Saturday, February 26, 2011

Dear Phil

We love to order vietnamese salads at restaurants.  As in Thailand, most salads in Vietnam are NOT vegetarian.  (That ain't no problem for us!).

Last week I had a papaya that just wouldn't ripen. So, I bought a shredding tool and decided to make a green papaya salad with it.

My shredder has a peeler on one side
and a shredder on the other. Fancy!
You can't get green papayas in New Zealand, because they don't grow there.  By the time the imported papayas have arrived they are ripe and soft and the flesh is bright orange. 

Incidentally, William loves most orange fruits and vegetables - papaya, pumpkin, spaghetti squash.  we tried him on rock melon but he refused.  Cats are so fussy.

Next I took a big pile of fresh herbs and aromatics - garlic, shallots, chilli, lime, spring onions, basil mint etc.  Everything I had. I chopped them finely, then mashed them all together with a bit of salt, fish sauce and lime juice in the mortar and pestle.

Vietnamese language lesson courtesy of the maid:
'hom' - smells delicious.
I also added dried shrimp in the mortar in pestle.  In an ideal world I would have added peanuts but I didn't have any.

Then, I mixed the herb sauce together with the shredded papaya.  I used my hands, and they got all slimy.  I just don't think it's possible to make good food without getting a bit messy.

This is the biggest bowl I have.  Turns out there's a lot of flesh on a papaya.
I found that it was a bit salty, because I had added a lot of dried shrimp and fish sauce and salt.  I remedied that by diluting a couple of tablespoons of honey in warm water and adding it to the salad.  This made it quite wet, but it tasted delicious.  So, if you're using dried shrimp - beware.  They are very salty.

I like the way the cross section of a papaya makes a star shape.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Cleanliness is one step closer to god(liness)

Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. The fearful are caught as often as the bold.
That's what Helen Keller said. But you know, she was deaf and blind already.  She didn't have all that much to lose. 

The Saigonese are like Helen Keller.  And I know, when I think rationally about it that this bold and fearless attitude is a by-product of the fatalism that is predominant in many Asian cultures.  The idea that all life is suffering, and suffering cannot be avoided, and that when death wants to appear it will, and it cannot be prevented.  And also I know that I am putting a positive spin on it when I call it 'bold and fearless'. 

Behold the view from my balcony.  

Look at all those 2 and 3 storey high rooftops

Isn't is lovely?  All the rooftops glistening in the sunshine. We are on the 5th floor.  But it's probably closer to 7 storeys up, given that you have to go up a flight of steps to get to the ground floor, and that this building uses British counting - level 1 is Ground, level 2 is First etc.  So,we're on 5th, but it's really level 6.   Quite high up, right?

This is the view down between the railings.  See how tiny the motorbikes are?

So, imagine my surprise when I looked up and saw the maid here:

She was perched on the rail, cleaning it.  With a bucket and a rag and no fear at all.

You know, even my brother Joseph at 6 years old had more sense.  He is famous for climbing the pear tree in our back yard with a rope tied around his waist "for safety" - he said.  The rope dangled below him like a monkey's tail and wasn't attached to anything, but at least he thought about safety. 

Now, I'm not really down with having dead maids to deal with.  Just in case you were wondering. 

(And this all happened about 20 minutes ago, so I'm still kind of shocked.) 

I didn't want to startle her, so I didn't say anything to her while she was up there. But the handyman appeared (who knows why?  My apartment is like a train station of handypersons.  And suicidal maids.) and I made a horror face at him and gestured wildly.  And he laughed at me.

And then he spoke to the maid and I think he might have told her to get down, or to be careful or something because then she arranged her face into a very grimly determined expression and reached to ever more dangerous reaches.  And they all laughed at me, because the whole reason I came to this country was to provide entertainment for the Vietnamese. 

This little guy also climbs my balcony railings.  I am sure he was laughing too. 

Hahaha! The fat white lady is afraid!

