The Very Inspiring Blogger Award


Thanks, QWF Writes, for nominating me for the “Very Inspiring Blogger” award.

QWF Writes is the Quebec Writers’ Federation’s monthly online column. The QWF does a lot of great work promoting writing in the community. Have a look at their post (linked above, in the first line), to see a list of seven great ways they do this.

The award is a promotional chain for bloggers, a pay-it-forward way of sharing websites bloggers admire.

Here are the guidelines for accepting the award and nominating other bloggers:

1. Thank the person who nominated you and add their link to your blog.
2. List the award rules so your nominees will know what to do.
3. State 7 things about yourself.
4. Nominate other bloggers.
5. Contact your nominees and provide a link to your post.
6. Display the award logo on your blog, whether on your sidebar or about page, or special award page.

Right. So, here are 7 things about me:
1. I’m always grateful for these awards, and what I like most about them is nominating other bloggers. It’s always a challenge to choose just a few blogs from the many great ones out there. What I like least is listing seven things about myself.

2. I’ve been writing for a long time, but I only just this week joined a writers’ group. They are four women, all talented published writers who, like me, write nonfiction. I felt honoured when they invited me to join them. We met a few days ago to discuss and critique each other’s essays and chapters from WIPs. Each person brings a different strength to the critique table, and this promises to be a rewarding experience.

3. Mostly, I write nonfiction, especially about Việt Nam, food, and nature. I do write some short stories, and hope to eventually put a bunch of them together in a book.

4. My current project is a book of personal essays about living in Việt Nam. This may sound familiar, because I’ve been working on the same project for a very long time. A few years, in fact. When I first began, I had a different plan for the book’s setup and style. Then, I wasn’t sure what direction several of the essays should take. Most of them are ready now; eleven have appeared in various literary and travel magazines and anthologies, three are still in the final polishing stage and one of these may get broken into two separate but linked pieces. I’m almost ready for agent-hunting!

5. The book I’m reading now (and enjoying immensely) is  Boundless (Anansi, Cape), Kathleen Winter’s travel memoir about her trip through the Northwest Passage.  The Guardian has a great review, complete with a link to a video of Nathan Rogers performing his father’s song The Northwest Passage.

6. I sometimes write quickly, but usually, slowly, and then spend a long time editing, rereading, editing, polishing, letting it rest, polishing. . . I call it slow writing, and I mused about it in a recent QWF Writes column.

7. I’m relieved to reach the end of this list of facts about me, and will celebrate by making some bread, because I love baking. After that, it’s back to work on the book.

I nominate these blogs:
1. Food, food writing, food photography: Micha’s Food Blog:
Michael Pokorra tries out wines and recipes and writes about them on his bilingual English/German food blog. (If you don’t read German, just scroll down because every single post has an English version.) He accompanies his posts with his own mouthwatering photographs of his beautiful presentations. I hope he collects his recipes in a book soon.

2. Writing, submitting, reading, photography: Margrét Helgadóttir’s blog:
Margrét is a Norwegian-Icelandic expat and writer who writes in English. Her debut book, The Stars Seem so Far Away (Fox Spirit), is out on Feb. 13, 2015 . Margrét is the editor for one published and two forthcoming Fox Spirit anthologies. She is also a talented photographer, and here and there on her blog, you’ll find some real gems, from art photos to street and architecture photography.
(Disclaimer: I was the stylistic editor for this book. )

3. Việt Nam, culture, writing: Michelle Robin La’s website/blog:
Michelle grew up in the American Midwest, while her husband grew up in Việt Nam. They met in college. She writes about their culturally blended life together, and about her husband’s childhood years in the Mekong Valley. Michelle’s book Catching Shrimp with Both Hands (ViewPort Publishing) just came out at the end of January. The book is a memoir of her husband’s childhood, as told to her by him.

Posted in Blog Awards, Books, Creative Non-Fiction, Memoir, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Happy 50th Anniversary, Pointe Claire Library! – 50 Years of Inspiration

50th anniversary Pointe Claire Library-posterThe Pointe Claire Public Library is celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2015. The opening ceremonies on January 24th included readings by local authors, live music, and cupcake decorating workshops. I was delighted to receive an invitation to take part in the events and read from my work.

We were blessed with mild weather, and when I arrived at the library, the coat racks were already bursting, children and parents were choosing books to borrow, and the cupcake workshops, hosted by Pointe Claire’s own Crazy About Cupcakes, were in full swing.

In the teen section, Duo Jaï (Stewart Grant, oboe; Joanne Grant, cello)  were setting up their music stands. They opened the afternoon programming with a mix of baroque, popular and contemporary classics, including some lovely Bach partitas, and Gershwin and Beatles tunes. Following the literary programming and a coffee and cupcake interlude, they returned later with their terrific interpretations of more Beatles tunes, including a personal favourite, Come Together. When Stewart introduced the piece, I wondered how they would pull it off with cello and oboe, but the arrangement was outstanding.

Award-winning authors Mark Abley and Joel Yanofsky held the floor for an informal chat on the theme of inspiration. Mark, also a Gazette columnist, poet, and the library’s first Writer-in-Residence, emphasised the importance of libraries when he mentioned what a major role the Pointe Claire Library played in his decision to live in Pointe Claire. They discussed the capricious nature of inspiration, and the ways in which they each find it. Joel, a frequent book reviewer for the Gazette, talked about the struggle to find inspiration while working on his most recent book, Bad Animals: A Father’s Accidental Education in Autism (Viking Canada, 2011).

Mary Jane O’Neill (the library’s section manager of audiovisual and adult programming) then introduced several local Pointe Claire writers, who read from their work.

Karen Zey is an emerging writer who worked for thirty-five years as a teacher, consultant and administrator in the Quebec public school system. Now a part-time educational consultant, she writes whenever she can. Karen read an excerpt from Tough Talk, a personal essay forthcoming in the spring issue of Prick of the Spindle. Karen is working on a collection of school-based stories. (One of her stories, Jake, appeared in the December 2013 issue of Hippocampus, a magazine of creative nonfiction.)

Claire Pelletier devotes her time to her two passions, writing and travelling. She read an excerpt from her second book, Les dé boires de la veuve (Première chance, 2013), a fanciful and rather surreal collection of allegorical stories in which some of the characters are garden vegetables, others, bottles of wine.  Claire takes inspiration from her travels and from Chilean poet Pablo Neruda. Her first book, a collection of poetic prose entitled Le voleur de sourires (Première chance), appeared in 2010.

I took my turn in front of the audience to read Life with Mệ, one of the essays in the collection I’m currently working on, about living in Việt Nam. (Life with Mệ also appeared in the 2012 Writers Abroad anthology Foreign Encounters.

Francine Marcil, who writes about the hidden treasures on the library’s bookshelves at Il y a Tant à Lire, gave us a few examples of these treasures and read a passage from her top pick, Marie-Claire Blais’ Une saison dans la vie d’Emmanuel.

Michelle Payette-Daoust, fluently bilingual and an avid reader, hosts both the library’s English online book club blog and French online book club blog. Michelle gave us a bilingual presentation, and spoke about the challenges of writing her posts in two languages. She read from some of her posts, which include book suggestions and literary musings, and thoughts about books and films, posted under a category called “Should I Read it or Watch it?”

Many local writers, including Karen Zey, Claire Pelletier, and I, had benefited from the one-on-one meetings with the library’s Writers-in-Residence, Mark Abley in 2010-11, and David Homel in 2013.

As the library’s first Writer-in-Residence, Mark Abley worked with local writers (both published and aspiring), reading their work and offering valuable critique. He also put together and edited a bilingual collection of 35 local authors’ writings about Pointe Claire, The City We Share / La Ville que nous partageons (Shoreline Press, 2011). I was lucky to be one of writers he mentored during that time, and to have a nature essay, Seasons of the Lake, appear in the collection. Mark has a new collection, The Tongues of Earth: New and Selected Poems, (Coteau Books) coming out this spring.

