Monday, March 23, 2009

Bo Kaap take-away.

The more one looks around Cape Town, the more striking it is that there’s good food available everywhere. Leaving the train station, an inconspicuous shop selling air-time and hair-gel, with a counter that serves richly spiced curries. Late night, a stand sitting outside of a club, sizzling with the smell of cooking boerewors. A tiny bakery tucked between two larger stores, quietly selling koesisters coated in flakes of coconut. Most often, we glimpse these sightings at the wrong time—we’re not hungry yet, we’ve just finished dinner, or simply aren’t in the mood for a little take-away. Thankfully on Thursday, our sighting came at the perfect time—just as we starting to decide where we should grab lunch.

We were walking through the Bo Kaap, an historic Muslim neighborhood, when we spotted a small crowd gathered around a busy street-corner grill. Stepping through the curtain of charcoal smoke, we looked in at what he was selling: grilled sausages, steak, and chicken. We grabbed a to-go meal of wors and chicken, and took it home. The wors—what can I say about it really?—was fine, a pretty standard grilled sausage. The chicken, however, was fantastic. Its skin was crisp from the heat, and stained a golden red from the marinade of spices. But best of all was the chili sauce that garnished it—not the syrupy sweet ‘chili sauce’ that is so popularly poured out of a bottle here in South Africa, but a bright green sauce that tasted smoky and spicy.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Eating to the Mekong's end.

While Bordeaux zipped off on the back of a scooter, I retreated with my backpack into a tiny pocket of shade. The line of motorbikes and trucks in front of me growled impatiently, waiting for their turn to board the ferry. Feeling a tugging on the hem of my t-shirt, I looked down to find a child, who waved a stack of lottery tickets in my face. Her mother approached, and I assumed she would point out the obvious problem the girl—that I was a clueless foreigner, and didn’t know how to play the lottery—but she simply motioned to the child, and looked at me with her lips pursed in an insistent frown.
To feign being busy, I turned to browse at the snack stand behind me. Packets of candied fruit, bags of coconut taffy, boxes of dry biscuits; all coated in a thin veneer of red dust from the road. I was grateful I’d had a decent breakfast before leaving Saigon. I had come to Mekong Delta for a number of reasons, but the main reason, I reminded myself ironically, was to eat.

My desire to taste the Mekong Delta had been growing for some time, developing out of a vague collection of cravings into a refined and pressing hunger. It had started, perhaps, when my boyfriend Bordeaux and I first decided to move to Southeast Asia. After some deliberation, we had settled on Saigon as our ultimate destination. In retrospect, it’s hard to say why exactly. Bangkok seemed the more accessible option, but horror stories about the pollution, traffic, and urban chaos put me off. But why Saigon? Really, I knew nothing about the city, or about Vietnam in general. If I’m honest, I’ll admit that it was perhaps the idea of being so near to the Mekong Delta that drew me. Though I had no real knowledge of the river, I had assembled a mental pastiche of images, gleaned from travel brochures and old movies. Images of slim boats drifting over sluggish water through an arcade of palm fronds, and giant catfish sheltered just below the surface. Tropical and mysterious, the qualities that were drawing me to Asia to began with.

From our arrival in Bangkok to the culmination of our journey, we spent a solid three months traveling. And throughout that time, the Mekong River was a constant guide. We followed it from town to town, drifting downriver at only a slightly slower pace than its muddy brown water. And along the way, we came to know and love how the river tasted. We could feel its richness and fertility in the dripping golden papaya we savored on the banks of Chiang Khong, on the first morning that we saw the river itself; we grasped its salty aquatic flavor in the crisp squares of fried river-weed coated in sesame seeds and dabbed with chili sauce, which we sampled on the promenade in Luang Prabang; and we has tasted its history and culture in the sliver of green mango that garnished a French baguette sandwich in Phnom Penh. But, as close as we came, we didn’t get to taste the river to the end, to the delta.
We made it to Saigon, but only briefly. After only a week in Vietnam, Bordeaux and I boarded a plane and returned to Bangkok. Despite the misguided preconceptions I’d had, we had both turned out to adore the city, and were eager to try living there. So though Vietnam seemed fascinating, we left—never having made it anywhere near the delta. The river’s end remained unseen and untasted, as our plans of living near the Mekong Delta came to an end.

The hunger pangs, however, didn’t end quite so easily. Getting to the delta became a constant goal, a desire I nursed as we lived and traveled throughout the region. And so it happened that over a year later we finally made it there—and I found myself alone, waiting at the ferry port of Ben Tre.

