Monday, July 29, 2013


So, seven weeks on the road,  most of the time eating the cuisines of Southeast Asia: Malaysian, Indonesian, Indian, fusion, and Vietnamese. We cheated once, in Bali; had pizza. But this is, for the most part, the land of rice. Every meal begins and often ends with rice. Rice in a myriad of forms, marks the day: soupy rice congee for breakfast, a bowl with a few simple trimmings for lunch, a bowl for dinner. Or maybe rice noodles, or rice paper wrapped around shredded veggies. Outside the door or down the street, the rice paddy, its green like a carpet of emeralds. Always, always, rice....

There are people who think they can not live without pasta - the Western Europe kind: penne, linguine, those kinds of carbs. Somehow, for those people (and you know who you are), rice noodles just don't cut it, especially when the noodles show up once again in broth or stir-fried with a few odds and ends of meat or veggies or egg. What! No thick strands of spaghetti or buccatini? No fluttery farfale? No lashings of butter? No olive oil? Parmesan, where's the Parmesan? No thick, tomato-based sauces? And where the hell is my creamy Alfredo?
Here in Hanoi, any type of cuisine is available, from American burgers (and the never-far-away KFC, almost defunct in the US but high profile here) to Spanish gazpacho, bangers and mash and mushy peas to a good French Tarte Tatin.You can get tomatoes and beans as a traditional Brit breakfast, an omelette any time of the day, or just sit down at the side of the street at a stall and slurp up some noodles. Rice noodles, of course.
One of the things you cannot get in most of Southeast Asia, however, is cheese. Some adventurous hotels serve some kind of faux-Gouda on the breakfast buffet. Westerners fall on it with faint cries of disbelief, carry it back on a plate as if they possessed the Holy Grail. I met a guy who carried an entire Stilton all the way from England to his home in northwestern Thailand, almost arm-wrestling a half dozen border guards to keep it to himself. It wasn't that the guards wanted to eat it, they suspected it was part of some kind of terrorist plot. Who, after all, voluntarily eats moldy cheese?
But enough about the adventures of Mark's Stilton, let's get back to me. I thought, seven weeks without pasta, I need a fix, and it was dinnertime, the streets lights were on and, for the moment, it wasn't raining. I headed out bravely across the insane traffic of a nearby snarl, up Hang Bo, another bit of fancy footwork at a few intersections, and over to St. Joseph's RC Church, which sits incongruously amidst a clatter of motorbikes and scores of low plastic tables set up by food vendors. Overhead, in the moist light, were literally miles of utility wires; if there had been any stars, the wires would've blocked most of them. The old church with its spires would look natural in Western Europe or North America, but here it had an orphaned, forlorn look to it.
On the surrounding streets in front of St. Joseph's are a number of restaurants of the more formal kind (no plastic tables and stools on the sidewalk with mama-san tending a roaring fire and a pot of bubbling soup, no jovial groups of Vietnamese males clinking beer glasses, no bags of garbage nestled in the gutter at your feet). These upscale places have printed menus, real chairs, and sometimes cloth napkins. In a land where a roll of toilet paper can substitute as a dinner napkin, you can understand why cloth napkins - and real silverware - are worthy of note.
Based purely on the pasta selections and the fact they had a Happy Hour sangria 2-for-1, I went to LaSalsa. The sangria was mediocre but it was red wine and I hadn't had a glass in almost a month, so it went down pretty fast. The gazpacho was excellent, a thick and creamy tomato mishmosh with slivers of red bell pepper. And then the pasta: penne with goat cheese, olives and fresh tomato sauce. That slab of softened goat cheese, when some of it hit my mouth, nearly made me topple from my chair in ecstasy! It wasn't the pasta, al dente though it was. Nor was it the olives or the thick, rough tomato sauce. No, it was the cheese, that tangy white wedge of chevre. That is what I'd been missing!
Pasta? Feh! Just give me the cheese, please.

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