Thursday, April 9, 2015

Psycho Asian Comfort Food: Crepes, All Kinds

This was not my recipe, but they awakened a fire in my belly....
a fire that can only be quenched by... more crepes (and better cheese).
One of the single best benefits of having roommates from all corners of the world is a chance to mash up cuisines, creating new, and occasionally wonderful, dishes in the process.

American society contains an embarrassment of riches in the form of cultures from all over the world. I talk about Chicago a lot when people ask me about food, because it's such a very interesting example of mixing and matching, as well as just a all-out-amazing foodie town. Chicago's socio-ethnic history informs modern neighborhoods in a real and visible way, and many neighborhoods exist as a living record of the last hundred years of people and cultures moving in and out of these 'hoods. The city is both a global food experiment, and completely & utterly Chicago and midwestern in expression.

As for me? I know what I like, and I know that I'm a builder. Sometimes I get... mildly obsessed.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

October 1887: French Indochina and Vietnam's Amazing Literacy Rates

Look at these crazy stats! These are for youngsters;
they taper off a few percentage
points as age increases.
In October of 1887, France formally founded French Indochina, and with it solidified a path which would result in modern Vietnamese rates that are through the roof.


Wait, really?

Yes! But let's give credit where it's due: this story spans much more, from French Jesuit missionaries to a 8,000 word trilingual dictionary to a very recent (historically speaking) adoption of the entire written Vietnamese language.

Today's script is called Quoc Ngu, or "National Language," and is the national script of Vietnam. It's most interesting characteristic, beyond the tones inherited from it's Chinese history, are that it is in Roman characters and is pronounced phonetically! This makes it different in appearance from most other SE Asian languages, which generally looks like beautiful scribbling.

However, below the makeover it got in the 17th and 19th centuries, the grammar remains very similar to others in the regional language family (and the grammar is so easy it's almost comical, which probably also helps literacy).

In addition, literacy rates in Modern Vietnam are high. Like, really high. Per UNICEF's most recent data (2013), total adult literacy rate, 2008-2012, lies at a cool 93.4%. For youth it climbs even higher - 96.7% of Vietnamese females 18-25 are literate, and the males figure rests at 97.5%. These are STUNNING figures, and, if accurate (I'm not sure if that data was collected in-house by UNICEF or outsourced), are a serious achievement. We'll learn more about how these great literacy rates run up against the State Party and their media restrictions much later in this series, so keep these in the back of your mind.

To put this in perspective, America has an ongoing literacy crisis (as does much of the world, developed or no). 14% of American adults can't read. A ridiculous 19% of high school graduates cannot read. What. the. f*ck. (Yes, the problem is definitely unions, and not the fact that poverty shrinks your brain from birth. *eyeroll*) These numbers are from a US Department of Education paper published in 2013. If that doesn't break your brain, I don't know what will.

Ok, but backing away from the politics and back to the French (if I had a nickel)...

Friday, April 3, 2015

Market to Table: Banh Mi Op La

I need a new camera. And better dishes. And a kitchen with natural light.
Alarm goes off: It's 6am, once again.

Light is streaming in your windows and you can hear the sounds of the neighborhood waking up around you, making the most of the only part of the day that has both sunlight and fresh, cool air. It won't last.

If you could, maybe you'd roll over and go back to sleep until a more reasonable hour, but, just like everyone else, you know how hot it'll get by midday... but for now, the world is a beautiful, comfortable place. Might as well drag yourself out of bed!

Breakfast this morning needs to be the easiest thing you can handle - as little heat as possible, as much flavor as possible, and, preferably, under 10 minutes. And coffee.

Luckily for you, Banh Mi Op La is just about the least complicated homemade breakfast you could imagine. Come along, and learn how to make this incredibly simple and nourishing Vietnamese breakfast with me!

Honestly, it's so basic, I actually feel a little silly making this a blog post "recipe," but I'd personally never heard of it before I came here and I know you'll enjoy it. It was the first meal I had after I arrived in Vietnam and it's still my favorite breakfast (except for Bo Kho, maybe), precisely because it's so thoroughly easy to grok and how fast it is.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Tipping in Vietnam: A Focus on Service

Bottom line: do they light up your soul? Tip time.
My thoughts on tipping Vietnamese have evolved over the time that I've spent in this country.

At first, I followed the standard model of tipping I'd heard of from other expats: spas and barbers get a tip and everyone else can suck it, because who wants to upset the apple cart? Which, honestly, is kind of an jackass perspective, as virtually everything I'm paying for in a service setting is drastically cheaper than comparable experiences in developed countries.

Slowly, I've evolved to be more of a tipper (as I was in America, which I'm proud of)

Vietnam's epic and ambitious plans for achieving Developed Nation status are well-known and well-underway at this point and, perhaps surprisingly, there IS a minimum wage for Vietnamese.  However, this minimum wage applies to the entire country, which is still pretty darn agricultural and poor, relatively speaking. City wages might be at the federal minimum, but the costs of living in one of these major metropolitan areas (Hanoi, HCMC, Da Nang) is much higher than if you live out in the provinces, where a lower minimum wage might be enough. Young people come here to try and find themselves and new opportunities, and they can't succeed if they're earning subsistence levels of income. Everyone deserves to have enough cash to enjoy a smoothie with friends on Friday night, right? Let alone attending one of Saigon's many universities....

Getting good service is the standard in the south of Vietnam. And, generally, Southern Vietnamese are quite helpful and friendly (I have... other thoughts... about the few Hanoi residents I've met). If you encounter a situation where you have messy or outright terrible service, I trust you'll recognize that and tip accordingly (0.00 USD).

So what's the best way to approach service situations?