Thankfully, our hotelier returned quickly, and instructed me to climb onto the back of his scooter. We zoomed off, leaving the sun-soaked chaos of the port behind, and slipped into shadow among the leafy gardens of a quiet neighborhood. We passed a string of sugary candy-coloured houses, clacked over a canal on a thin wooden bridge, and twisted into the gate of his guesthouse.

It wasn’t, as I had imagined when I made the booking, a charming boathouse tipped over the river itself, with a hammock slung on the verandah from which I could gaze into the flow of the water. Instead, it was an inland compound of modern mint-green buildings, surrounded by trees. But even though we weren’t on the river itself, there were signs of it everywhere. The air felt sticky with humidity, as if we’d just come on shore after a quick plunge. The garden was flourishing with fruit trees, with pomelos and papaya hanging heavily on straining tree limbs. And a network of shallow streams and canals criss-crossed the yard, giving the feeling that the earth may sink or be swallowed in a flood at any moment. As I climbed off the bike, I found Bordeaux peeking into one of these streams.

“Come, look here.”

All along the bank, there were tiny fish with cartoon eyes, hopping out of the water and onto land. Mudskippers. I’d seen them before in nature documentaries and wildlife books, but they were infinitely stranger in real life. Yet somehow, their amphibious lifestyle seemed to make sense here, where the dividing line between water and earth seemed so thin.
Looking into another patch of murky water, we spied the vague outline of a large fish. It came up to greet us, it’s lips barely breaking the surface of the water. We gazed around the lush garden, continuing our search for wildlife, and spotted a low metal cage partly obscured under some bushes. Looking in, we caught the glimmer of scales on a muscular snake.
“Cobra,” the guesthouse owner informed us. “Maybe you’ll have some for dinner?” We laughed politely, assuming he was joking—though we would later be corrected of this assumption as we looked over the menu for dinner.

We spent the afternoon strolling around town, peeking into coconut candy workshops, being hailed by men wanting us to witness a cockfight, and sipping iced drip coffee in a neighborhood joint. We returned to the guesthouse as the air was cooling down, just in time for dinner. We sat at a table outside, under a pitched canopy of dried palm leaves. After being presented with two icy green bottles of Saigon beer, we were handed a menu, though we had little reason to actually look at it. We’d booked this hotel with a purpose, to eat their specialty dish: elephant ear fish. The fish that had greeted us as we arrived, in fact.
We had only to order and we were immediately summoned to the same stream where we’d had that sighting. Gripping a long net, our waiter scooped into the water, and lifted out a massive silver fish. He dropped it onto the soil, and as it began to make desperate somersaults, commanded me to take a picture. I obligingly took one shot, though I wasn’t eager to document the last undignified moments of my dinner’s life. Satisfied that I’d captured the moment, he grabbed the fish, and disappeared into the kitchen.
When we next saw the fish, it was in a much-altered state. Supported in a wooden frame, it was held upright, and was set on our table with fins splayed, looking almost as if it had swum there itself to join us. Its skin was now more golden than silver, its scales crisp and flaky. It’s tender meat seemed ready to melt away at the first jab of a chopstick. Accompanying it were a bowl of rice noodles, a stack of thin rice paper, and a plate crowded with piles of pineapple, bean sprouts, tomato, and fresh green vegetables and herbs.

I snipped off a morsel of the fish with my chopsticks, layered it on the rice paper, rolled it up, and bit in. The green vegetables tasted sharp, the pineapple exuded an acidic tang, and the well-fried fish was luxuriant fatty. The rice paper contained it all, holding it in for a moment before the flavors revealed themselves on my tongue. I dipped a second piece into the sauce of chili, garlic and fish sauce; it tasted even better.

Over the next week, we crossed the entire delta, and continued our slow tour of Mekong flavors. We rode to the far Western border, past wide grassy expanses dotted with Khmer-style temples and pinnacles of limestone, to slurp on sour spoonfuls of canh chua ca. We rode over the waves to the pristine palm-fringed beaches of Phu Quoc, where we dined on salty caramel-sweet claypot fish. And in every meal, in every dish, and at the bottom of every bowl, we encountered the same flavors. Spicy, tangy, salty, sour, and fresh. The flavors that I had come to know as the taste of the Mekong River itself.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

View of Lion's Head #9.

There is somewhat of a vague hint of depression mixed in with the sea breeze over in Milnerton—but at least the distant silhouette of Lion’s Head offers some comfort.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

A neighborhood tart.