We had hoped that David Homel, who took up the reins as the library’s second Writer-in-Residence, would be present, but he was unable to attend. During his tenure, he wrote a series of thoughtful posts about writing, all archived on the Library’s blog. He is an award-winning writer and translator, editor, journalist, filmmaker and teacher. His children’s book, The Traveling Circus (Groundwood Books), coauthored with Marie-Louise Gay, is forthcoming in April, 2015.

Section manager Mary Jane O’Neill is one of the Pointe Claire Library’s most valuable resources. Always on the lookout for something new to foster the love of books and literature and to keep the library vibrant, she’s doing an outstanding job! Mary Jane co-organised the library’s Writers in Residence program (Mark was chosen by a board consisting of Pointe Claire library staff, the Conseil des Arts de Montréal, and the Quebec Writers’ Federation). In 2011, she set up a human library event, where people could borrow a living book, as part of the City of Pointe Claire’s100th anniversary celebrations, and she worked with three other libraries to set up OverDrive, a system offering free downloadable eBooks and audiobooks to their adult members.

Thanks so much to the amazing Mary Jane for putting this event together!

The Pointe-Claire Public Library was established as a municipal service in 1965, but the history of the library goes back to the end of World War Two, when the Valois Citizens’ Association established the first library in a tiny wooden cabin in Valois.

The library offers a huge and varied collection of books, and much more. Throughout the year, cultural activities include readings by both award-winning and emerging writers, and conferences, lectures and films. Also offered are a variety of workshops, from Computers for Seniors, and Family History Research, to Creative Writing with Tim Fain, and knitting and crocheting clubs and more.

Special services include home delivery of books for people with limited mobility or physical disabilities, and large-print books. Then there’s the handy Ask a Librarian service, the career-search database, the Mango Languages database, and a teen space, with work stations, a sofa, and chairs, where teens can read, do their homework or relax at the library.

The library will host many more activities to mark its 50th anniversary this year. Follow the library’s blogs or visit the library in person for more information, to become a member, or just to relax, read a book and enjoy the natural light and marvellous view of the woods from the picture windows.

Address: 100 Avenue Douglas-Shand, Pointe-Claire, QC, H9R 4V1
Phone: (514) 630-1218
Adult Blog:
Teen Blog:

Posted in Literary Events, News, Readings | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Slow Writing by Chris Galvin


I’ve a new essay up over at the Quebec Writers’ Federation’s monthly online column. Have a look, and then read some of the other writers’ essays too. The QWF Writes column “provides an arena for writers to share and discuss ideas, experiences and opinions relevant to our unique writing community,” but pretty much all of the posts are relevant to the wider writing world as well, not just to Quebec writers.

Originally posted on QWF Writes:

Chris bakes muffins too

Like bread dough, my writing seems to require time to rise in a warm, draft-free place. The long proofing period is necessary; turn up the heat to hurry the rising, or don’t leave it long enough, and I get a stodgy, dense loaf.

Under ideal conditions—solitude, free time and excitement about what I’m writing—the words pour forth quickly. It’s exhilarating. But normally, I write when I can. I like to have control over an essay or story as it forms, and I edit as I write, considering each sentence as I put it to paper—does it say what I want it to say, or does it imply something else? I read what I’ve written aloud—does it have the right rhythm? Is my translation of Vietnamese dialogue as true to the original as possible? Does it sound natural?

The second proofing of the dough is as important as the first. Even…

View original 410 more words

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New Monster Story in A New Anthology of Monsters

European Monsters - cover art by Daniele Serra

It’s here! European Monsters  is now published and available as a paperback coffee table book. This is the first of a planned series of Fox Spirit Books of Monsters.

When I received an invitation to contribute a monster story for a this anthology, I was excited and honoured. And then I had to choose a monster to write about. It had to be a European monster, which helped to narrow the choices. I made a list of fiendish beasts of myth and legend, and noticed that the north of Europe seemed less well represented on my list.

I researched some more and considered writing a kraken story, but there are already many of those. Everyone knows the kraken, a monstrous mythological squid creature said to live off the coast of Norway, but fewer are familiar with Hafgufa, an Icelandic giant sea monster. Iceland is rich in myth and has a long history of reverence for nature and the elements, much evident in their tales of huldufólk (hidden folk, i.e. elves). While the stories of elves and of Grýla, a child-eating, mountain-dwelling ogress, have gained a wider following, Hafgufa seems still to be shrouded in mist.

Hafgufa (Icelandic: sea mist), and Lyngbakr (heather back) were two sea monsters in the Greenland sea, disguised as a pair of islands, or  some rocks and an island, first “reported” in an Icelandic saga* from the late 13th century. The hero, Örvar-Oddr, and his crew spotted them while sailing. In the saga, Hafgufa is the biggest monster in the entire ocean, and Lyngbakr, a giant whale. Oddr’s ship sails past the islands, and later, Oddr orders his men to turn back to investigate further, but when they return to the area, the islands are gone. One of his men explains that the islands were most likely the two sea monsters attempting to lure the crew to their deaths.

While often described as a huge fish, some say that Hafgufa was the original kraken. Indeed, Olaus Magnus,  a Swedish historian of the 16th century, described the kraken in his Historia de Gentibus Septentrionalibus,  as a beast that was “a strange mix of fish and squid . . . quite different from those we find later in the literature, suggesting that his monster is likely a confusion of many sightings, including not only the giant squid but perhaps whales and cuttlefish as well.”

Hafgufa’s method of luring prey, both sea creatures and fishermen, was to swallow a huge mouthful of fish and then belch them out. The kraken is also said to lie in wait, disguised as an island, or to wait in the depths of the ocean, its location often marked by large schools of fish swimming above it. Either way, it tempts the fishermen to come closer.

While I was jotting down notes about Hafgufa, the anthology editors, Margrét Helgadóttir and Jo Thomas, told me they needed stories of water-dwelling monsters. Perfect!

Coincidentally, around the same time, news was coming out about the first ever live footage of the giant squid in its natural deep sea habitat, caught on film by a three-man crew led by zoologist Tsunemi Kubodera. They filmed the giant squid (Architeuthis dux) near the Ogasawara archipelago about 1,000 km south of Tokyo, in July of 2012, using a specially-designed camera system called The Medusa. The system, designed by oceanographer Edith Widder, involves using dim red light, invisible to giant squid, and bioluminescence to attract them.

The near-infrared light and silence of their submersible as the team drifted down appear to have been the secrets that allowed them to view the giant squid. Kubodera said: “If you try and approach making a load of noise, using a bright white light, then the squid won’t come anywhere near you. That was our basic thinking.”

The Japan Broadcasting Commission (NHK) and the US Discovery Channel funded the mission, and broadcast documentaries afterwards. While researching giant squid, I came across a fascinating TED Talk with Edith Widder, in which she explains her system. It includes some of the footage of the crew during their first sighting of the giant squid via the Medusa, and some even more exciting footage from inside the submersible, when Kubota shines a bigger light on the squid; instead of fleeing, it continues to hold onto the bait they used to tempt it into approaching their camera.

My contribution to European Monsters is a story entitled Hafgufa Rising. The setting is a tiny fictional island, called Hafgufa, off the eastern coast of Iceland. Between researching Icelandic food, culture and myth, and learning as much as I could about the real-life giant squid and the myths surrounding it, the story was a great pleasure to write. I leave you with this gorgeous illustration by Daniele Serra, which accompanies my story in the book.

HAFGUFA-illustr-daniele serra

European Monsters, published by Fox Spirit Books, was released on December 18 and is available on Amazon. Several of the authors have prepared special blog posts about their stories, collected under Fox Spirit Books’  European Monsters tag. The Table of Contents is also posted on their website, and includes a photo by Margrét Helgadóttir of a fantastic piece of Oslo street art featuring a giant squid.