What do you all think I should do about this?  Maids on balcony railings is apparently of no concern to the locals.  Or at least, it is of less concern than dust on the balcony railings. I considered a soft approach - maybe if I purchased a safety harness? But they wouldn't use it, would they? I'm sure that if I complained, that the maids wouldn't go up there while I was looking. But they would still go there when I'm not looking.  Or not home.  And anyway - there are like, at least 8 other balconies in this building.  And they all get dusty.

Sweet William thinks harnesses are for pussies

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Christchurch earthquake

When you are away from home, it is easy to feel especially helpless when confonted with news like yesterday's devastating earthquake in Christchurch.

As with most major events in the last couple of years, we heard about this one through social media - the NZ guitar forum, actually. Mr Martin checked the forum over his breakfast and read that the spire had toppled from the Christchurch Cathedral.  Thanks also to all the family who contacted us to let us know what was happening.  Fortunately, we don't have any family in Christchurch, and so far as we know, none of our friends have been badly affected - apart from property damage here and there.

There is nothing much I can do from here - but there are some practical concerns and I can help to spread the word:

The telephone services throughout NZ are under stress.  If you want to contact your friends and relatives in NZ, please use txts rather than making calls, if possible, or use internet resources like email/facebook etc for the next few days to free up the network for emergency services.

The one thing that is going to be needed desperately in the short term, and also in the longer term is money. If you can spare anything, please donate:

The Salvation Army is a Christian organisation in NZ that is very well connected and will be providing a lot of support to Christchurch - especially to those who will be finding themselves homeless or without food or access to money. They are having an online appeal here and you can donate with a credit card from anywhere in the world.

If you would rather donate to a secular organisation, the Red Cross in NZ also have an online appeal setup already. You can donate by credit card here.  Their site is getting overloaded at the moment, but keep trying.

Our thoughts are with everybody who is affected by this tragedy.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Mrs Martin's Method of Peeling a Pomelo

We loves pomelos.

Vietnam is full of great fruit. I haven't even tried all the fruits there are at my local market yet. But a firm favourite in our little family has turned out to be the pomelo.

Pomelo are really common here and I think available all year round - though I'll let you know if the supply suddenly stops later in the year. Pomelo are big. About the size of a volleyball. It's a citrus fruit and it often gets compared to grapefruit in terms of flavour and structure. But actually, the flavour is a lot sweeter than grapefruit, and more delicate too. It's a very fragrant fruit, but it doesn't overwhelm you with it's flavour the way some citrus fruits do - it's not overly acidic. I guess that's why it's commonly used in salads - it provides texture and softness and fragrance, but it's not overpowering. It's happy to share the plate with a bit of chilli and fishsauce and coriander and mint and won't throw a tantrum about it.

We like to eat it just on its own - straight out of its skin.

Pomelo can seem a bit daunting if you've never tried to get into one before. And the tutorials I've seen online are all about peeling a pomelo the traditional way, being careful not to waste any of the precious flesh and spending hours and hours and hours picking at the rind until the wedges are stripped yet intact.

I reckon that a pomelo is big enough that a tiny bit of wastage is ok if it means you can peel it in under 10 minutes. The rind of the pomelo is really thick.  Like, inches of thick, fibrous, white pulp. And of course, a pomelo is round, so the first thing you need to do is cut off the top and bottom of the rind to give yourself a flat working surface.  Your first cut should be a couple of inches away from the edge.

It's never a good idea to knife something that wobbles.

Keep taking thin slices off, until you've exposed most of the segments of the fruit inside.   The flesh of this one is pink.  The pink fleshed ones are a lot more expensive that the yellow-fleshed ones, and apart from the colour there are some other subtle differences too.  The rind is thicker, and more fibrous, which makes it harder to slice into initially, but easier to peel at the end.  The fruit itself is a bit sweeter and has more flavour, and the little sections inside the fruit are bigger and juicier - they pop between your teeth. However, I think that the biggest factor leading to the price difference is the colour - red is a lucky colour here, and during Tet, pink pomelos were for sale everywhere as a auspicious treat.  People buy them as gifts for family.

This pomelo was especially lovely and expensive at about $4.  Note the unmarked, bright green skin and stem still intact.  Cheaper, yellow pomelo I usually buy for less than $1.

