Into the Kitchen

When my husband and I first considered this mad round-the-world adventure, the kitchen was always at the heart of the plan. For at least some part of our journey, we’d stay at a place where I could cook.

Some travelers like to volunteer as their way of getting to know a country and its people. Others attend book readings and concerts to mingle with the locals. When you travel for as long as we plan to do, you need to make a home for yourselves.

Vietnamese kitchen
My kitchen in An Bang. Photo credit: Karen Kao

To me, home is the kitchen. Preferably one with a good chef’s knife, a well-stocked spice drawer and a lot of elbow space. Just like my kitchen in Amsterdam.

But we’re in Central Vietnam now in a cottage by the sea. My tools are limited to a single induction hot plate, a microwave and a fruit knife. No oil, salt or sugar. No worries. We’ve been on the road for a month now and it’s time to cook.

To Market

The first hurdle is to source ingredient. Just down the road lies a patch of concrete slabs with corrugated tin plates for a roof. Every day from 5-9am, that place fills with women selling fish fresh from the morning’s catch, meat and poultry, and vegetables from the garden. None of the vendors speak English and my Vietnamese is non-existent.

Vegetable market
Market in An Bang Beach. Photo credit: Karen Kao

Luckily, I can recognize most of what I see. So it’s not hard to buy live prawns and morning glory for our first home-cooked meal in a month. The woman in the hat even gives me a lesson in how to clean my morning glory. It’s so fresh that all I have to do is snap it into four parts and toss the bottom.

So what is morning glory? My mother would call it water spinach. A botanist would say Ipomoea aquatica. At home, I would sauté it with garlic and shrimp paste. Here, I use fish sauce that has such a rich umami flavor that I don’t miss the shrimp. Turns out that this dish has a name: rau muong xao toi.

It grows all over East, South, and Southeast Asia. Morning glory requires virtually no care, just a lot of water. We ate it in Taiwan, Cambodia, and Saigon. A poor man’s food.

I’m from humble stock and spent my childhood in poverty. Most days all my parents, my brothers and I had to eat were a few bites of morning glory from our vegetable patch.

Soth Polin, The Anarchist excerpted in Words without Borders, Cambodia: From Angkor Wat to Year Zero and Beyond, Nov 2015

Coconuts

Not all our market ventures turn out successfully. My plan for Sunday is ambitious. I’ll make thit heo kho, caramelized pork, using a recipe by Monique Truong. My shopping list includes pork belly, dried chili peppers, eggs, and coconut water.

The pork belly is easy. I just pat my own round stomach and the meat vendor understands immediately. I ask for dried peppers and am told to buy fresh. The eggs and fresh salad greens are easy to source.

Papaya (left), coconut (right, straw not included). Photo credit: Karen Kao

Meanwhile, my husband is off coconut-hunting. It seems silly to buy a carton of coconut water when there are fresh coconuts all over the market. But my husband thinks he’s being cheated just for being a round-eye. So he haggles. He walks away if he thinks the price is too high.

Eventually, we come home with something that looks too oblong and green to be a coconut but what do I know about tropical fruits? Enough to know that I need more than a fruit knife to open a coconut. When the housekeeper arrives, knife in hand, she has to explain that we have a papaya. She kindly sources a proper coconut for me and I start to cook.

I need to cook in stages. First, the hard-boiled eggs. Then, the rice. Finally, the pork itself which requires a full 3 hours from start to finish. The end result is delicious, if I do say so myself. There’s a spicy undertone that works wonderfully with the sweetness of the meat.

If my kitchen had more pans and an oven, I’d try Monique Truong’s recipe for duck marinated in port and figs. I found it in her novel, The Book of Salt. The duck needs an hour in the oven, lovingly basted every 10 minutes until the duck has absorbed all the fluid. Then served with buttered rice threaded through with silver-green sage. But first, there’s the marinade for the duck.

The figs and the port I will place in an earthenware jug “to get to know each other” […] Twelve hours will be sufficient for a long and productive meeting. By then the figs will be plump with wine, and the wine will be glistening with the honey flowing from the fruit.

Clams

Tonight, we’re having clams steamed with lemongrass and ginger: con nghêu hấp. It’s a much lighter version than the one I normally make, which involves fish sauce and sugar, too, but also oyster and soy sauce. For tonight’s meal, I’ll make rice for the starch and add tofu to the broth to balance out the nutrients.

Cao lầu noodles for breakfast. Photo credit: Karen Kao

I don’t know yet what I’ll make for our last few nights in Central Vietnam. I’d like to try my hand at one of the local noodle dishes for which Hoi An is famous.

Cao lầu is a breakfast noodle said to be an exquisite fusion of Japanese, Chinese and Vietnamese ingredients. There are also accounts debunking this myths. Tourist fare or not, cao lầu would ask a lot from my little kitchen. Especially when I can order it for breakfast every day.

In fact, why cook at all when there are street vendors plying the most delicious foods and a little beach kitchen that will bring the food to my sun bed? Because the fun is in the making, the market failures and successes, that feeling of being home while on the road.

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