*The Örvar-Odds saga is available here, collected by Dr. Zoe Borovsky, for those who can read Old Norse.

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J is for Jackfruit (Mít)

Jackfruit grow on short stalks right from the trunk and branches, and they are the largest tree-borne fruit in the world, bigger even than the durian. While a typical fruit might weigh anywhere from 15 to 20 kg, they can reach up to 35. Most of the ones I see in the market are almost a metre long.jackfruit growing near tu duc

Jackfruit has a few unusual attributes. All those pimply bumps on the outside and the many arils on the inside are actually the result of hundreds of female flowers growing and fusing together, so each fruit is actually many fruits. Cutting one open exposes an inedible central core and hundreds of arils nestled amongst many flattened, somewhat fibrous filaments, often called rags. These rags are unfertilized flowers. The fruits grow on short stalks right from the trunk and branches, and they are the largest known tree-borne fruit in the world, bigger even than the durian. While a typical fruit might weigh anywhere from 15 to 20 kg, they can reach up to 35. Most of the ones I see in the market are almost a metre long.Though some people say the fruit are stinky, the bad odour mostly comes from the very large or overripe ones.

jackfruit close-up

My mother-in-law slices immature jackfruit flesh and uses it to make a soup, canh mít, flavoured with lốt leaves and ruốc (shrimp paste). Sometimes she adds shrimp to the soup. I love her cooking, but this isn’t one of my favorites. Although the unripe jackfruit has a meaty texture which makes it popular for preparing vegetarian dishes at pagodas and on meatless days, I find it bland and starchy. This is a people’s dish, sometimes called a dish for the poor, unlike many of the local Huế specialties that find their roots in the imperial kitchens. Still, the popularity of jackfruit in Huế does have imperial roots; during his eleven-year reign, King Minh Mạng issued an edict ordering people to plant jackfruit trees everywhere that the land lay uncultivated.

Sometimes we buy a chunk of fresh jackfruit (never a whole one—they’re usually just too big!) and we invite family members who live in neighbouring houses over for a feast. We cut the fruit into smaller chunks to make it less unwieldy, and then we sit plucking the fleshy arils out from the surrounding stringy filaments and eating them. The seeds pop out of the sections easily. To me, the aromatic, crunchy, sometimes waxy sections taste like a banana-pineapple fruit salad. We are careful to oil the knife before cutting the fruit, because it exudes a sticky white latex that gums up everything it touches. Children even smear the latex on sticks to trap dragonflies in flight.

The multitude of arils in a single fruit makes the jackfruit perfect for sharing, and typical of Huế people, my family loves to get together for a fruit feast. (Even a single mango, cut properly, becomes a joyous impromptu gathering for several siblings and cousins.)

Although the rags, called xơ mít (jackfruit fibres) are edible too, many people don’t eat them. Some cooks prepare them kho style (stewed in fish sauce and caramel sauce) with fish during the flood season. They’re also popular in vegetarian kitchens to make dishes like xơ mít sautéed with lemon grass and chilis.

jackfruit salad -mit + bun tron

In the afternoons, the silence of our lane during the siesta hours is punctuated only by the sounds of cicadas and birds until, one by one, people open their eyes, stretch, and open their shutters and doors again. The last stragglers are awakened by the calls of itinerant sellers hawking various delicacies that are popular late-afternoon snacks.  One of the women arrives in our lane, yoke bouncing on her shoulder, with trays of assorted Huế specialties, including mít trộn, a sort of jackfruit salad with glass noodles, lettuce and herbs.

One of the many sellers of chè (sweet soupy snacks) offers a jackfruit chè laced with coconut milk, but this chè seems to be more common in the south. I don’t see it very often in Huế.

Two main varieties of jackfruit are grown in Việt Nam (as well as a few others), both bearing starchy fruits that sweeten as they grow and ripen. Mít  ướt (wet jackfruit) has a softer, sweeter flesh with a deep golden hue, while mít ráo (dry jackfruit) tends to be a little drier and crunchier, and rather pale. The huge seeds of all the varieties (except, of course, the seedless kind) have a nutty, creamy flavour and texture, but they require lengthy cooking, and they induce flatulence. A friend of mine nicknamed her son Mít, the Vietnamese name for jackfruit, because of his childhood fondness for the seeds, and the malodorous results.

Việt Nam is a major producer of jackfruit, both for local consumption and for export (fresh, frozen, canned, and made into crunchy chips). The wood is prized for its resistance to rot and splitting, and is used to make furniture and doors. Craftsmen in Huế are known for their beautiful, high-quality jackwood Buddhist statues and mõ, the wooden fish used to keep the beat while reciting sutras or during rites. In 2010,  Huế craftsmen built Việt Nam’s biggest drum for Hà Nội’s thousandth birthday. (Sadly, they used three trees, all over 500 years old—collectively older than the city of Hà Nội—and I think it would have been nicer to leave the trees growing.)

jackfruit growing from trunk

The jackfruit tree (Artocarpus heterophyllus) is a member of the same family that includes mulberries and figs, and grows in most parts of the tropics. They grow as tall as 30 metres, with a thick growth of shiny oblong leaves that offers a lovely cool shade on a hot day.

If you want to grow one from seed, you’ll need both space and enough patience to wait several years for the first fruit, although the trees grow fairly quickly. The seeds are only viable for a short time and must not dry out, so you have to plant them right away, preferably in their permanent location. Jackfruit trees are easy to grow, and have few demands, but they have very long and delicate taproots and do not take well to being moved. It takes about eight months from flowering to harvest time.  The trees do best in the tropics, with lots of sunshine, heat and humidity, but will tolerate a very brief and light frost.

jackfruit at the market

The giant fruit are low in calories but rich in protein, vitamin B6 and potassium. And according to an article from the Guardian, jackfruit may be a miracle crop: “Researchers say the large, smelly fruit grown could be a replacement for staple crops under threat from climate change”.

If you can read Vietnamese, you might like these two articles I referred to while checking to make sure I had my facts straight about jackfruit dishes in Huế:

Ẩm thực Huế trong vườn Huế

Cây mít trong dòng chảy văn hóa Huế

Posted in A to Z, Cooking, Food, Photos, Viet Nam | Tagged , , , | 22 Comments

In a Việt Kitchen

Hồng Ngự outdoor kitchen

ONE THING I have in my kitchen that neither my husband’s mother nor anyone in his family even owns is cookbooks. My mother-in-law has never followed a written recipe. She cooks according to what’s in season, what’s suitable for the season and what’s freshest at the market. She cooks the way her mother taught her, adds her own flourishes, and measures with an old tin can, a soup spoon, and her eyes.

Until just a few years ago, a two-burner gas stove, a water filter and a rice cooker were her only kitchen appliances. Now she has a fridge, but she still buys fresh vegetables, fruit, herbs, and meat, fish or tofu almost every day. Sometimes twice in one day.

My husband remembers that when he was little, Mother and Grandmother did all their cooking over a coal pot. These braziers still see a lot of use when it’s too hot to cook inside (though Mother surprises me with her ability to stand in an airless kitchen on a 38°C night, frying tofu while a pot of soup boils beside her and heat shimmers up from the orange flames spouting from both gas rings. I would just make a big salad on a night like that. But it’s Việt Nam and people expect their rice and soup.) The coal pot also comes in handy during Huế’s damp, chilly winter, when Grandmother sets it up near the open door and we all sit in a circle and hold our hands over the embers.
frying vegetables outside

A decade ago, Mother’s kitchen was a tiny rectangular space with a counter that had an open cupboard underneath it to store dishes, the rice bin, and the gas canister for the stove. A small unpainted cement room to the side served as both a shower and a space to wash dishes and vegetables in large metal washbasins. Mother did and still does much of the food preparation on the floor (in bowls and pots, and on chopping blocks, of course—not directly on the floor!) Our neighbours and relatives do the same.
preparing a meal

The equipment in my in-law’s hasn’t changed much; Mother still uses the same pots and pans, knives and chopping blocks, chopsticks and ladles, and a rainbow collection of strainers. A press for lime juice and a wooden mortar and pestle sit unused in a corner. She finds it more practical to squeeze limes by hand. I always wondered why she pounded garlic and chilis in a ceramic bowl, which I feared might break at any moment, especially once she passed this task on to me. Now I like the alternating ringing and dull sounds the bowl makes depending on how I hold it.

