dont feel bad, it’s the best food I ever had.

Saturday, June 5th, 2010


Major former-vegetarian confession coming: Grilled duck is fucking delicious.

It’s succulent, tender and juicy as hell.

A brief history of my foodieism: My life-long vegetarianism started as a general dislike of meat. As a kid I pushed the pot roast around my plate, horrified by the smallest glisten of fat, until incurring sufficient sympathy to be excused to pour a bowl of cereal.

As an adult, every piece of animal product tasted wrong to me, and I went vegan. Living in both San Francisco and Portland, I ate (and loved) homemade veggie burgers and oven-baked sweet potato fries and avocado salads. I checked labels and asked too many questions at restaurants.

And slowly it became no longer a simple preference of taste, but an environmental clearance. The raising of farm animals, the long transport routes, the packaging. To me, it equaled a seriously negative footprint.

But with this stance came a catch I repeated endlessly: If I lived in a place where eating meat was sustainable, I’d do it without another thought.

Fast forward to life in SE Asia, and it was time to make the change. Practice what I preached. Love the duck. Chew the fat.

I hesitated for a moment at my first blood soup and my first fish belly, but in the end, everything about the way we eat here is sustainable. I watch my eggs be collected, my chickens die, my fruits fall from the tree.

I eat organs and suck bones dry.

Because here, nothing is wasted. What we eat is a part of who we are and how we live. Everything is connected in an integral way that benefits our health, the stability of the land, the success of the crops and the vibrant, communal, food-driven culture.

Now in Asia, I chew that fat with pride.

and your eyes like smoke.

Saturday, March 13th, 2010

clothes sizedHere, too, there’s days like this:

You wake up at 3:30 with the sound of roosters and (is it possible?) some sort of construction; the possibility of more sleep has been quickly crowed away. You think for a moment that it wouldn’t be so bad to dig out your eardrums.

When the sun finally comes up, it’s light and warmth are hidden by a thick and oppressive shield of smoke. It turns out, the entire country does their field burning at once, so you spend the morning delirious in the haze of some farmers rice.

Then you’ve got to do laundry, which of course, being you, you’ve put off for far too long. So it takes hours. Not hours of unattended washing machine sort of laundry. Hours of labor intensive, stain scrubbing, hands pruning laundry. Then hang it to dry, rotate it every thirty minutes and quickly smack out the dust stains before anyone figures out you dropped most of it on the ground at one point or another.

(Pause here to spend a good hour running to and from the bathroom because you thought yourself tough enough to eat handpicked fruit you washed in the Mekong.)

You sit for a moment and see the dirty french press and mugs staring you down. So, back outside it is, to the kitchen (read: hose). Again, being you, you find several days of dirty dishes piled by the kitchen (hose) so have to hunker down on your haunches, and start washing, sans soap or sponge. You’ve long ago accepted that nothing, nothing in this country is actually clean.

You convince yourself that some nice cheap market food will be perfect for dinner. But tonight, well, it sucks. The vegetables are cold and wilty and the chicken on a stick has far too many mystery parts to it. The beer Lao is warm and the crepe man on the corner has taken the night off.

But this is it, and this is how you want it to be.

Life is life, and you are you, wherever you go. As it should be. My grandmother, who moved around countless times in her life, always told me that if you enjoy your life and have friends in one place, both will be true in the next place, as it’s something that you carry with you.

Well said, grandma. And might I add the same is true for laundry and sensitive digestive systems; they will follow you everywhere.

and thus we enter the year of the tiger.

Sunday, February 14th, 2010

On our way to dinner, Allison and I feel a Christmas Eve-like anticipation. Streets are empty and strings of lights are lit.

A coworker of A & J’s, here in Taichung, has invited us to have Chinese New Year at his Taiwanese girlfriend’s house. We have, per usual, no idea what to expect.

When we get to the apartment, we’re given slippers to wear and pointed towards the table; the kitchen is small, crowded and smelling wonderful. The rooms are close together and cluttered, the walkway tight and the dinner table filled with plates of food.

We’re pointed to our seats where we drink a little rice whiskey (much like the burning Lao Lao we’re familiar with) and watch some TV (also a comfortable Lao norm–TV always on). Inside this family’s home, we are welcomed, warm.

The food keeps coming out and Minni, the girlfriend, does her best to explain each item and it’s New Year’s meaning, most of which have to do with a coming year filled with prosperity and money.

Our host, Minni’s mother, soon comes out after what must have been a long day in the kitchen. She sweetly, softly, in Mandarin, thanks us all for coming and says she’s happy we can be here.

With small bowls and chopsticks, we eat. And eat, and eat. Tofu skins, deep fried cakes, rice noodles, pork balls, grilled peppers. I’m impressed with my performance; I pass off only one item I can’t stomach into Allison’s bowl. B sits across from us, filling and refilling his bowl with pork ball lamb soup, slouching from fullness and going back for more.

And we continue this way, eating way past our fill, until the dinner is over.

After we thank our host and say goodbye, Minni leads us down the road to a small, smokey bar, the only open place on the street.

So here, with some 24 oz beers, a growing group of locals, and a little bit of family, we ring in the year of the tiger.

