All things food
All things food
Following my early July 2014 trip to Vietnam where I attended the KOTO fundraising gala, I returned to Saigon just a few weeks later to do another guest appearance on MasterChef Vietnam season 2 and work with the show’s sponsor, Knorr Vietnam. You know I can’t go to Vietnam without eating Saigon, so here’s what I had this time around.
Happy new year (again)! In continuing the closer look we’re taking at Vietnamese traditions, like those of lunar new year, today I’m actually taking you back to Vietnam.
I was born in California and didn’t visit the country of my heritage until I was 18. It would be another 16 years after that first pilgrimage before I’d returned to Vietnam again. Consequently, this second trip was after MasterChef, and I was going to Vietnam to appear in the inaugural season of “MasterChef” Vietnam as a celebrity guest judge. Since then, I’ve been back to Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City an additional three times, and on each trip, I eat to my stomach’s content.
Food in Vietnam, especially the “street food,”* is delicious and inexpensive—it’s my absolute favorite stuff to eat over there.
And so in the spirit of street food’s no frills, no nonsense attitude, I’ll get right down to business and deliver the goods.
**Please excuse the many misspelled Vietnamese words in the following entry, as I don’t have the software to write proper Vietnamese, accents and all.
This Thursday marks the lunar new year, or Tê’t, as we call it in Vietnamese. Growing up, the red envelopes containing minted bills (or—like xì—were my most anticipated new year tradition. It meant I was that much closer to that Super Mario game or, when I was in high school, that Green Day CD.
Another fond memory of Tê’t was the banh chung my grandmother made not only for us but all the extended family members that visited over the week-long holiday. Bánh chung (or banh Tê’t as they’re known in the Vietnamese South) are glutinous rice cakes filled with pork and mung bean and wrapped in banana leaves prior to steaming. The leaves impart a hint of green and earthiness on to the rice, which is why it’s no surprise they are meant to symbolize the earth. My grandmother and aunt made dozens of them, and sometimes I would help tie the red decorative ribbons around the massive cakes before stacking them on to the dining table. There they rested like stacks of sandbags, waiting to be gifted to our relatives.
If you follow me on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram, you would know I spent last weekend in Breckenridge, Colorado, on a ski/snowboard trip with friends and family (more on this to come in a later post). Today, we’re going to focus on food.
It’s an unwelcome dilemma every time: what will be filling enough to satiate 8 to 12 hungry folks but easy enough to prepare when everyone’s exhausted from all the physical activity? And don’t forget that nearby markets may be limited in ingredient selection so no Sichuan, no sushi, and no soufflés.
Chronologically preceding theMasterChef reunion spanning three generations and my first visit to the Bronx, here’s my final installment of my New York City 2.0 series. Upon touching down at Newark, I checked into my hotel, freshened up, met up two friends and my cousin, and headed straight to Sushi Nakazawa.
If you’ve ever seen Jiro Dreams of Sushi, you may recall Daisuke Nakazawa, the chef who, under the tutelage of sushi master Jiro, learned to perfect tamago, a beloved Japanese egg custard, but only after having prepared it 200 times.
I know very little about the Bronx. Actually, I’ve never been outside Manhattan to any of the surrounding boroughs, with the exception of getting to and from LaGuardia airport and a couple of trips to Brooklyn. I only knew three things about the Bronx: (1) it had a zoo, (2) the Yankees play there, and (3) J. Lo is from the Bronx.
From what I’ve gathered from media over the years, I pictured the Bronx as home to the blue-collared working class. Tell me I’m not that far off…?
The thing about the working class is they are a no-bullsh*t type of people, which means their food is usually unpretentious, inexpensive, and flavorful.
Eating was, however, the secondary reason as to why I came to the Bronx in June. Danielle, founder of Global Pop-Up, asked me to visit the Lavelle School for the Blind to inspire the kids with a little talk and cooking demo. I’ve been so fortunate to be placed in such a position—to be able to inspire others towards unbound heights—so I accepted the invitation since I was in NYC already for the AFB 2014 HKAAs.
Even though I was in New York City this June for the AFB 2014 Helen Keller Achievement Awards, I made sure I set aside time for some good eaten’ since NYC is such a gastronomical destination. Because MasterChef season 4 winner Luca Manfé’s cookbook, My Italian Kitchen had just published, I also made it a point to meet up with Luca to get my copy signed and for a little MC reunion.
Luca set up an evening of cocktails and pizzas at Zio Ristorante, a bumpin’ Italian restaurant from his friend, also named Luca. (Who would’ve thought?) There I met Christine Silverstein and Elizabeth Cauvel from MasterChef season 5 (which was currently airing at the time). That’s right, three generations of MasterChef contestants getting together to eat and drink. I was also ecstatic to meet up with some familiar faces from crew: Perry, Trask, and JP, who were like my guardians during my sequestered time away at MC3. (Perry and Trask even refer to themselves as my MC3 “mom and dad”—they’ve seen all of us contestants at our best and our worst.)
I was in Denver this summer at a fundraising gala for Phamaly Theatre Company, a theatre group giving those with various disabilities opportunities to take the stage. As a writer and graduate of University of Houston’s Creative Writing Program, I am naturally a supporter of the arts and jumped at the chance to support the performing and musical arts for a group of people With special needs.
As a person with a disability, I have firsthand experience on what sort of a toll it takes on the self-esteem. Phamaly provides a way for those with disabilities to take center stage, helping raise self-confidence, self-awareness, and self-expression.
But enough about my soapbox for the day. Let’s move on to what I ate in Denver!
If you think the title of this second half of my Stockholm series sounds crazy, it’s because the food kind of was.
Per a recommendation from my liaison with the Ikea Supper Club campaign, we ate at Oaxen Slip which, my dining companions told me, had a beautiful waterfront view. We were seated in an enclosed patio with an actual boat suspended from the ceiling. The server said the smoked herring appetizer was a must-try, and this dish turned out to be my favorite. I also had a healthy helping of snaps, which was no easy feat in my esophagus.
Oh, for the love of food…
Last month, I’d gone to Stockholm to serve as guest chef at Ikea Sweden’s Supper Club. After an event in Milwaukee, followed by a butt-crack-of-dawn ride to the airport to catch an early flight to Houston, a 5-hour layover in Houston, then 16 hours of travel time to Stockholm, I stepped off the plane, dropped bags at the hotel, and headed straight to Frantzén, one of two 2-Michelin star restaurants in Sweden.
I must say, I believe I enjoy 2-star restaurants more than 3-starred ones. I chalk it up to my affinity for accessible food and dining experiences. When I say “accessible,” I mean dishes that can be relatable by all; sometimes, an experience is so formal, I’m too stressed about proper table manners to truly enjoy the experience. And eating, being a favorite pastime, should be nothing but relaxing. A part of it stems from my not being able to see; and thus, presentation of plates is not as impressive to me, nor is the often complicated methods of eating them—give me a single bowl and a single spoon, and I’ll happily scoop stuff into my mouth.
Frantzén, I was told, was small and simple in design. Unadorned linens, plain white walls, no fancy chandeliers or buttresses. Just a bar with an open kitchen, and a few tables gathered within the unassuming space.