One year, my husband’s family renovated the kitchen. Along with the new tiled counter, they put in metal-framed cabinets with glass doors, and much to my delight, a real stainless steel sink, though still with cold (or rather, tepid) water only. The plumber lacked experience installing modern kitchen sinks and rendered the faucet practically useless by having it poke out directly from the wall, extending over the back of the sink by mere centimetres. The water pours out high above the sink, and when anyone tries to wash dishes, it bounces everywhere except down the drain.

I try to tilt dishes and pots to keep the water aimed into the sink, and use a towel to soak up the puddles, but Mother just keeps on using the old knee-high water spout on the wall. Like before, she squats in front of it and cleans the vegetables and the dishes in her wash basin. There’s a drain in the floor below it, but it takes dexterity not to get the whole floor wet. At least it’s now just a kitchen spout, because the shower was moved to a proper bathroom.

Kitchens in Việt Nam vary from simple rooms with space for storage and food preparation and a fire pit or coal pot to fancy, expensive ones with every convenience (dishwashers, fridges with ice dispensers, and so on). With the surge in numbers of upper middle class and very rich people, expensive kitchens are more and more common in the big cities, but most country kitchens remain the way they’ve been for decades. I’ve been in ones so dark I wondered how the cook could see what she was doing, and in airy ones where the sun twinkled through chinks in woven grass or bamboo walls. I took this photo, and the one of the open-air kitchen at the top, in Hồng Ngự district in the western region.
Hồng Ngự kitchen

Vietnamese restaurant kitchens vary as much as or more than home kitchens. At some restaurants, all the food is cooked on a simple brazier on the sidewalk. At others, the food preparation takes place in shiny, spotless stainless-steel kitchens like the one my friend Chef Shane ran so efficiently at the Pullman Đà Nẵng.
Shane's Da Nang kitchen

Often, people will do smoky or messy jobs, like cooking over a coal pot or cleaning fish, outside. Sometimes, we set up our chairs in the lane to peel piles of onions or peanuts, rather than have the papery skins drifting around the kitchen. On really hot days, when the kitchen becomes unbearably stuffy, the breeze makes food preparation a lot easier.
preparing fish

The most important item in Mother’s kitchen isn’t her rice cooker, stove, or water faucet. It’s the kitchen gods’ altar. And taking care of the altar is the one kitchen job that falls to Ba, my father-in-law. He lights the incense for the kitchen gods every morning, and again in the evening. Ba is happy when I take the evening shift, but the morning is just for him.

Whenever the family holds an offerings ceremony, whether for a death anniversary, the twice-yearly cúng đất (offerings for the earth deities, wandering souls and souls of the original Chăm inhabitants of the province), or Tết, Ba and I clean the altar and put fresh sand in the incense pot. During the Tết, when the kitchen gods travel to heaven to make their annual reports, Ba is the one who organizes all the necessary preparations for their departure and return.

The kitchen gods will make their next reports in February, 2015. My in-laws will do their best to keep them happy so that they’ll give a favourable report and bring another good year for the family. I’m looking forward to all the activity in the kitchen to prepare the Tết food. And as always, I hope to learn how to make a few more of my mother-in-law’s specialties.

Posted in A to Z, Cooking, Food, Photos, Viet Nam | Tagged , , , , | 20 Comments

H is for Hạt Dưa: Watermelon Seeds (and also for harmful and hazard)

melon seeds in the Tet tray 2

Crick, crack, snick, ptooi.

The sound of a group of people cracking seeds brings to my imagination a pack of squirrels let loose at a bird seed factory.

Tết is the season of melon seeds. Snacking on them practically becomes a national sport during the Lunar New Year holidays. In every Vietnamese home, people put out trays full of the roasted seeds, along with candies, preserved ginger and other dried fruits, biscuits, and nuts for their guests.

Most visitors to Việt Nam wonder why; the first time you try to crack one, the shell shatters into shards, and the tiny seed inside breaks into bits—just an unpleasant mouthful to spit out.  But it creeps up on you. The next thing you know, you are cracking seeds with everyone else.

Everyone in my husband’s family, having eaten the seeds since childhood, can crack them and extract the contents in one swift combined movement of tongue and teeth. They amass huge quantities of perfect half shells in no time at all. Beginners struggle with the shells, spitting out slivers with bits of seed still stuck inside.

The shells, red on the outside and tan on the inside, are everywhere: on the road, in piles on tables in houses and cafes, and scattered on floors, where they fall when scooped off tables to make way for more.  As soon as they are cleared away, more take their place.melon seeds on a café table

The watermelon seed frenzy continues unabated after Tết, but eventually peters out, only to start up again when people are in the mood for a treat, or any time there is a large gathering. They’re often available in tiny sacks at cafés and drinking establishments. During betrothals, weddings and wakes, the hosts put out saucers of seeds and pots of tea for the guests. The sound of cracking shells blends with the buzz of congratulations or the sombre mumble of condolences and prayers.

Both the fruit and the seeds of watermelon are popular during Tết because their red colour represents luck, but the seeds are from varieties bred for high seed production, not for sweet fruit.

Melon seeds and tea 1

Back in my first year celebrating Tết in Việt Nam, all the watermelon seeds on the market were a deep red colour that stained fingers and tongues. People told me to avoid buying brown-coloured seeds because these were considered not fresh. They were much cheaper, sometimes hadn’t been dried properly, and tasted musty. I now think the colour difference was because they’d been processed with a cheaper dye. Yes, dye. Back then, all watermelon seeds for Tết were dyed. But I didn’t know that, and I didn’t figure it out right away. “That’s their colour,” people told me. “They come from a special kind of watermelon.”

Several years later, the first reports came out that some seeds on the market were dyed with rhodamine B, a carcinogenic compound. In 2009, Chinese watermelon seeds were pulled from the Vietnamese market after news got out that the Chinese seeds were contaminated with it. Vietnamese food producers have also been found to use rhodamine B in spices, particularly chili powder and satay powder for local use, and also for export.

For a couple of years, my husband’s family put out hạt bí (pumpkin seeds) and hạt điều (cashew nuts) and only a small amount of watermelon seeds. I’ve seen hạt hướng dương (sunflower seeds) at some people’s homes, and hạt dẻ cười (pistachio) which, even more than cashews, are a luxury in Việt Nam. I love the name, which means “smiling chestnuts”.

Now, watermelon seeds tend to be a much duller shade of red, or even brown, and the colour is no longer uniform, with speckles and shade variation instead.

melon seeds

I remember people who consumed watermelon seeds heavily would often complain of scratchy throats. My husband could go through a kilo a day and back then, always had a pocketful of the red seeds during the Tết holidays. He always blamed his sore throat on beer, but I noticed that I too would get a scratchy throat when I ate a lot of seeds.

In 2013, another big fuss arose, and many local print and online journals and newspapers published articles about how to choose watermelon seeds that wouldn’t endanger peoples’ health.

In one article (in Vietnamese) the reporter quotes a worker in the watermelon seed industry as saying “If the seeds aren’t soaked in bleaching agents and then dyed, they don’t look beautiful or shiny.” (My translation.) The reporter spent some time in a hạt dưa factory in Tây Ninh, where he watched workers soak the seeds in a chemical that he calls xút , which he explains is used in the fabric-dying and soap-making trades. When I looked it up, I found out that xút is sodium hydroxide. In other words, lye, which isn’t so bad if they use food grade lye.  But then the reporter describes practices in two different factories that involved using motor oil to make the seeds shiny, because apparently, food-grade oils won’t do. I guess they aren’t viscous enough.

