A guide purporting to be an encyclopaedia of Asian ingredients. Under fish sauce, it recommends the Tiparos and Squid brands as being the best ones. Maybe, if you’re doing Thai cooking? They’re both Thai fish sauces, and for Vietnamese dishes I have to admit I’ve never found them to be much use (the book doesn’t go into the fact that there are huge regional variations on fish sauces, which is odd because it specifies this for soy sauces…).
Bonus points: under “typical dishes”, it lists “larb (Vietnam, Thailand)”. I have no idea about Thailand, but larb sure as heck isn’t a typical Vietnamese dish (in fact, I had to look it up on the Internet, and Wikipedia tends to suggest it’s a Lao dish. Way to go on mixing up all the countries of the Indochinese peninsula, guys).
Expanded from my twitter feed, because I feel it bears repeating.
I’ve been seeing a lot of gender-focused work described as “political”, with a strong negative connotation to the term political–it seems what is meant by “political” isn’t really “relating to the public affairs of one country”, but rather “involved, committed, with a message”. Which in turn is rather puzzling when you think on it–if a work isn’t involved , doesn’t have anything to say, then should we still be reading it? And are there really works that don’t have anything to say?
Even “escapist” literature or Hollywood movies have a strong underlying message and promote equally strong assumptions (on the value of escapism, on cultural dominance, etc. I could dissect lowbrow Hollywood movies but don’t have the energy here–maybe for next time!).
I remain puzzled by the assumption that some literature can be value-neutral, as if that were ever possible. It is not. Every single piece of literature/art is embedded in the culture/sub-culture that gave rise to it. I’m not doing cultural existentialism here–it’s not *because* something was produced in, say, France, that it will have X and Y and Z; but something produced in France by a French writer will be infused with *some* degree of French cultural background; same for US productions, etc. Every single piece of literature bears the assumptions and the worldview of its creator, who in turn bears the assumptions of the culture they’re part of (and, to some extent, the work bears the assumptions of its reader, who might interpret it through different filters than the creator).
There is no such thing as meaningless fluff, because even the “shallowest” of fluffs carries an implicit value of what makes fluff; of what doesn’t challenge the majority of readers; of what kinds of escapism are efficient and “don’t engage the brain” . For instance, going off on adventures away from one’ s family, saving the world and getting the girl might be the majority idea of what constitutes escapism in Western society; it will hardly be the case everywhere. Escapism in ancient/modern Vietnam , for instance, has a greater chance of focusing on saving one’s community and one’s elders, and romantic attachments have much less of a place, or at least there’s much less imbalance between those and the other kinds of attachments. (don’t want to do broad sweeping cultural generalisations, but I’d argue that in a system of Confucian-derived values, there is a much larger weight on fraternal/friendship bonds than on romantic love, and yet a larger weight on elder/younger family bonds than on any of these. Works produced *within* that kind of society which challenge those norms tend to do so in a specific and characteristic manner, for instance by elevating bonds of friendship over all other ones; just as mainstream Western works tend to challenge traditional Christian values in specific ways).
Coming back to “gender-focused” work, I think we see the same fallacy: the definition tends to be applied to anything with a cast composed mostly of women. On the one hand, I appreciate the need to qualify stories that challenge the status quo; on the other, there’s something… sticky about the lack of balance there: stories that have an all-male cast are equally gender-focused and promote the patriarchy to an even larger extent than female-focused stories (because it’s much easier to promote the status quo), and not applying this term to them fails to challenge the notion that culturally dominant stories are somehow value-neutral and “invisible”. And I find that bothersome: if we can’t recognise our own set of dominant tropes and how everything is geared to accommodate them, to produce them and to propagate them, then being in a position to recognise there is an (unequal) status quo and being able to challenge it are just going to be that much more difficult. It’s like the air you breathe: that you don’t think of it doesn’t mean it’s not there and doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a *huge* influence on you.
Very disorderly thoughts; I apologise for the mess. But I just wanted to put them out there, because “not involved” seems like a dangerous fallacy to me. Do I make sense?
 I know that to some extent this is about the “forcefulness” of said work and how vigorously it tries to get its point across; but that strikes me as the beginning of a slippery slope that looks a lot like the tone argument (anything people don’t want to hear gets tagged as “too vehement”). Hard to know when to draw lines; and I don’t pretend to have easy answers; just putting (rather obvious!) thoughts out there…
 Think for a moment on what “doesn’t engage the brain” implies, and you’ll realise that a necessary prerequite for this is “doesn’t challenge my deeply-held beliefs/doesn’t challenge the majority view I’m used to”. I’m religious, so anything that is actively hostile to spirituality has a much larger wall to leap in my hindbrain; but this is partly offset by the fact that the (French) society I move is largely atheist, and that I’m thus inured to negative portrayals of religion.