The fruit of the pomelo is attached to the skin by a fibre that runs all along the pointy part of each wedge, and down the centre of the back of the wedge.  So the aim in peeling is to slice off that back fibre down each wedge along with the thick white rind. You can see the yellow-ish green-ish spots behind each wedge of fruit in this picture - those spots are the fibres. 

Slide your knife between the fibre spot and the fruit flesh

Now cut in a downward curve.  Don't worry about the little bit of flesh you've carved off - there'll still be plenty left.  Repeat for each segment until you've exposed the whole topside of the fruit.

Then flip it, and repeat for the other side. You should be left with a beautiful stripy ball.

Now, stick your thumbs in the hole, and pull the flesh apart.

This makes a pleasing ripping sound.

If you can, tear it into quarters.  If it's not very weildy, you can slice it - just aim your knife at one of the fibrous segments rather than into the flesh. Then, trim down the point of the wedge and remove the fibrous binding.  This should be the last bit of cutting you will need to do.

Your knife needs to be quite sharp for this bit.

This is the funnest part - you just need to peel off the papers with your fingers, and plop the wedges out onto a plate.

They can be quite delicate so don't worry if they break - they still taste good!

Mrs Martin and The Tramp

(Not really very) Desperate Vietnamese Housewife

For a while there, I was a working wife with a stay-at-home husband. Now the tables have turned, and I am stay-at-home wife. Wifing is of course not my whole life, but there are some things that have now become routine.

In the mornings we get up and have breakfast together. Almost every morning I manage to do this – to get up and set a breakfast out on the table of hot coffee, and fruit and bread and yogurt. The format of the breakfast is always the same, but the content varies quite a bit. While Martin would probably be quite happy to eat exactly the same thing every day, I like variety, so I try to make sure there’s a different fruit each day, at least. Often the bread is varied, too. Sometimes it’s thick slices of toast, and other times it’s a pastry of some kind. On special days it’s our favourite bready treat – chewy sesame donut balls. Crackballs we call them. Delicious.

We have a housekeeping service, so cleaning is a minimal concern. If there are dishes left unwashed in the kitchen the maids will insist on doing them. This bothers me a tiny bit but I wouldn’t say I lose sleep over it. Sometimes I leave the dinner dishes for the maids to do the next morning. Mostly, I try to do the dishes myself. The maids don’t do laundry (although sheets and towels are provided), so that is my job. I wash the clothes and I hang them on the balcony to dry. The airconditioning vents are on the balcony too, so they blow warm air over the clothes and everything dries quickly. I iron. Much more than I did at home – all the line drying and hard water makes everything come out looking pretty terrible from the wash, and ironing softens the fabric and smoothes the tiny surface creases. I iron everything except underwear, standing in front of the tv in the early afternoons, when the Korean soap operas are on.

What we eat is my responsibility. Early on, we ate almost exclusively at restaurants, but that loses its appeal after a while. It is cheap to eat out. We can get dinner at the restaurant on the corner of our street for under 150,000 dong for both of us (USD 7.50) including drinks, and an appetizer. But once I got the hang of shopping, I’ve learned that I can prepare a similar meal at home for less than 50,000 dong. But cooking means shopping, and every day or every couple of days I venture out to the market to buy what I need for cooking.

I am still learning how to shop here. There is a big market about two blocks away from our apartment. I love going to the market, but it is still intimidating at times, because of the language difficulties. And I can’t (or rather, won’t) buy everything that I need at the market. The market sells all kinds of fruit and vegetables, meat, fish and seafood – but the only foodstuffs I buy there are fresh fruit and vegetables. I still worry about hygiene and packaged foods are cheaper at the supermarket. There is an indoor market that has pretty much everything you need for your kitchen or home – so long as you know how to ask for it.