Sadly, in Việt Nam, these scary stories, sometimes rumours and sometimes true, come out all the time. Often, Chinese producers are blamed, partly because of the non-stop barage of food scandals coming out of China, and partly because Việt Nam imports a lot of food products from its neighbour, but locally produced foodstuffs are just as likely to be contaminated. Everyone is tempted by the whitest, bounciest rice noodles, the  shiniest, reddest watermelon seeds, and so on, until yet another fuss arises and then everyone stops buying the evil product of the month altogether.

Sometimes the problem is agrochemical residues on produce, and sometimes it’s whiteners, colouring agents and preservative chemicals added to products before they’re sold at the market.

My husband’s relatives make and sell bún noodles, but in 2013, they couldn’t sell for any price. Huế’s famous noodle soup and favourite breakfast dish, bún bò Huế, was no longer on the menu anywhere, because several kinds of noodles all over Việt Nam had tested positive for tinopal, an optic whitener. The relatives never added tinopal to their noodles, as theirs is a tiny village industry, but their business, and that of the entire village, suffered for over a year. Noodle sellers and anyone making or selling bún bò Huế had to find other work. Even now, sales are still not what they used to be.

A decade ago, many of my friends, both in Canada and in Việt Nam, were refusing to buy Chinese products. At the time, I didn’t take it so seriously. That has changed. But I still buy Vietnamese food products. Sometimes I wonder how smart that is. Sometimes I just want to ignore all the food scandals and enjoy my food. Việt Nam cuisine has so much to offer.

People in other countries have worried about imported shrimp, basa fish, chili powder and other Vietnamese products that have tested positive for various contaminants and subsequently been pulled from markets, but the problem is much bigger. It’s worldwide.

Sometimes the problems are caused by carelessness or laziness. People not bothering to wash their hands, or people lying and not bothering to report test results, like the brothers responsible for the E. coli outbreak caused by contaminated water in Walkerton, Ontario, Canada. Sometimes the cause is people simply not aware of the dangers, or people thinking that by not eating what they’re growing or selling, they’ll be safe.

I cannot understand why the people who use illegal and toxic additives to “improve” the look, texture or shelf life of foods don’t ever stop to think that these contaminants might be in their own food. That big melamine milk fuss in China that seriously sickened 300,000 babies a few years ago  . . . did the big bosses of those factories think they would just never drink milk and therefore never be affected? Didn’t it occur to them that maybe their own children might drink the melamine milk at someone else’s house? At school?  Or that if they eat at restaurants, they themselves might be served products containing the toxic things they make in their factories?

I understand that in many countries, including Việt Nam, profits can be slim and people are trying to do what they can to make their products most attractive to customers, but this is not a good excuse for endangering public health. And there’s no excuse at all for the people who are supplying chemicals with promises of better looking, longer lasting foods if only you use “this magic powder”, which is often sold in unmarked bags in Vietnamese markets. Worst of all, it’s not the poor farmers and itinerant sellers who make the most profit from the use of illegal additives and pesticides, but they are often the ones who get poisoned first, from primary contact while handling the products without sufficient safety equipment or clothing.

Crops are over-sprayed with pesticides and produce is over-treated with formalin and other preservatives, the farmers and the people who eat the fruits and vegetables get sick, or the produce is so tainted that it can’t be sold at all and lies rotting in the fields, like the precious langra mangos of Bangladesh did this summer. But it doesn’t end there. As Tahmima Anam writes in her New York Times article about Dhaka’s produce woes:

“The practice of spraying fruit with formalin is one problem, but more worrying is that the entire food chain is compromised — the soil itself contaminated by toxins that are almost impossible to eradicate.”

This blog post has wandered somewhat from the topic of watermelon seeds. I’m glad to say that people no longer desire the shiniest, brightest, reddest seeds, and they are once again easily obtained on the market. But I wonder sometimes about the future health of my husband, who breathes in hạt dưa at Tết as if the seeds were air. At least, unlike people who haven’t grown up with the seeds, he cracks them between his teeth without even getting the shells wet. I probably absorbed as much rhodamine B during my early attempts to perfect my watermelon-seed-cracking technique as he has in his entire life. One thing I can be glad for is that watermelon seeds in Huế always had a matte appearance; the fashion for seeds with a high gloss, achieved by coating them with motor oil (with the belief that it was safe because it stays on the outer shell) never seemed to catch on the way it did in Saigon.

Posted in A to Z, Cooking, Food, Viet Nam | Tagged , , , , | 15 Comments

G is for Ginger / Gừng

Sao mặt bạn nhăn như khỉ ăn gừng?
Why are you wrinkling your face like a monkey eating ginger?
(A Vietnamese expression)

Ginger closeup
I don’t know what I’d do without ginger. I use so much of it that I grow it in the garden and yet still never have enough. I end up cutting pieces off rhizomes I’ve just put into the soil, before they even have time to put up some leaves.

Ginger (Zingiber officinale) is native to Asia, as are its relatives, turmeric, the galangals and the cardamoms, but it’s cultivated in many countries, including Hawaii, Jamaica, Fiji and also in West Africa.

In the Vietnamese kitchen, ginger, called gừng, is used fresh, or preserved as a chewy candy called mứt. (The pronunciation of the letter Ư in gừng and mứt is similar to that of the double O in wood (IPA: 〈ɯ〉).

Phở wouldn’t be the same without ginger—I learned from a Vietnamese chef to char thick unpeeled slices of it before adding it to the pot when making the beef-based broth. I also use it for chicken broth, add it liberally to bamboo chicken, and combine it with fish sauce-based dipping sauces  for duck or fried fish.

The spicy steamed snails we buy from itinerant vendors come speckled with red chilis and golden slivers of ginger. It’s an important ingredient in Vietnamese snacks and desserts too. Chè trôi nước is glutinous rice balls floating in ginger syrup (which you can read about in this Gastronomy Blog post.) One year, in preparation for Tết (the Lunar New  Year), I had to grate huge piles of ginger and chop dozens of chilis for cabbage pickles and pickled meats.  These, along with the mứt gừng and another candied fruit preserve called ô mai gừng are necessities in my family for Tết.

grated ginger and chilis for Tet pickles
My mother-in-law buys big bagfuls of mứt gừng at the market if there’s no time to make it at home. She says the best comes from Kim Long Village. I think I and my grandmother-in-law eat most of it. We put it out with tea for the steady stream of Tết guests, but most of them prefer to crack watermelon seeds or nibble at the savoury or pickled dishes. Still, my mother-in-law hides the preserved ginger for me. She knows I’m not a fan of sweet foods and don’t eat candy, so she buys the hottest, least sweet mứt gừng she can find. Grandmother hunts through the cupboards looking for it and then comes looking for me to ask where the latest hiding place is. Like everything else, home-made preserved ginger is best. It’s not hard to make, but it takes time and you can’t leave it on the stove and walk away.

Traditional Hue-style tea with ginger preserves

Making mứt gừng (Vietnamese preserved ginger)
Of course, preserved ginger is popular in other cultures too, and I’ve been meaning to try a Korean recipe that includes pine nuts and cinnamon. In Western cultures, the first step for making candied ginger is to boil it in several waters to reduce its hotness, sometimes even soaking it overnight first, but the recipes I learned from my husband’s grandmother and from a Vietnamese friend involve boiling it only once, for about five minutes.

Both of them taught me to cut my ginger slices paper thin and boil them in water with the juice of a lime to keep the ginger from oxidising and turning brown. Then I put it in a strainer and rinse it well until any brownness is gone, and the ginger looks white. After leaving it to drain well, I mix it with sugar and let it sit for a couple of hours. Then I heat up a cast iron pan over medium-low heat. I add the sugar-coated ginger and stir it until the sugar begins to dry. This takes about fifteen minutes or so.

