Bear Rescue Center

Alison and I spent the weekend at the wonderful Forest Floor Lodge at Cat Tien National Park, where the noise of motorbike horns and karaoke are replaced by monkey calls and river rapids. While there, we hiked the short distance to the Wildlife at Risk (WAR) and Cat Tien National Park bear and wildcat rescue center. It was great to see the bears up close and hopefully on the road to rehabilitation.

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Dish #2 – Gà Kho Gừng

For my second Vietnamese dish, I decided to take on a challenge, utilizing the classic Vietnamese technique of claypot cooking. But claypots are largely out of fashion with metal pans all the rage for the past 50-60 years, except at restaurants and among home cooks who know what they are doing, an illustrious lot to which I am not a member. So I joined the convenience brigade and opted for a metal pot to make Gà Kho Gừng, or Braised Chicken with Ginger.

Again, I lifted the recipe again from Andrea Nguyen’s Into the Vietnamese Kitchen, choosing this dish because it looked simple with the ingredients consisting of only chicken, salt, fish sauce, sugar, water, and green onions. First make nước màu, or a caramel sauce, then cook the chicken in it. Two steps. How can this possibly go wrong?

Yet, after an hour of cooking, with my wife complaining of hunger and I’m still making the caramel sauce. Thirty minutes earlier, my caramel sauce was supposed to be the color of a dark red wine but at best, it still looks like a tepid tea and the sugar is crystallizing at an alarming pace, to the point that it appears that I am making a batch of rock candy.

I now need to improvise, something really best done under professional supervision. But I have nothing to lose, with the shame of ordering delivery looming. Using whatever kitchen instincts I have, I decide to turn up the heat. I add a touch extra of water, and a dash more of sugar. Again, more heat, more water. And finally, Ông Táo, the Kitchen God, smiles upon me. The extra heat is working, the color darkens, and I stand proudly over my caramel sauce. I toss the ginger and chicken in the pot and the heat does the rest, the dish now fortunately safe from my hand. When the chicken is cooked, I add chopped green onions and I serve.

My wife exclaims, “I would be happy if I ordered this in a restaurant.” To which, I think, “No, you would have already got up and left because it took two hours to get to the table.”

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Dish #1 – Gà Rô-Ti

For dish #1 of my New Year’s resolution, I decided to go with the simple Gà Nướng, or Grilled Chicken, as instructed by Andrea Nguyen in her wonderful cookbook, Into the Vietnamese Kitchen. Chicken, lime, salt, black pepper, fish sauce, sugar, and oil. Add a grill, no problem.

Except as I’m preparing the marinade, my eyes wandered over to the recipe on the opposite page of the cookbook and I began preparing it instead. I only realized this once the marinade was ready to go. Not a good start to the first of my 52 Vietnamese dishes in 2012. Minutes in and I’ve already completely screwed up and am making the wrong dish.

Fortunately, I’m in the chicken section of the cookbook so my protein is the same. And salt, black pepper, sugar, and oil are fairly standard ingredients. However, instead of lime, I’ve added garlic. And rather than fish sauce, I used  soy sauce. Stir it altogether, and now I’m accidentally ready to make Gà Rô-Ti, or Garlicky Oven-Roasted Chicken.

Problem 2 arises in that my oven doesn’t work and I planned on grilling tonight, so I took the liberties afforded to me as chef and decided to grill the chicken, creating a new dish, Garlicky Grilled Chicken.

The results were mixed. I should have put the bird in the oven as the recipe dictates and the marinade should have been applied earlier. However, it was still tasty and much more appetizing than the photo below illustrates. In all, hopefully not a sign of things to come. From here, I can only go up. It’s hard to do worse than actually making the wrong dish.

Garlicky Grilled Chicken:

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Burmese Days

The news is coming out of Myanmar at a dizzying pace. A civilian government, Aung San Suu Kyi released, more prisoners released, ceasefires on the border. Visits from Hillary Clinton, William Hague, the Japanese Foreign Minister, the Thai Prime Minister, and over the new year, George Soros, who has remarkably announced that he will open a Foundation office there. There are seemingly daily articles in the FT and WSJ about the reforms and the possibilities. Investors are giddy and ready to go, with everyone from the boutique Phnom Penh-based frontier market private equity outfit Leopard Capital to the UK giant, Standard Chartered Bank expressing an interest in the country.

And so it was in the middle of all of this Myanmar euphoria that my wife and I  took a very enjoyable 9-day visit to the country in late December. We did the loop from Yangon to Bagan to Inle Lake and then literally back around as our trusty Yangon Airways propeller plane carried us on a 20 minute flight to Mandalay, stop and drop, another 20 minutes to Bagan, stop and drop, and a final hour to Yangon where we arrived on New Year’s Eve, ready to celebrate with a Myanmar Beer and a view of the Schwedagon Pagoda from the roof of our hotel.