And its possible, just maybe, that we close out the night with a cousin karaoke duet of Like a Virgin .

Food was flying everywhere, and I left without my hat.

Sunday, January 24th, 2010

cookingIn the states I felt pretty good about my foodie abilities. I strutted my stuff with homemade bagels and hand folded raviolis. I confidently managed a glass of wine and a good conversation while sautéing. And I made probably the meanest mac and cheese around.

Here, I suck.

I make a lot of mistakes. I scrape too hard when I descale. I forget to sharpen my machete between chickens. And I don’t rotate my coals soon enough, turning my roasted eggplant to ash.

I have to unlearn everything I’ve known about cooking before. Lids are never to be used. MSG is best for flavoring. Iceberg lettuce goes in soup. And absolutely nothing is wasted. Fish fins and lime rinds? Throw ‘em in the pot.

And shoes should never be worn. Rubber flip-flips only.

(When you’re squatting on the pavement scrubbing veggies with water from a hose, and your friend is shredding raw fish with a butcher knife, sending bits of flesh flying, the last thing you want are shoes you can’t rinse.)

Yesterday I made a traditional meal, laap, with Noy and Kaman. Laap is basically meat salad; the meat (usually raw) is finely ground and mashed with toasted rice, mint, cilantro and pepper. A paste like substance, you eat it with balls of sticky rice and your hands.

Despite a major pepper-washing-eye-touching mistake during yesterday’s preparations, lunch turned out pretty damn good, thanks mostly to Noy and Kaman.

I’ve got a long ways to go before I take on a meal alone. And I think its safe to say I can forget about that glass of wine.

So, for today’s lunch?

Cornflakes, milk, sugar.

through the skin.

Wednesday, December 30th, 2009

Vuan and I have a weird relationship. She mocks me a lot.

But then she tells me I’m beautiful and gives me a hug, ‘ohhh, gnam lai, dhak vhay.’

Vuan, who is our friend Kamon’s girlfriend, is petite and stylish. She classes up her traditional school skirts with a little bling on her flip flops and flowers in her hair. She’s touchier than most Lao people; doesn’t hesitate to put her arms on me and ramble off some Lao things and giggle with an almost adolescent squeal. (She’s 22.) She tugs at my clothes in either admiration or disgust.

She knows I speak hardly any Lao, but talks to me constantly.

We made dinner together tonight, sat chopping vegetables for a good hour. I think we talked about Kamon. Or maybe this other girl, On. And I’m pretty sure we were laughing together. Or maybe at me.

We taught eachother our mother tongue for every vegetable, then severely mocked one another when we botched the pronunciation.

When Noy left halfway through the process and handed me a large slab of raw pork, Vuan nearly fell in the fire when she saw my expression. She was, however, very patient with me while learning how to cut through pork skin, (it’s quite tough). And in explaining that no, you do not cut off the fat, skin, hair, etc., it all goes in the pot.

She saw my look of panic when I was done muscling my way through the meat and there was nowhere to wash my hands. She stared me down until I did as she did–rinse in a bucket of water then eat a slice of deep fried eggplant.

So soon we will sit down together (our pig is barbequeing right now), drink some beer lao and eat our meal, Vuan in her pleather studded black pants and shimmering pink shirt, me in my laundry day clothes.

And we will laugh at each other, or maybe together; it won’t matter either way.

salty, warm, thick.

Tuesday, December 8th, 2009

She ladles a vibrant red liquid into my cup—red like the center of a ripe hood strawberry. Red like fresh blood.

“Blood of duck,” she says, the fat one. (Her name is kuat, ‘slim.’) Before I look inside, I clutch my cup with one hand and chug it back. Blood of duck: salty, warm, thick.

Inside the singing is a low and constant murmur of hums and claps. A small cup of beer is filled over large chunks of ice. Fill it, refill it, pass it around.

We are at Noy’s sister’s house. Noy is a friend and now a co-worker. Together we will direct, organize, coordinate Pencils of Promise here on the ground in Lao. She’s taken Adam and I to this house to pick something up. But, in the Lao way, time and plans have changed drastically. She tells us we have ‘free time’ now, and takes off on her motorbike.

Adam is next to me in the circle on the floor. Here in Lao, he goes by his initials, AB. It is easy for Lao people to say. They fumble their way through Leslie. I say, to the one who knows a little English, that I need a Lao name. “Daak Vhay,” she says. “White flower of cotton. You are very pretty—very white.” She touches her skin and looks at mine.

Daak Vhay. It seems perfect. I pass along my beer, khawb jai lai lai, dhak vhay. ‘thank you every much, white cotton flower.’

It’s a culture of peer pressure here, in the best way possible. Drink more, faster, harder. They laugh when you wince and hesitate. AB and Daak Vhay. The falang will be drinking for a while.

I text B to get a ride here on Noy’s motorbike; that he will have to take the next beer lao shift. AB and Daak Vhay will have to make a quick escape before the beer, meat balls, bbq and duck blood soup settle into something scary.

Here, in Lao, we are happy. We have found a place to live (with Noy). We have cell phones, a nice café with solid wifi, my new job. We have strong stomachs (even mine), good pho, new friends. And eachother.