Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Bring Your Own Chopsticks

Lets be honest, I'm not going to Vietnam because I really want to teach children. I'm going to Vietnam because I love Vietnamese food and it's a hell of a lot cheaper and better there than anywhere in the United States. I've been reading up on different types of food and places to go not just for me but for my family and friends who visit. So those of you who are coming, bring your own chopsticks and get ready to eat some succulent treats. And good news, thanks to Noah who sent me this article from the Wall Street Journal today, I've got a new stop on the food tour I'll be taking you on:

For Vietnamese, The Year of the Rat Starts With Lunch
Rodent-Eating Takes Off, In Response to Bird Flu; Cats, Snakes on Menu, Too
February 6, 2008; Page A1

TU SON, Vietnam -- According to the Chinese calendar, the Year of the Rat begins tomorrow. But here it may have started sooner: Unexpected changes inVietnam's food chain and diet have sparked a rodent-eating bonanza. In Tu Son, a small village sitting near the banks of the Red River, rathunter Ngo Minh Tam reckons "99%" of the people regularly dine on rat meat,an estimate local street vendor Nguyen Thi Le supports. "I've sold two kilos[almost 4.5 pounds] in the past quarter hour," she boasts, displaying alarge metal bowl of skinned and cleaned bodies. Rat-based cuisine is beginning to catch on in the big cities as well. Handwritten signs in some of the backstreets of Hanoi offer cash in return for freshly caught rat. "Both Vietnamese and foreign tourists are eating more rat meat these days," says Pham Huu Thanh, proprietor of the Luong SonQuan restaurant in Ho Chi Minh City, the former southern capital Saigon. Mr.Thanh serves rat grilled with lemon grass or roasted in garlic for around 60,000 Vietnamese dong, or $4, a serving. (Rat may taste like chicken, but with a tiny rat drumstick between your fingers, it's hard to pretend it really is.) Rats have been a delicacy in Vietnam's rural areas for centuries, with recipes dating back 150 years. For a long time, however, this country's big city folk were generally less enthusiastic, often associating the animals more with garbage-digging vermin than mouth-watering entrees. But in 2004, flare-ups of bird flu claimed scores of lives here and prompted many diners to search for alternative sources of protein. Demand went up, but paradoxically supply did too. That's because rats' natural predators --snakes and cats -- are increasingly finding themselves on the menus of posh restaurants frequented by wealthy Vietnamese. In the Le Mat district of Hanoi, dozens of restaurants specialize in snakes either farmed for the table or caught by hunters. Other snakes are shipped to China, where they are also considered a delicacy. A booming economy has caused snake prices to double in the past year in some places to roughly $18 a pound. And despite a 1998 government ban on cat consumption enacted to control the rat population, felines are also sometimes eaten at some restaurants; on menus, they appear as "little tiger." "If people are eating the rats' natural predators, then that means more rats for us," says the spry Mr. Tam as he pursues his quarry one recent morning.The 53-year-old farmer and part-time taxi driver supplements his income by hunting the rodents in the fields and industrial estates around this village on the outskirts of Hanoi. He is joined in the hunt by his friends Ngo Van Phong, 55, and Nguyen HuyDuc, 53, and his two trusty dogs, Muc and Ki. The party gets lucky on some disused land at the back of the Tong Thanh Dong Packaging factory. Muc catches the scent of a rat. After a brief chase she burrows her muzzle intoa grass embankment and wags her tail furiously -- a sign she has found a candidate for lunch.Digging Into the Ground Messrs. Tam and Duc leap into action, digging into the ground, while Mr. Phong secures the rat's possible escape routes. Mr. Duc pulls dry straw from a canvas sack, stuffs it into holes in the embankment and sets it on fire. As the fire takes hold, a fleeing rat ends up instead in a bamboo funnel which Mr. Tam placed over a hole. Mr. Tam's favorite rat repast is a stew of rat meat, heart and liver andserved up in a steaming broth. "It's just the thing for a cold winter'sday," he says. In total, Mr. Tam nabs eight rats in 45 minutes. He and his friends sell whatever they don't need for themselves to village market vendors. The vendors sell rat meat for about $1.50 a pound. It's a relative deal. Pork costs roughly a third more, and chicken twice as much. The field rats which Mr. Tam and his friends hunt are white and brown, with a diet rich in grain and snails. Although Vietnamese generally don't consume the flea-infested sewer rats of popular imagination, the stigma still lingers. Some restaurants in Vietnam are wary of explicitly offering rat on their menus. Owners worry their customers might suspect they are being served rat meat when they order more expensive chicken dishes. At the elegant Dan Toc Quan restaurant in Hanoi, a waitress whispers that she can serve rat -- if the chef can find one. She disappears to the kitchen and comes back shaking her head. "Perhaps you could bring your own rat and we'll cook it for you," she said. Most Vietnamese prefer to prepare their rat at home. In Tu Son, Ngo Thi Thanh one recent day bought almost 4.5 pounds of rat meat to feed 10 of her friends who had dropped in for lunch."It's difficult to compare the taste of rat to other meat," she says. 'It's Delicious' When Ms. Thanh got home, she carefully washed the rat and chopped the meat into quarters. Bending over a charcoal stove, she fried one batch with salt and steamed the other with lemon leaves as her friends looked on with anticipation. "It's delicious," one said. For connoisseurs of rat meat, slightly chubby rats are the most sought after. A thin layer of fat adds more flavor to the meat and provides a satisfying sizzle when the chunks of rat meat are added to the frying pan, they say. It is also best, they add, served with generous servings of potenthome-brewed rice wine. Some wonder whether the Year of the Rat will help promote the cause of rat cuisine. While rodent vittles are still consumed in China, the popularity of these and other exotic meats waned after epidemiologists traced the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, in 2003 to the consumption of weasel-like animals called civets. Mr. Tam, the hunter, is underwhelmed by the event. "We don't need an excuseto eat rat," he said.