It’s fair to say that it was one of the more remarkable trips I’ve taken, exceeding whatever expectations I had, one memorable moment after another -from the magnificent Schwedagon Pagoda to the joy of temple hopping in Bagan to placid Inle Lake.

Here’s a view of Schwedagon at night:

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New Year’s Resolution – Learn to Cook Món Ăn Việt Nam

Over a New Year’s Eve lunch at Inle Lake, Myanmar, I foolishly committed to a 2012 resolution of cooking 52 Vietnamese dishes over the course of the year. On average, one per week but no rules. Some weeks I’ll do multiple recipes, some I’ll do none. I’ll take most of the recipes from the excellent “Into the Vietnamese Kitchen” by Andrea Nguyen, though I’ll also draw from a few other sources as well. I’m a very amateur cook and currently know exactly two Vietnamese dishes – the northern Vietnamese tofu and tomato dish, ₫ậu hủ số cà chua, and pickled daikon and carrot. I have a lot to learn, so here we go… Year of Mike in the Nhà Bếp.

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The Fortune Teller with the Comb

On Nguyen Trung Truc Street, at the corner of Ly Tu Trong, is a string of popular streetside restaurants. Tables and chairs line the sidewalks. Throughout the night empty beer bottles fill tableside crates, which will be counted at the end of the meal to determine the bill. The restaurant on the corner specializes in cow skin fish. The meaty, chili marinated fish is grilled on a small metal barbeque, taking more than an hour to cook through. The next restaurant up the street specializes in ribs – thick, flavorful, MSG-laden ribs. Weekday or weekend, once the sun goes down, there are few if any open tables. Office workers and friends gather to drink, and drink heavily. The food is typically fantastic. And the vendors who hawk their wares through Saigon’s streets late into each night make a special point of stopping by. The vendors here range from the usual mango and quail egg sellers to teenagers who literally breathe fire. A woman sells cigarettes from a wooden crate. A man sells oversized lighters shaped like guns. And one night, we met an old man with whispy white hair moving gingerly from table to table. He wore a headlamp and carried a magnifying glass in his pocket. He had few teeth left. One of my friends told us that he was a fortune teller. He came over to our table and we said hello. He smiled and stared. Alison asked if she could take a photo. He happily obliged but then asked to see it. He wasn’t satisfied. He took off his headlamp, pulled out a small comb, and combed his hair. He then posed for another picture, which he was more pleased with. He then told us he was 86 years old, smiled, and moved on into the night looking for someone’s fortune to tell.

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A year in Saigon

On a rainy Tuesday morning in early October almost one year ago, I took a car service to JFK Airport to catch a flight to Saigon. A bloody mary at the Sammy Hagar Bar and I boarded my flight. Nearly 20 hours after crossing continents and oceans, I was officially a Saigon resident once again. It is amazing how such a dramatic move is accomplished by as mundane a task as sitting on a airplane for a painfully long period of time. One morning you live in a walk-up apartment on a quiet street in Brooklyn and the next day you are greeted by the smell of roasting corn in the thick humid air of your new home. This new home just happens to be halfway across the globe in a city undergoing a remarkable and occasionally unforgiving transition.

I moved back to Vietnam just after the end of a decade without a name. It was the waning weeks of the rainy season of 2010 and the global financial crisis continued to take its toll on the world’s economies. Emerging from war, extreme poverty, and isolation from much of the West, Vietnam’s economy began to awaken in the mid-1990’s and roared a decade later. By 2006, it was the darling of foreign investors, later earning a special spot in acronyms and marketing phrases such as CIVETS and N11. Like all countries, Vietnam would be impacted by the financial crisis. The local stock market had been among the world’s worst performing in 2008 and it still wasn’t much better. Yet, Vietnam felt a strangely optimistic place, even given inflation rates nearing the country’s median age. Since my last visit to Saigon in 2009, the skyline had expanded, growing ever upwards and stretching into new suburban zones where apartment complexes grew out of rice fields that once shielded insurgents. Journalists from the war tell stories of sitting on the roof of the Caravelle Hotel and watching planes bomb the enemy hideouts across the river but today, sitting atop the downtown hotels, cold drink in hand, you are afforded striking views of a city bursting forward like the country itself.

I suppose the mood of global gloom has cast its shadow over much of the world, even extending a slightly dim hue here to the second fastest growing economy of the past decade. While the city’s infectious optimism in life’s opportunities has fortunately not burnt out, it has instead matured into a more sober vision of reality. Though an exuberant bubble burst as they always do, the future of Saigon remains one that is trending in the right direction, with of course the zigs and zags inherent in the story of any city meandering its way like an offshoot of the Mekong into an unknown yet hopeful future.

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