Before it dries completely and it’s still supple, I remove it from the heat and flatten each piece, one by one. At this point, some people roll it in sugar to coat any bare spots, but I like it less sweet, so I skip this step. I leave it for an hour or so to dry before putting it in a bag or a jar. Protected from humidity, it keeps for a long time, but I’ve noticed that the slices eventually become brittle and the flavour does deteriorate.


Young ginger, cream-coloured and tipped with the palest pink, costs more and has less bite. It’s much less fibrous and it’s wonderful for a delicate creamy snack featuring very soft tofu in gingery syrup. I like this dessert more than the rice balls in ginger syrup because it tends to be less sweet. Both desserts can be served hot or cold, depending on the weather. Its Vietnamese name is rather long: đậu hũ nước đường (tofu in ginger water), but in Huế we just call it đậu hũ. (It’s basically the same as the Chinese dou fu fa, 豆腐花, that’s so often served at dim sum.)

Tofu dessert lady
We always know the tofu dessert lady is coming up our lane, her yoke over her shoulders, when we hear her call out “Ai đậu hũ không?” (Does anyone want tofu dessert?) As she nears our door, we step out and she lowers her yoke, with its cabinet at one end and an insulated clay pot of soft tofu at the other, to the ground. She takes bowls out of the cabinet, and holds her flat metal scoop almost horizontal to cut thin slices from the creamy tofu inside the clay pot. Then she ladles on a little of the gingery water and adds a sprinkle of sugar, a squeeze of lime and extra ginger shreds on top for those who want it. Without the extra sugar, the sweetness is barely a whisper—exactly the way I like it.

tofu dessert lady 2
When we’re finished, we hand her bowls back and she washes them in a dishpan full of soapy water that she keeps in the bottom of the cabinet. She hoists the yoke up onto her shoulder and continues deeper into the lane. The water moves with the rhythm of her steps but it never sloshes over, and the stacked ceramic bowls never fall.

Ginger for good health
Ginger is a hot, or yang, food. It goes well therefore with cooling foods, like boiled chicken or poached fish, and it’s considered a restorative for pregnant women and women who’ve just given birth.

The list of medicinal uses of ginger in Việt Nam (and in the West too) is long. It’s especially useful for illnesses and discomforts resulting from cold weather or other yin causes. My husband’s grandmother sucks on fresh ginger or mứt gừng during the cold, drizzly Huế winters, and when we have sore throats, mứt gừng dulls the pain. My mother-in-law was surprised to see me treat a cold with a hot drink of ginger simmered in water with some honey and lime. “Oh, how do you know our old remedies?” she asked, but I learned this recipe from my father when I was little.

Bruises can be massaged with crushed ginger to reduce swelling and help them fade faster. I’ve read that some Vietnamese also use flattened pieces of ginger to cạo gió (scrape the wind), for older people suffering cold-induced conditions. When someone in my husband’s family feels dizzy or exhausted, or anything else attributed to a noxious wind, they say he has trúng gió (caught a wind). Someone will treat the sufferer by scraping the wind, making long rapid strokes on the patient’s back with a coin or spoon and some stinky medicinal oil as a lubricant, until a pattern of red marks appear on the skin. Though it’s not supposed to be painful if done properly, it can be. Still, sufferers always say they feel much better afterwards, though maybe that’s because it feels so good when the scraping stops. I asked my husband if his family ever scrapes the wind with ginger, but he said they don’t do this in Huế.

Whenever any of my in-laws is sick, it’s practically guaranteed that they will eat cháo (rice porridge), often flavoured with ginger. Even when I broke my wrist, my mother-in-law insisted I had to eat cháo to restore my strength and heal more quickly, and she put in plenty of beef, chilies and ginger.

When the weather is cold and damp, and especially if we’ve been caught in the rain, we drink ginger tea to warm up and it’s a popular drink at the local cafés on those melancholy days when you wonder if you’ll ever see the sun again. But ginger tea is refreshing on hot summer days too, probably because ginger induces sweating, which cools the body.

tea by the Perfume River in Hue
Fresh green tea leaves brewed with ginger is a simple and traditional drink for farmers in the fields, but I’ve found it in a few of Huế’s teahouses, including the Café Nón Huế (Huế Conical Hat Café), where they serve us tea in traditional pots over tea candles, and saucers with slices of ginger or licorice on the side. The scent of the tea and the gentle movement of the Perfume River lulls us and we sip slowly. The flickering flame keeps the tea hot for as long as it takes us to finish.

Buying, growing and keeping ginger
In Canada, most of the ginger comes from China. Sadly, the same was true in Việt Nam for a while, because people thought the much bigger, fatter, paler Chinese ginger looked more attractive. But Vietnamese ginger has more flavour, and the ginger from Thừa Thiên Huế province, my husband’s grandmother told me, is famous for its hotness.

Việt Nam finally banned Chinese ginger last year after the Plant Protection Department discovered high levels of aldicarb, a highly toxic pesticide, in ginger samples from major markets in Hà Nội and Saigon; Chinese farmers were applying it illegally to their ginger crops. (Aldicarb is illegal in Canada too. Although it was removed from the market in 1996, residual aldicarb still sometimes shows up in Canadian groundwater samples.)

In an article in Thanh Nien News  about the banning of aldicarb in Việt Nam, the writer says “Chinese ginger is bigger and better-looking than Vietnamese ginger, and remains fresh for a whole year after harvest, while Vietnamese ginger rots after a few months.”  Well, that should be a clue right there. I don’t buy Chinese ginger anymore, but it isn’t always easy to find ginger from other countries. I grow my own from organic rhizomes that I buy at the local health food store.

organic Peruvian ginger
These are the latest ones, which came from Peru. They’re small and hot like the ginger my mother-in-law buys at the Đông Ba Market. Organic ginger is also much less likely to have been treated with growth retardants, so it’s better not only for eating, but for growing. If I’m planning to plant them, I look for pieces with developing growth buds.

It can take up to six weeks for a freshly planted rhizome to sprout. They send up a few spikes which open up into palm-like leaves, eventually reaching a height of about one metre. After three months, the rhizomes have grown enough for me to start cutting pieces to cook with.

growing some extra ginger in a pot
The plants naturally die back when the weather gets cooler, or after eight or nine months in warm climates. When I bring them inside in the fall, they go semi-dormant. Even so, rhizomes left undisturbed will keep putting out roots and preparing for the next round.

Ginger freezes well. It can be kept in the fridge for a few weeks, in the vegetable drawer or in a baggie, but it will start to soften, darken or even grow mold. Kept on the counter, it tends to dry out. But I discovered that if I keep the rhizomes in a wide, shallow planter, covered with an inch of soil, it stays fresh all winter. I water it very lightly every month or so, just enough to keep it from drying out completely. Overwatering while it’s resting will cause it to rot. Whenever I need some, I pull a piece out of the soil, cut off a suitable bit and rebury the rest. In the spring, if I have any left, it begins to sprout again. I find my ginger does best in rich soil, in an area sheltered from the wind. It loves heat and humidity.

Culinary ginger has odd little flowers that emerge from bracts, but because only clumps of rhizomes two years old or more will bloom, I’ve never seen flowers on mine. Time to plant more ginger!


Posted in A to Z, Cooking, Food, Photos, Recipes, Viet Nam | Tagged , , , , | 21 Comments

In Memory of Chef Shane Brierly

Chef Shane Brierly serves up his smokin' LN2 cocktails

Shane Brierly
November 11, 1965–July 2,2014


What a shock to receive the news of Chef Shane Brierly’s passing. A brilliant executive chef, kitchen manager, staff trainer, master of LN2 ice cream, and (often naughty) wit, he has left us with many fine memories.

Born in New Zealand and trained in Australia, Shane contributed immeasurably to the food scene in five countries,and for the last four years, to the food and beverage scene in Việt Nam. He founded kitchens at three different luxury hotels in Đà Nẵng, Sài Gòn and Phú Quốc, trained the staff, and designed menus and fabulous dishes. In teaching his staff the necessary skills for running a world-class resort kitchen, he knew the value of respecting the “certain amount of “that’s how we do it here” that has to be approached ‘softly softly’, sans the big stick.”