--Nguyen Anh Thu and Kersten Zhang contributed to this article.

People Who Live In Glass Houses...

...shouldn't throw stones. No, this isn't a lecture about not criticizing others for faults that we may have ourselves. No, this is an entry about not living in glass houses. I personally don't know anyone who lives in a glass house but I'm staying with a girl who has a glass bathroom door. Yes, a glass bathroom door. Frankly, I've never heard of such a thing or seen such a thing prior to arriving in Sydney on Monday. So what's the big deal? What's the big deal?! It's a huge deal! As anyone can attest who knows my siblings and I, we have what you might call "sensitive stomachs." I have vivid memories of Zev pill popping Tums as an adolescent. It seems that not a meal, snack or breath mint wouldn't be chased with a multi-colored Tums. He seems to have slightly outgrown this addiction whereas Hannah and I are still dependent on over the counter drugs to survive in this world. Our drug of choice is different though--we single handedly keep Immodium AD in business.

So, what's my point? Well, if keeping my stomach in line wasn't a hard enough job already it is always exacerbated by flying. Whether it's the air pressure or the airline food, I don't know. But the days after flights are usually followed by cramps and extra "reading time." Well, after flying for thirty hours, old reliable was up to his old tricks again. One small problem, Emma's bathroom door is glass. Oh wait, two small problems: Emma's bathroom is in her bedroom, feet from her bed. Oh wait, three small problems: Emma's best friend, an equally cute blonde Aussie, is staying here this week. So do the math: 2 cute girls sleeping feet from a glass bathroom door = nights of pain.

I emailed a few friends at 4:30AM to discuss the situation. Various solutions included:
1. Go out the window. (I would have considered this but she lives on the ground floor on a busy walking street)
2. Hang up a sheet over the door and just quote the Wizard of Oz, "Don't mind the man behind the curtain." This genius one comes from the brilliant mind of Adam Lippman.
3. Run to a hotel lobby. This was suggested by my buddy Bert up in Seattle (yes, I have a friend named Bert) but unfortunately I didn't have keys to get back in the apartment.

Thankfully Augusts have a high pain tolerance. Some of us don't take pain medication the day after triple bypass heart surgery and some of us grin and bear stomach cramps during the night. Which is tougher, you be the judge. Anyway, long "Too Much Information" story short: I jogged this morning at 7AM to the Sydney Oprah House and used their facilities. Wonderful acoustics at that place.

For the first time since I've been here it was sunny out...although as I type this it is downpouring again. I took advantage of the good weather and went on a ferry ride in the harbour to Taronga Zoo where I was told I could pet and rub noses with koalas. I was told wrong. They have koalas at the zoo but there are large signs, "no petting." You could pay $20 (in addition to the $40 ferry ride/zoo combined fee) to get one picture and thirty seconds next to a sedated koala. I decided to pass. This is going to break the heart of Taylor, one of my best friends and a certified koalaphile.

As many of you know, a few months ago I was a bridesmaid in Taylor's amazing Santa Barbara wedding. Well, for her honeymoon she and Andrew came to Sydney. Upon their return Taylor emailed me all her pictures. To say every other one was of a Koala would be an understatement. All she and Andrew did on their trip was eat, take pictures with koalas, sail the harbour, take more pictures with koalas, visit the opera house, take more pictures with koalas, etc. Since telling Tay I was coming to Australia she has repeatedly told me, "you have to see the koalas." Yesterday she proceeded to email me links of places to go and what time of day I should go ("Go at 4, that's when they are the most playful.") Some would say this borders on obsession. I would agree with them. But it's even worse--Taylor sent me the above picture of an underage koala kissing a girl yesterday and told me, "the younger koalas are the best." So friends, I'm asking you, please have an intervention with Taylor before it's too late.

Once again I'm original pictureless. I've got some great pictures to post but still can't find a wireless signal. Hopefully in the next couple days I'll hunt one down.