 Bit of a tricky thing to separate influences, as Western culture is so ubiquitous even in modern (and colonial) Vietnam that it has started to bleed quite significantly into the culture/erase non-compliant bits of it. And again, general trends rather than specifics; I don’t want to do cultural existensialism, but equally cultural specifities shouldn’t be casually swept under the rug under cover of “we’re all the same deep down”.
Isn’t it pretty?
Art courtesy of Richard Wagner (and many thanks to Andy Cox as always). “The Angel at the Heart of the Rain”, my sort-of-magical-realism piece about war and refugees, will be out in the May issue of Interzone.
So… this weekend’s cooking experiments saw me invading the kitchen of my in-laws and making chả giò (fried rolls). It’s actually a lot more fun to have victims, er, helping hands I mean, to take on some of the work involved in making the rolls. Making the stuffing and wrapping the rolls is about 90% of the work, and for me alone it’s usually a good half-day’s work. Here we made short work of the 30+ rolls in under 2 hours; I understand now why making this (and making dumplings) is a communal activity!
We also got to try out my in-laws’ Philips Airfryer, which deep-fries food with a minimal amount of oil: in this case, the H kindly brushed all the rolls with frying oil (which was some work :p), and we then studied the problem of how to adapt the recipe to an Airfryer. First attempt was dumping rolls in the Airfryer basket and cooking them at 200°C for 20 minutes, flipping them once during cooking. This proved effective but time-consuming: the basket could only take 6 or so rolls, and 20 minutes is a long time when you’re already hungry. We then switched to an intermediate method: cook the rolls in a 200°C-oven for 20 minutes, until they just start to turn golden. Then dump them 6 by 6 in the Airfryer basket, and cook them at 200°C for 4 minutes on each side. Much, much more effective.
The final result doesn’t *quite* look like it’s been deep-fried, but I have to say it’s not too shabby, and the rolls tasted great!
(also, the H now wants us to do dumplings in the Airfryer. I think he enjoyed the entire thing a bit too much :p)
(aka chuối nướng: grilled bananas) OK, so I know fully well that this isn’t really how you do grilled bananas. Normally there should be sticky rice sprinkled with grated coconut that you wrap around the bananas before wrapping the lot in banana leaves and throwing it on the grill. However, grated coconut is rare in this house (and let’s not even mention banana leaves…). So let’s see about the stripped-down version, which only has three main ingredients and requires very little work to turn out awesome…
(the picture was taken with the leftover sauce; normally it should be more bananas draped in sauce, rather than a Frankenstein soup halfway to chè stage. Promise, next time I’ll try it with the sticky rice)
- 12 small bananas (or 6 large Cavendish ones)
- ½ cup coconut milk
- ¼ tsp salt
- 2 tablespoons water + 1 tablespoon cornstarch
- Handful roasted peanuts, crushed
- Put the coconut milk and salt in a saucepan, and bring to a boil. After it has started simmering, add the cornstarch diluted in the water, bring to a boil and wait for the sauce to thicken. Take off the heat, and wait till it cools. The sauce should be a teensy bit sweet; if it’s not, add 1 or 2 lumps of sugar to taste.
- Cut the bananas in half along the horizontal axis. If using large ones, also cut them in half vertically.
- In a frying pan, put a fair amount of oil, and panfry the bananas until they turn soft and slightly browner (alternative version, just cut the Cavendish vertically, don’t touch the small ones; wrap the bananas in foil and put them in an oven, broiling for a few minutes at 275°C).
- Remove and serve, putting the coconut sauce over the bananas and the crushed peanuts.
On paper, Sources of Vietnamese Tradition has a laudable goal: “[to] provide an essential guide to two thousand years of Vietnamese history and a comprehensive overview of the society and state of Vietnam. Strategic selections illuminate key figures, issues, and events while building a thematic portrait of the country’s developing territory, politics, culture, and relations with neighbors. The volume showcases Vietnam’s remarkable independence in the face of Chinese and other external pressures and respects the complexity of the Vietnamese experience both past and present”. The book’s hefty 600+-page contents promise a wealth of information and insight into Vietnamese society.
(warning: family-history bias)
Thing is… I guess they do provide that wealth of information, but due to a number of factors it ends up being a bit biased–first off, I appreciate the exclusion of any text they couldn’t find a primary (untranslated) source for, but that means that they spend most of the period of Chinese domination (roughly the first ten centuries, though it’s more complicated than that) presenting… the point of view of the Chinese on the Vietnamese, which is well and good but a tad worrisome. Also, the “famous” texts of Vietnamese literature (like The Tale of Kiều) end up excluded, on the basis that anyone interested in those can track them down; again, I understand why they did that, but that means you have to buy extra books if you want those texts. You also get a very curious view of “tradition”, since the emphasis on existing transcribed texts with an attribution means any folk renditions or anything not from the (literate, scholarly) aristocracy is excluded; which produces a definitely skewed view of history, and ends up with a very different “feel” from what I know (which is handed down mostly from family). To be fair, it’s hardly specific to this book, but is a problem I have with the series of “Sources of Asian tradition” in general.