LN2 passion fruit ice cream à la Shane
Well known for his experimentation with food and menus, he contributed many signature dishes to Pullman’s dining rooms and bars in Việt Nam, from Pho Pizza and Phoburgers to his “World’s Largest Cocktail”  and his unforgettable liquid nitrogen ice cream concoctions. Being in Việt Nam didn’t scare him away from using hard-to-find ingredients, and when he couldn’t find something locally, he often trained his staff to make it in house.

Each year at Christmas time, he and his pastry chefs laboured on elaborate gingerbread buildings. 2010 brought a metre-high six-tiered gingerbread pagoda.
Shane's 6 metre pagoda

He used 180 eggs, 30 kilos of flour,  10 of brown sugar, 7 of icing sugar, one of ground ginger, half a kilo each of allspice, cinnamon and nutmeg, the help of several pastry chefs and two weeks to build it. He and his team created a gingerbread replica of Đà Nẵng’s Rooster cathedral in 2011.
rooster cathedral

2012’s creation was a replica of the Pullman Đà Nẵng resort itself.
shane replica danang resort

Shane was a whizz at social media and at making friends; he welcomed so many visitors and expats to visit and to experience his nitrogen ice cream or a fine meal. He kept everyone entertained with his storytelling and the facial expressions and gestures to go with it.

Shane's Twitter photo

He went out of his way to do something special for his friends, both online and real-life, setting up romantic dinners or creating stunning personalized cakes.

Chef Shane's beautiful book cake creation for Steve and  Quynh.  Photo courtesy of Stephen McGrath

Shane never failed to come up with an irreverent or risqué joke, and he managed to make me laugh almost every time I opened Facebook or Twitter to find one of his photographs with a crazy caption. Sometimes he was “having coffee in Saigon with 3 shameless tarts

shane shameless tarts

and more often than not he was posting his famous cat’s bums.

"Good Morning cat's bum from Long Beach, Phu Quoc. MWAH!"

“Good Morning cat’s bum from Long Beach, Phu Quoc. MWAH!”

Shane took beautiful photos and he was a tireless food and travel writer. He co-authored a 32-page guide to Đà Nẵng (the city’s first one), and wrote recipe manuals for cooking classes, blogs, articles, and more.

I first met Chef Shane on Twitter when he first arrived in Đà Nẵng after his stint in Thailand. Our common interest in food, travel and Việt Nam gave us much to chat about. In 2012, he was kind enough to take the time to give me an interview about his work, his vision, and the culinary scene in Việt Nam, and sent me photos to use on my blog.

A year later, when I finally met him in person, he said “It feels like you’re a close friend I’ve known for years—well, you ARE—it’s just taken us a long time to meet.”And indeed, he treated me and my sister-in-law like close friends, treating us to coffee and a tour of the grounds of the Pullman Resort in Đà Nẵng. He invited us into the kitchens and talked about his rewarding work and “awesome staff.” He showed us the butterfly garden and his personal herb patch, and topped it all off with a lesson in making liquid nitrogen (LN2) ice cream.

private LN2 ice cream lesson 2
"Here it is. Let's eat!"
He invited me and my husband to go out on the town in Đà Nẵng with him and the love of his life, Rachel, saying he wanted to bring us to some of his “favourite local joints”. Unfortunately, we had to postpone it, and the next time I was in Đà Nẵng, he’d already moved on to Sài Gòn.

After that, he relocated to Phú Quốc, and we looked forward to visiting him there later this year. Beautiful, quiet Phú Quốc . . . we were shocked to learn that there, of all places in Việt Nam, not Sài Gòn or Hà Nội where the traffic is a maelstrom of madness, Shane was involved in a traffic accident while riding his electric bike. He passed away at 11 p.m. on July 2, 2014. He leaves behind a legacy of amazing recipes, stacks of memories, his dear family and a multitude of friends, and his beloved cats and ridgeback dog.

We will miss you, Chef Shane Brierly. You left us far too soon.

In true Chef Shane style, Shane put up a struggle to stay in Phú Quốc. In the words of his mother, Carol Skinner:

“Last night Rachel Nguyen and her dad and Salinda staff took Shane from the hospital on Phu Quoc island to the airport to be transported to Saigon.
Once all the paperwork was completed it was discovered that Shane’s Coffin was too big to fit into the compartment required and this naturally held up the flight.
At this point Rachel had no alternate to return Shane to the hospital and make other arrangements.
This morning Shane is now traveling by boat to the main land then being transported by vehicle to Saigon the hope is that he will arrive by this afternoon Saturday 5th of July
We all know how much Shane loved his life in Vietnam Son Tra Beach in Danang being one and more recently Phu Quoc Island and his beloved Wooden House he and Rachel shared.
It would seem from these regions he’s very reluctant to depart even in death.”

Shane finally arrived in Saigon. A group of friends got together for an evening of memories and send-off drinks for him at Vesper Lounge. After his cremation, Rachel brought him back to Đà Nẵng, a place he always loved. Friends attended a memorial there, arranged by his close friend Simon Angove, to celebrate his life and share their memories. Shane was always a generous guy, and he has left us with so very many memories, some happy and some outright outrageous, to share.

Shane’s mother Carol has shared a family idea of something we can all do to honour Shane. In her words:
“Write a note or your thoughts for Shane, burn them (preferably, somewhere a kitchen) and scatter the ashes, (seasoned with herbs, garlic, lime, just joking ….) we will do it here as well and toast Shane and his colourful life.”

Thanks, Carol, for sharing this, and for  keeping Shane’s great sense of humour alive.



Posted in Chef Shane Brierly, Viet Nam | Tagged , , | 16 Comments

F is for Fish Sauce, Flavour, Phan Thiết and Phú Quốc

nuoc cham and fresh herbs

The Vietnamese alphabet has no letter F. But it does have the letter PH, as in phở, and also Phan Thiết  and Phú Quốc, two places famous for fish sauce. The former is a southeastern coastal city. The latter is both Việt Nam’s biggest island and a district that includes this island and twenty-two smaller ones, tucked under the curve of Cambodia’s coast, in the Gulf of Thailand.

In his book Bút Khảo Về Ăn (Notes on Eating), Dr. Lê Văn Lân relates an old folk tale that he remembers his mother telling him. Here’s my rough translation:

A long time ago, a northern village held a feast-tasting challenge to open the spring celebrations. The banquet table groaned under a spread of the rarest foods of the mountains and seas. Whoever could correctly name the tastiest dish would win. According to tradition, the competitors entered one by one. A single drum beat would signify that a person had chosen the wrong dish. Three beats in a row would signify a winner. Some contestants immediately chose the dish of shark’s fin and abalone, and immediately heard the single beat of the drum. Others sampled the very strangest and most precious dish, and yet heard the drum beat before even swallowing the first bite.

At sunset, a stooped and silver-haired man arrived. He’d left his distant village at dawn and travelled all day. Leaning on his cane, he inched around the entire banquet table, eyeing each dish. Finally, he stopped. Serenely, he dipped his chopsticks into a tiny dish of fish sauce in the middle of the table, allowed a single drop to fall from the chopsticks onto the center of his tongue, closed his eyes and smacked his lips awhile, then nodded: “This is the only dish worthy of the title ‘most delicious’. All the foods on this banquet table—without this, they are nothing.” The drum beats rolled continuously, announcing that he had won.

I wasn’t going to write about fish sauce, because I didn’t think I had anything new to say about it. It’s such a central ingredient in the Vietnamese kitchen that articles about it abound on the web. In the Western kitchen, it’s not the unusual ingredient it once was. You no longer have to go to an Asian market to find it, because many supermarket chains carry it too.