I am getting to be quite good at sign language and have managed to purchase a mortar and pestle, a spray bottle, noodle bowls, a can opener and one of those basketspoons that you use for deep frying to fish stuff out of the oil – all without the use of language. They always seem to have what I am looking for, but it seems like I can never see the things I want in their stalls, they are so full of stuff. When I mimed the can opener, the woman ran off to a neighbouring stall in a different aisle to fetch one for me. When I gestured crushing herbs in a mortar and pestle, the woman crouched down on the floor and started fishing out a variety of them from underneath the bottom shelf of her stall.

There is a big local supermarket chain called the Coopmart – pronounced kwopmart. I suspect it’s probably government owned. The first time we went, on our first night in the flat to get supplies we were overwhelmed by screaming Vietnamese women and narrow aisles and pushing and jostling. I remember that I couldn’t get to the soaps because there were women just loitering in front of the soap aisle, sniffing the packages and taking forever to choose which one they wanted, as if it were some super luxurious makeup counter they were at. And even by Vietnamese standards, soap at the coopmart is not expensive – but Vietnamese people seem to enjoy taking their time, and having something to choose for themselves. I like to think that this behaviour is a post-communist response to choice (yes, Vietnam is still a communist country. But in a capitalistic kind of way, these days) – it helps me to sympathise and remain calm!

It was a Saturday afternoon, then, so we rationalized – must be a bad time! All the workers have the day off, so they’re doing their shopping now. At a different time it will be better, less chaotic. We went again on Sunday night and had an even worse experience. I have since been to that coopmart a handful of times, at different times of the day, and it is always the same. Curiously, there is another coopmart store that is actually closer to where we live, and I have never been overwhelmed by people in that store. In fact, it can be quite quiet in the middle of the day. I’m not sure why this is – I think it’s just slightly smaller than the other store, but it still has all the same stuff. Now, when I need to visit a supermarket I go here, or else I go all the way into the city and use the supermarket at one of the department stores.

I use the supermarkets to buy heavy things, and boring things – like cleaning products and cooking oil. I also buy yogurt and milk (awful UHT milk. I have taken to putting sugar in my coffee to disguise it) and cans of lemonade and packaged foods like pasta, and chips.

You can’t get decent chicken here, it’s always stringy and tough. But I have found a decent butchers shop and buy pork loin and beefsteak there. I buy bread and pastries from the bakery. Sometimes I go to a patisserie to find little cakes for dessert. At any one shopping trip, I can only buy as much as I can carry home on my own. The coopmarts and the supermarkets at the shopping malls have trolleys, but you can’t take them out the door, so I need to be able to carry my stuff to the taxi, and from the taxi to the apartment in one go. I walk to the market and bakery despite the heat. It’s not far, and I like the exercise, even though it’s not much. It’s easy to get exhausted in the heat.

So all this running back and forth between stores and markets, and figuring out what I need to buy and where I need to get it from takes quite a bit of time. I don’t do a weekly shop anymore, it’s more like a daily shop – of one sort or another. If I get a job I will need to change my routine, but at the moment it is working out just fine.

I have been cooking about 3 or 4 times a week. We both like to eat at home on nights when Martin is working, and we like to eat out at the weekends. We might eat out once or twice during the week, but its really easier just to eat at home. Martin works quite late, so I like to have food ready for him when he gets home, so we can sit and have a meal together and chat.

I only have one gas ring and a microwave. No oven. No other elements. There is actually an electric ceramic hotplate installed in the kitchen but it doesn’t work, and never has. Because I do a lot asian style cooking though, anyway, I find that one pot is enough. I have been provided with 3 pots and a medium sized deep frying pan – I would like to get myself a proper wok. I keep forgetting about this desire when I’m out and about, and only remember when I realize that I’ve overloaded my pan again and need to cook in small batches to stir-fry effectively. With a bigger wok it would take half the amount of time to cook.

I have a rice cooker. And I bought a toaster. There is a small electric kettle, and I boil filtered water in it for coffee (not tap). Our shipment of stuff is arriving soon, and I’ll do an audit of what I have after it gets here before I buy any more large kitchen equipment. But I remember that I didn’t pack much kitchen stuff, because I realized (correctly, as it turns out) that while I was waiting, I would need to buy a whole lot of stuff to use during the wait period. I only packed the things I loved, so we’ll see what comes out of the box on the day, and whether or not I still think I love it!