Due to the coverage, you have entire periods where things happen in a bit of a puzzling fashion, for instance Lê Lợi‘s rebellion and his relationship to Nguyễn Trãi; again, possible family bias showing there, but I felt you never really got a sense of either of those men and the turmoil of the court of Lê Lợi ‘s successors, and it’s a bit hard to imagine Vietnamese history and modern Vietnamese perception of that history (at least in that bit of a the diaspora I’m familiar with) without them. And, uh, do yourself a favour and go read someone else’s account of modern Vietnamese history (from the independence onwards), because I felt the book didn’t really capture the ins and outs of what was happening in Vietnam in that time period. Again, this might all be my personal feeling, and it is also because, to some extent, I was expecting from a book that size something fairly comprehensive, which, in all fairness to them, clearly is not what the authors were out to produce (and they make that clear at the onset, from the preface).
Would I recommend this book? Mostly, yes, because there are plenty of great texts here that you won’t find anywhere else, and I learn tons of things about Vietnam I didn’t know. However, if you’re just looking for an entry point into Vietnamese history and culture, I’d recommend with reservations.
“The Weight of a Blessing” is one of those stories that took me a long time to write–by my standards, that is. I first had the idea for it around August or so, walking around in Brittany with the H; I wanted to do something about “refugees and virtual realities”.
(spoilers after the cut, please read the story first!)
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Just a note that my angry short story “The Weight of a Blessing” is now up at Clarkesworld. This was a really tough story to write, for much the same reasons as “Scattered Along the River of Heaven”, though this one took months to get right…
Have a look and tell me what you think?
(aka mì hoành thánh: noodles with wontons)
Aka one of my Sunday lazy dishes: I buy the wontons pre-made from the XIIIe Arrondissement, and then make the soup come together fairly quickly. The version in the picture lacks a bit of vegetables: I’d usually throw in two handfuls of fresh spinach/ arugula, or one bok choy (all per person), in addition to the spring onions–except of course I seldom have greens left in my fridge on a Sunday evening! It’s a fairly effortless dish that only requires a bit of attention while it’s simmering on the stove.
I’m pretty sure the traditional recipe for this doesn’t include the sesame oil or the five-spices, but I really like the taste of the broth with those two ingredients thrown on.
- 125g dried egg noodles
- 10 shrimp wontons
- 1 tablespoon instant chicken broth (my chicken broth says: 2 teaspoons for 4 cups water, so if you want to use other sources of broth, I suspect it’d be 6 cups canned broth?)
- 6 cups water
- 1 teaspoon five-spices
- 1 10cm kombu piece
- 1 5cm ginger chunk
- 1 white onion
- 2 garlic cloves
- 1.5-2 tablespoons fish sauce
- 2 bok choys, or 4 handfuls of fresh spinash or arugula
- 2 spring onions
- Dash of sugar
- Cooking oil
- Sesame oil
- Using a mortar and pestle, smash the garlic and ginger into a rough, chunky paste. Cut the onion into wedges.
- In a saucepan, warm some cooking oil, and fry the ginger/garlic mixture until fragrant (about 30s-1min).
- Add the 6 cups water, the kombu piece, the onion, the white part of the spring onions, the five-spices, and 1 tablespoon of the fish sauce. Then bring to a boil.
- When the water starts to boil, remove the kombu.
- Leave to simmer for thirty minutes. Taste and adjust: it should have a strong salty kick but not make you instantly thirsty–if it’s too salty, adjust with some sugar, else add fish sauce. Don’t forget the noodles and wontons that are going into the soup are fairly bland, so the broth itself needs to have a kick if you want to taste anything!
- Bring the water back to a roiling boil, and add the dried egg noodles, the bok choy/spinach/arugula and the wontons. Leave to cook for about 3 minutes after the water comes back to a boil (if, as often happens for me, the noodles cook before the wontons, fish the noodles out to avoid having the taste boiled out of them, and set them aside. I put them straight into the serving bowls).
- Prepare two serving bowls: cut the green part of the spring onions into thin rings, and line the bowls. Then split the noodles, greens, and wontons between both bowls. Pour the broth over, and carefully mix to have the spring onions come back to the surface (careful, you don’t want to burst those wontons). Sprinkle some sesame oil on top (I usually go for anything from half a teaspoon to a teaspoon, depending on the mood).
- Serve hot.