This thought led me to remember an article I read in the paper a number of years (ok, decades) ago, about a couple who ran a Vietnamese restaurant in Ottawa, and the food they served there. The woman said that when she first arrived in Canada with one of the waves of boat people, she craved fish sauce but couldn’t find it anywhere. A few years later, she discovered some at a grocery store. She was so excited about her purchase that she rushed home and took a sip straight from the bottle. The pungent flavour transported her back to her homeland.

That story has always stayed with me. I kept the clipping for the longest time, but eventually, deciding I didn’t need the basic recipes in the article, I recycled it. I wish I had it now. (Never give away books, nor recycle articles.)

bánh bột lọc  with nước chấm
When I used to lead tours of Huế, my tourists would sometimes be lucky enough to meet this woman selling bánh bột lọc in the Thanh Toàn Tiled Bridge. Her nước chấm (fish sauce-based dipping sauce) was always dark and fiery. Fish sauce is “what makes Vietnamese food uniquely Vietnamese,” says Nicole Routhier in her book The Foods of Vietnam,  but fish sauce is popular all over Southeast Asia, and it’s been around in one form or another since Roman Times.

The Vietnamese call it nước mắm (meaning fermented-fish water), and the best is made from cá cơm (rice fish), a silvery anchovy the size of my little finger, fermented with salt in wooden barrels or clay vessels. Everyone seems to agree that the very best comes from the island of Phú Quốc. But caveat emptor: the words Phú Quốc grace the labels on nước mắm from other parts of Việt Nam and even from Thailand, though efforts have been made to prevent this.

In her book Communion, A Culinary Journey through Vietnam, Kim Fay says that “(Phú Quốc) fish sauce is so highly regarded, at least inside Vietnam, that it is protected by the Ministry of Culture, which has made it illegal to put the Phú Quốc label on any fish sauce not from the island.”

In 2013, The EU commission awarded Phú Quốc fish sauce with Protected Designation of Origin certification, making Việt Nam’s fish sauce the first Southeast Asian product ever to receive this certification.

fish sauce in Phan Thiet
includes two informative chapters on fish sauce, entitled, of course, “Afishionados” and “Fish Sauce Snob”. I’ve always wanted to visit a fish sauce plant, but still haven’t managed to do so. Kim toured one in Phan Thiết and then took part in a fish sauce tasting (yes, sipped straight up!). Her tasting notes confirm that I should keep this in my plans. As I mentioned in a review of Communion,  I’d hoped to visit a Phan Thiết fish sauce factory (that has a ring to it, doesn’t it!) during my first visit to Việt Nam over ten years ago, but I was with my niece who was battling culture shock and requested that I not even speak the word “fish sauce”.

Top quality nước mắm is just fish layered with salt and fermented for a year or more. Nothing added. But there’s more to it than that. Like olive oil, the first extraction is the most desirable. Labeled “nước mắm nhỉ”, it contains the highest percentage of protein (as much as 40%). The second and third extractions are for cooking.

mango salad + bamboo beef
I go through a lot of fish sauce in my kitchen, using it for dipping sauces, marinades such as the one for the beef for this sautéed bamboo beef dish, salad dressing like the one for the green mango salad on the right, and there might even be a teaspoonful in the soup to enhance the flavour the way salt would, but with more oomph.

In Canada, I’d always bought a Thai brand of fish sauce that wasn’t quite nước mắm nhỉ but it was still good enough to use for a dipping sauce. I never really thought about the different grades. In my mother-in-law’s kitchen in Huế, I discovered just how different the various grades are when I used the wrong bottle to make the nước chấm. I’d graduated from my position as chief garlic and chili masher to maker of the dipping sauce each evening. My mother-in-law approved of my addition of lime juice, even though it wasn’t part of her recipe for nước chấm. I was almost demoted back to garlic masher when we had to toss out the coffee-coloured, salty salty salty results of my mistake. I didn’t even like that fish sauce for cooking. When I dipped my pinky in and tasted a drop, I had to swish my mouth with water. It didn’t taste fishy at all. More like burnt salt.

While this cooking sauce was almost black, top quality nước mắm has a lovely amber hue. It has a much milder scent too; to my nose, it even smells pleasant, but the pungency of fish sauce turns some people off. One friend of mine cannot stand to be in the same room with an open bottle of it. He’s no fan of nước chấm either. However, he admits that when used in cooking, it adds magic to the food.

It’s a great stealth ingredient. If the cook is heavy-handed, the results can be overpoweringly salty, but add just a spoonful to a pot of spaghetti sauce and taste the results. No one will know what you did. A secret weapon.

One of my favourite Vietnamese cooking methods is called kho, which means, more or less, to stew in fish sauce and caramel sauce. I often prepare salmon this way, adding chilis, coconut milk and green onions, and garnishing the dish with plenty of coriander. My husband’s mother taught me her methods for making “wet” pork kho and “dry” pork kho, and I make these often too.

I recently read about a new whiskey-barrel-aged fish sauce that sounds intriguing, though I’m not sure if my mother-in-law would approve of it. According to an article in Food and Wine:

“Red Boat has teamed up with the artisans at Michigan-based Blis Foods: They start with Red Boat’s finest 40*N fish sauce, which has already spent a year aging in wooden barrels, and age it for another 17 months or so in proprietary bourbon barrels previously used to age Blis maple syrup. Between the smoke from bourbon and wood and the mellow sweetness from the maple, the fish sauce becomes a rich-tasting, deeply nuanced condiment that’s as delicious in aioli and vinaigrette as it is in the classic Vietnamese condiment called nuoc chấm.”

Red boat is said to be a very fine fish sauce, but I haven’t tried it. It’s not available in Canada (as far as I know), and I haven’t seen it yet in Việt Nam, although it’s made right in Phú Quoc.

banh uot
These bánh ướt wouldn’t be the same without the chili-dotted nước chấm on the left. Nước chấm is such a common and indispensable table condiment in Việt Nam, used for dipping lettuce- or rice paper-wrapped rolls, grilled meats, vegetables, fish, or even for drizzling on rice. I don’t measure my ingredients any more, relying instead on my eyes, nose and tongue, but below are the guidelines I give to friends when they ask for the recipe. Every Vietnamese cook has their own preferred ratio of ingredients, depending on where they are from and also on what dish the dipping sauce will accompany.

Feel free to experiment, using less sugar, and more or less lime juice or even none at all. My husband’s mother’s recipe, typical of the Huế kitchen, includes no lime juice, very little sugar, and is quite strong, while friends of mine in Sài Gòn always make their nước chấm quite sweet and thin.

I’ve seen many recipes that include rice vinegar, but I’ve always preferred it without. In her book Into the Vietnamese Kitchen: Treasured Foodways, Modern Flavours, Andrea Nguyen says that adding rice vinegar “actually brightens the flavors and softens any harsh or bitter edges contributed by the lime juice.” Her recipe calls for 1 tablespoon of rice vinegar along with the other ingredients to make 1½ cups of  nước chấm. Other recipes include ginger or tamarind, both delicious with fish, chicken or duck.

Nước Chấm (Basic Vietnamese Dipping Sauce)

1 chili, chopped roughly
1 small or 1/2 large garlic clove, chopped or mashed
1 TB sugar
2 1/2 TB fish sauce
3/4 TB lime juice (fresh squeezed, about 1/4 of a lime)
1/3 C water

Combine everything and stir well to dissolve the sugar.  Taste and adjust as desired.  You may include a little of the lime pulp, or add some julienned carrot and daikon for a decorative look.

If you have a mortar and pestle, you can pound the ginger and chili first, which helps to release their flavours and if you use red chilis, it will give a lovely reddish cast to the finished sauce.

People like to use red chilis for their colour, but my husband prefers the flavour of green chilis, and these work well too. Nước chấm is best prepared fresh, but it will keep well in the fridge for a few days if tightly covered.  This recipe can be doubled or quadrupled, but it’s more than enough for two people for one meal.

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