As much as I enjoy traveling, I also enjoy being settled—in part, because the idea of ‘neighborhood’ is so important to me. I love developing a few favorite local spots, recognizing other people who live and work near by, and getting in synch with an area’s unique character. And keeping check on the flow of people in the neighborhood can bring unanticipated benefits, as well. Bordeaux and I have a general rule that if we see large crowds gathering in unexpected places around our neighborhood, we investigate. This could conceivably be a faulted plan, should we stumble into a high-tension political rally, or some sort of riot, for example. But our experience has more often proved that where we see parked cars and gathering families, there’s often something good to eat.

Thankfully, these instincts proved correct on Saturday. Though the parking spaces across the street from us are generally empty on weekend mornings, on this particular morning the sidewalk was lined with cars, with more pedestrians ambling over from spaces found further away. We postponed our trip to the supermarket, and followed them into the leafy pedestrian avenues of the public gardens.

Immediately, a group of boys surrounded us, brandishing Styrofoam takeout boxes.

“Hey, buy from me!”--“Eight Rand! Eight!”--“Fine, O.K., two for ten Rand!”

“I don’t even know what you’re selling…”

But by that point, they’d moved on to other potential clients. Continuing in, we discovered a teeming high school fair. Kids and parents were crowded around folding tables, competing for customers. We found tables crowded with curried mince wrapped in roti, boerewors on the grill, and slap chips drowned in vinegar. Desserts were even better represented, with heaps of traditional South African treats like milk tart, malva pudding and pineapple cheesecake, and some non-traditional treats, like marshmallows speared on bamboo skewers. But these could hardly distract me, as I quickly found a table selling my favorite South African dessert—peppermint crisp fridge tart.

I’m guessing that some people may be unlucky enough never to have encountered such a thing, so let describe it for you. A peppermint crisp fridge tart is not a delicate dessert, not a carefully crafted confection. Any aspirations the word ‘tart’ may have at evoking qualities of refinement are made impossible by the awkward and overbearing bulkiness of the word ‘fridge’ preceding it. But this is exactly why it’s so delicious. There are no pretensions here—just an incredibly rich, decadent, homemade dessert consisting mostly of very simple ingredients. The base of course is a healthy supply of ‘Peppermint Crisp’, a brand of flaky chocolate bars filled with a green honeycomb of biting minty flavor. These are crushed, mixed with a sweet milk sludge, and leveled into a crust of ground biscuits. It is then left on its own to chill in the fridge, as if even the act of baking would be too extravagant for this dessert. The result is spectacular.

The easiest way to conjure its taste is by evoking—though I know this benefits only my American audience—Girl Scout cookies. While some may favor those odd coconut rings or the shortbread children (and maybe one or two people like the hard little oatmeal-raisin discs), the best of the cookies is obviously the Thin Mint. The melty chocolate coating, the biscuit crunch, the fresh peppermint flavor—this may be the only reason Girl Scouts continue to exist. Eating a slice of peppermint crisp fridge tart is like taking a box of Thin Mints, churning it with vanilla ice cream and graham crackers in a blender, and then eating the end result with a spoon. Only better.

The entire pie was purchased on Saturday, and as of this writing there is a slim slice left in the fridge. We had a little help, but the two of us did most of the consumption. Which brings me to a realization. While being involved in your neighborhood can certainly have some major benefits, it doesn’t always benefit your health.

Friday, March 13, 2009

The eating island.

I can’t exactly say that it makes much sense. I’m from New Mexico, where I grew up on smoky red chili enchiladas and sopapillas drizzled with honey; I’ve lived in Bangkok, where the sois were lined with stands selling fiery curries and crispy grilled chicken; and I’ve traveled extensively in Vietnam, where I lived on rich avocado shakes and savoury pork and mushroom rolls. But the food I’m missing most lately—it’s all from Taiwan.

Lately small cravings have been nagging at me whenever I start to get hungry. I’ve been thinking about flaky scallion pancakes, steaming pork ball soup, or crispy Beijing duck dipped in hoisin sauce. And I’d love to wake up to dan bing rolled with tuna, soupy steamed dumplings, and a glass of warm soymilk; or end the day with smoky Szechwan style chicken and peanuts and spicy mapo dofo.

