melts the breadcrumbs and the heat of the onions bring the spices out of their shell. Homogenity can happen later, after the mosaic part. After the part where i can pluck out certain components if I’ve accidentally fudged up the mix).
It’s not that I don’t love this city. I adore it. It’s become a gilded cage, though. I feel like I’ve eaten it’s fruits (juice dribbling down my chin) and absorbed it’s nature so many times already that the taste has become ordinary, and I’m starving for something it can’t provide. A re-invention, maybe.
- 07. Noise OK now. Make stovetop popcorn. Make white chocolate (Valrhona white chocolate) crab-apple popcorn with that. Sweet.
(Using up extremely expensive ingredients on projects that may or may not be worth the quality upgrade is one of the most stripped-down exultory pleasures in life. This kind of pleasure is only increased when the reason for using the ingredients is to remove it’s added weight from your luggage just before leaving town. Pure hedonism).
Of course I will be back one day. Most of the major players in my life live here – the people that I’ve known for so long that I can bare a reasonable amount of guts to them and if my bones or messed-up bits show that’s like, totally OK. People who have pulled me out of the fire again, and again, and again. Curiously, in the past few days, I’ve been making time stop when I’m with my friends. I can see their movements happen as if through glass and in perfect clarity. It’s never happened before like this. I think I’m taking mental snapshots.
- 08. Bake off PB oatmeal raison-chocolate cookies from the freezer. Don’t forget about the shrimp dumplings in there.
(We are so lucky that we are all masters of a simple kind of time machine. And one with very few hazards at that, save freezer burn and the occasional freon leak).
Come to think of it, it wouldn’t make any sense to run around being a tourist in my own city as a way of saying goodbye. No wonder I’ve been focussing so much more on my blog and the inner world and preparing for this party I’m throwing tonight. The snapshots – that is, the moments that have impact – we decide where they occur. Where the stress (both emphasis and challenge) is. It won’t be a challenge today to fall into grace with my chef’s knife and the soft hues of produce and the smell of ginger and the egg whites. That is a dance that my Self With No Name understands – it’s a universal language that applies anywhere people are hungry and there is water enough to boil. Like a turtle, I know I won’t feel scared or hopeless no matter where I go, as long as I’m allowed to cook.
- 09. Empty the pantry of all chips, cookies, crackers, pretzels and popcorn. Bowls.
- 10. Empty fridge of all vegetables, fruits, meat and cheese. Slice and arrange.
- 11. Stop to admire the space left behind.
(Do not leave anything behind that can be enjoyed today. Cavort and frolic in the idea of having no resources left. I would like a pin made, “I survived 6 days without peanut butter” to be worn proudly at opportune occasions, such as first dates with friends, hiking trips, parties where I know nobody, and in Parisian grocery stores).
The challenge of this party won’t be making the food. It will be understanding what it means to say goodbye. I don’t understand it yet. I think I’m beginning to, but there’s still time left to spend and words to say, and I haven’t seen anyone’s hair from behind for the last time yet.
- 12. Assemble banh mi sandwiches. Finishing touches on the table.
- 13. Make a nice gin drink with leftover key limes.
(Spending a day preparing a feast has a way of turning the simplicity of a cold apple for dinner into an even more distinct pleasure).
I’m actually in Vietnam already. The goodbyes have already been made. The table cleared, rooms vacated, suitcases bursting with breakfast cereals, airports navigated with patience. Still nursing some jet lag, and not as lonely as I would be if my lover weren’t asleep next to me, here in the cheapest hostel room in Hanoi. Sometimes, you have to forget that there is anything to miss that isn’t right here beside you.
♥ Enormous love to my friends and family!! ♥