The only other domestic responsibility I have is to supervise any workers that come into the apartment. They come quite often. There’s always something going wrong with the plumbing, or lightbulbs exploding, or the internet going down. The water delivery man. The window washers. The other morning I had literally seven people in the house for 3 hours, tending to various things.

The domestic duties and Martin’s work schedule have created a routine for us, and we have found it really quite easy to settle in, and slip into this new life. Things will happen that will make our routine change (especially if I start working), but at the moment it is simple, and I like the gentle pace and the gradual introduction to Vietnam as a life lived, rather than as a holiday from a life somewhere else.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Pink church

In my previous post I mentioned that we had visited the pink church on Hai Ba Trung.

That's me in the foreground.  Martin put together this composite shot.

The real surprise of the visit was the peaceful little garden sanctuary at the back of the cathedral itself.  It's not a large area but it features a full collection of beautiful statues depicting the scenes leading up to the crucifixion. After some research, I realised that the series of statues represents the traditional stations of the cross.  You can find more about that here if you're interested. 

In the first station, Jesus is condemned to death.

Pilate washes his hands.

 I thought this set was very placid and serene.  Nobody looks too worried.

At the second station, Jesus is given his cross.

 And he looks as though he is rejoicing!

The sculptures at the third station are my favourite:

Jesus falls for the first time

I don't know who this guy is,
but there is something very menacing
about his armpit hairs.

In the fouth station 'Jesus meets his mother'.

It is always surprising to see a cold stone statue
so full of life and emotion.

Sad and beautiful.  This is Martin's favourite.

 In the fifth, Simon of Cyrene carries the cross.

Is the roman guy helping Jesus here?

In the sixth, Veronica wipes the face of Jesus:

According to the story, Veronica gave her veil so that he could wipe his face, and when he returned it to her, his likeness was left on the cloth.  This set shows Veronica offering her veil and the focus is still very much on Jesus and the cross.  Many depictions of Veronica in art are closer to portraits of the face of Jesus as it appears on the cloth of the veil, with a serious Veronica holding the cloth up for all to see. In others, Veronica is completely absent, like this painting by Zurburan at around 1658.

The story of Veronica's veil has inspired many
artists to create portraits of suffering

I was interested in this part of the story, because this is one of the stations is not actually based on scripture, and also because it features a woman.  But I couldn't in my brief search find much by way of modern art depicting this station.  Matisse made a sketch in 1949: Study for the Sixth Station of the Cross: Saint Veronica...

... in preparation for the work that features on the back wall of the Chapelle du Rosaire de Vence which was built and decorated between 1949 and 1951 under a plan devised by him and regarded by Matisse himself as his masterpiece.

You can see that in the final work, the only face
with features is the face on Veronica's veil.

In the seventh station, Jesus fell for a second time.

And in the eighth station Jesus meets the daughters of Jerusalem.

This is the third station to feature women.

In the ninth station Jesus falls for a third time:

Again, there is compassion
in the face and stance of the Roman guard

Jesus is stripped of his garments in the tenth station.

And in the eleventh station we are shown the brutal event of the crucifixion:

The twelfth and thirteenth stations show Jesus dying on the cross, and his body being removed from the cross, before finally being laid in his tomb in the fourteenth station.  Mary is depicted also in each of these final three scenes.

You can see throughout the pictures that the area where the statues are laid out is a very pretty garden with immaculate lawns and delicate flowers.  The area is very small and it was difficult to get pictures without also getting the not so idyllic buildings in the background. But it is a very peaceful mid-city haven, and despite not being at all a religious person it is very easy for me to appreciate the quiet spirituality of this place.

Following up on the art theme of this post, here is a more modern interpretation of the Stations of the Cross - the literal, classical storytelling in the sculptures above is challenged in these works by American artist Barnett Newman - who, to quote this article undertook "one of the most demanding assignments in the history of modern art, namely to thematize, without the use of color and only in black and white, the tragedy of human existence vis-à-vis an almighty God..."