Taiwan gets a reputation among foreigners, particularly its resident ex-pats, as having terrible food. After two months of exploring local markets, food stands, and restaurants I have to say that the reputation is entirely undeserved. In reality, I think Taiwan is one of the most underrated food destinations in all of Asia. With a week spent circling the island, you can sample a wide range of regional Chinese cooking (even better than on the mainland, some say), graze among unusual delicacies at the teeming night markets, and search out local specialties—every city seems to have one or two dishes it’s ‘famous’ for. There are tea-houses, where you can select a few plates of traditional snacks to savor while you sip; vegetarian buffets where you can pile your plate with Buddhist-friendly stir-fries; roadside drink stands where you can get an icy mango slush or creamy milk tea to sip while zooming on your motorbike. The cuisine is a mix of Mainland, indigenous, Hakka, Japanese, and American traditions, remixed into something distinctly Taiwan.
Wherever on the island you find yourself, there is always something new, unexpected, and delicious to try.

So, if I’ve convinced anyone to go—mind airmailing me some dan bing?

Friday, March 06, 2009

around town/cape town: heat wave.

Though we're still far from settled in, we have managed to start assembling something of a routine in our lives. We set the alarm at 5 three days this week, waking early so that we could climb Lion's Head under the coolness of dawn. Monday we found the mountain obscured by fog, so we had to make do with hiking through the drizzle to Signal Hill-- but Wednesday was perfect, and a cool morning breeze revived us as we made it to the top. This morning, however, felt a little different. Though we actually started our hike earlier, the air was noticeably hotter-- thanks to a little heat wave that's settled on the Western Cape.

The heatwave here is pushing the temperatures toward 40, and it's definitely having some negative effects, with wildfires ripping through the dry bush around the outskirts of town. Firefighters have managed to keep them in control, thankfully, though they have become overly exhausted in the process-- backup has been called from other provinces. While it may sound indulgent, we've decided to make the most of the heat-- by enjoying Cape Town's gorgeous beaches. Somehow the 40 degree weather doesn't seem so bad after coming out of the freezing surf to enjoy a granadilla popsicle.

Monday, March 02, 2009

The (im)perfect home.

To offer a bit of closure to last week’s entry, I’ll share that Bordeaux and I have successfully found an apartment. It was, however, a much more complicated process than we had anticipated. We encountered a few major problems. First of all, no one is buying right now, so everyone is renting—and we really wanted to live in the City Bowl, which is the most desirable area for renting. Secondly, as freelancers who have spent the last eight months traveling, we weren’t really seen as ideal candidates to most apartment agents. But perhaps the biggest problem of all was that our first viewing was at the most incredible apartment we’d ever seen—with high ceilings, wood floors, great views, tons of built in cabinets, and a massive kitchen—so how could any other apartment ever compare?

Along the way to signing the lease, we traveled all over the city, viewing about a dozen different apartments. We saw some sweet flats, some depressing houses, and a few pretty bizarre properties.

We visited one house that was, literally, a drug den. We showed up to the open house a few minutes early, and were welcomed inside by a rattled-looking German woman. As we stepped through the house, we discovered discolored mattresses and homemade drug paraphernalia scattered around the rooms. It should be a sign of our desperation at that point that we actually considered this house.

We later visited a three bedroom Victorian cottage that retained most of its original features—like the charming fireplace and architectural detailing, but also plumbing and electricity. The place was falling apart, the previous tenant told us, roof leaking, floor collapsing-- and the landlord never fixed a thing. When the landlord asked if we wanted the place, we pointed this out to him, and he assured us that he was going to get a ‘big bank loan’, then he’d take care of the remodeling in ‘drips and drabs’—he just needed a tenant there while he did it. So that they can pay rent to live in a gutted apartment, should he ever actually getting around to making any repairs?

Finally, answering a Gumtree ad with no photographs, we found our apartment. It was right in the City Bowl, in the perfect location. Two bedrooms, with a big lounge and an open balcony, at a surprisingly inexpensive rent. But looking it over, we were still infected by the first apartment we had viewed—so all of its flaws stood out. Ugly grey carpeting ran throughout. The walls were a glaring white. The mirror over the bathroom sink was too high for me, and the medicine cabinet awkwardly screwed into the opposite wall. And the kitchen, though charmingly retro, had a hideous brown countertop.

As a friend pointed out though, sometimes an imperfect apartment is better, because you can make it your own. We got permission to paint, and over this weekend we finished two rooms. We took down the too-high mirror, and are moving the medicine cabinet to its place (just a little lower). And while cleaning the kitchen, Bordeaux discovered that the countertop was just a tacky lining. He peeled it away, revealing the original counter underneath was still in great condition—in a brilliant shade of robin’s egg blue. And peeking under the carpet, we’ve discovered parquet flooring—though doing anything about that will be a much bigger project.

With that said, I’m once again settled, and will hopefully be getting back to more regular travel, food, and culture oriented entries—writing about Cape Town, detailing explorations in South African food, and sharing some images of Asia that I didn’t get to post while I was there.