I’m not even gonna bother tweeting this. And I know Amazon sales statistics are really weird. But, anyway, best seller for the past few days at least. Might never happen again. So, there it is.
The last of seven random excerpts from my Eating Việt Nam book, which was published this week.
This passage refers to the place on Phùng Hưng street in Hà Nội where I first tried Bún chả in 1997. It’s also where I took my wife for our first ever lunch together. I went back here in October 2013. The stall had long gone. However, Bún chả is still available in the vicinity. The white ring of paint I mention is, apparently, to stop insects burrowing inside the tree and killing it. Unfortunately, in present day Hà Nội, these old trees are under threat. Many of them are being cut down. It’s beyond sad to see them getting cut down like this. Below are two photos from this street and a photo of Bún chả taken in the south of the country. The old stall I used to go to regularly was located here on Google streetview. Thanks to Ben Stocking, former AP bureau chief in Hà Nội for the link to the story about the trees in Hanoi today.
The sixth of seven short, random excerpts from my book published this week.
After almost a decade of eating on the streets of Việt Nam, Ba Sau’s Bún mắm in Sài Gòn’s District 10 was in many ways the end of the road. I never found a better soup. I wrote a whole chapter about her and her noodle broth. I won’t spoil it by prattling on ad infinitum on this blog. Here are some photos of her and her stall. It’s here on the map In later years, she branched out into Bún riêu and Bánh canh cua.
Another random excerpt from my book which went on sale yesterday. Given the title – Eating Việt Nam – I imagine the very last thing readers will expect to find between the covers is a real life, full-time monster hunter, but they’d be wrong. There is one. And I’m glad he’s there,
I told a couple of folk who received my book long before it was published that “it was a book with food in it, but it’s not really about food”. In this part of the book, it’s about a BBC video diary made by a guy called Steve Feltham. He gave up his job in 1991 to become a monster hunter on Loch Ness. He filmed his first year of hunting. Nearly 25 years later, he’s still on Loch Ness, still hunting. I met him for my book. And I helped him get his original BBC documentary online for all to see. It’s still good.
In 2008, Steve wrote about his life changing choice for The Guardian,
To say that I am a patient man would be an understatement. Seventeen years sat watching and waiting on the shores of Loch Ness for one decent sighting of the monster has to be considered dedication in anybody’s eyes. To me, however, it is more a dream come true: this subject has fascinated me since a family holiday in 1970, when I was seven. It was then that we visited the Loch Ness Investigation Bureau, a team of volunteers who each summer set up a makeshift camp on the lochside near Urquhart Castle, from where they mounted round-the-clock surveillance in the hope of filming Nessie. What really caught my imagination was the platform they had built, on which they had mounted a cine camera and tripod; the lens alone must have been a metre long. Grown men looking for monsters? Fantastic.
Noticing my interest, and knowing that it would be a long drive back home to Dorset, my father bought me the bureau’s information pack, a folder that I still have, filled with copies of sighting reports and reprints of iconic photographs. I was hooked. Over the next decade my interest grew, fuelled by classroom debates and several more family holidays to the Scottish Highlands.
I would return to the loch many times, first as a child and then, when I was an adult, on two-week “expeditions”, armed with a very basic camera and my grandfather’s second world war binoculars, fully expecting to be able to solve the mystery before I had to return to work. Little did I realise that it could take a lifetime.
I might have been content to visit the loch periodically, get my fix of monster hunting, then return to work, had I remained in the creative occupations that I pursued for the first eight years of my working life, first as a potter, then as a bookbinder and finally as a graphic artist. However, by 1987, when I was 24, I had a house and a steady girlfriend, and when it was suggested that I join my father setting up a company installing burglar alarms, I jumped at the chance to make some serious money.
Pretty soon, I realised I was in the wrong job, but the thing that got to me most while working in people’s homes was the number of retired folk who would say, “Oh, I wish I’d gone and lived in America when I was your age”, or climbed Mount Everest, or whatever. What would I regret not having done when I reached 70?
It was obvious: I knew where I was at my happiest, and what I was most interested in. So I quit the relationship, and put the house on the market.
To make absolutely sure that what I was planning was right for me and not just a pipe dream, I loaded up the works van and, in the summer of 1990, went on a three-week hunt to the loch. I had the time of my life. The day the cheque from the sale of my house went into the bank, I told my parents I would be leaving the, by now, lucrative family business. “Oh, and by the way, I’m going to search for the Loch Ness monster instead.”
“Told you,” my mother said to my father.
I needed something to live in. Within days my brother had located the perfect thing, a 20-year-old former mobile library, wood-lined and with a potbelly stove. In this, I would be able to move around the loch between vantage points, and follow up any new sightings.
On June 19 1991, I arrived at the loch and became a full-time monster hunter. I had never been happier.
To fund myself, I hit on the idea of making little Nessie models out of modelling clay, sitting the monsters on rocks gathered from the shore. I was sure that tourists would buy them, but in the first year I found it hard to sell any. The problem was that nobody knew what I was doing, or why.
Fortunately, while planning this quest, I had phoned the BBC for advice about which video format I should use if I wanted my results to be broadcast-quality. I was put through to the team making the Video Diaries series. Spotting the potential for a good story, they kitted me out with enough equipment and batteries to film the whole of my first year in my new life.
As soon as this programme, Desperately Seeking Nessie, was aired in August 1992, I knew that everything would be OK. People started turning up wanting to buy a model from the guy who had given up his comfortable life to follow a dream. I still get visitors who remember it.
I never set a time limit, but I suppose I thought that within the first three years I would surely see and film something. I now know that was a wee bit optimistic. The loch is more than 23 miles long and, realistically, one man can only be looking at about a mile of it at any time. I have tried other methods of hunting over the years; using a boat with some fairly decent echo sounders on board I have had contacts with objects in mid-loch that appear to be much larger than the resident fish. But an echo sounder will never reveal what it has found, but just give a rough idea of how big it is. I have also got a good friend who owns a microlight, but it is not much use when you are looking for a very dark object in very dark water.
So nowadays I watch and wait mostly from the shoreline. I would love to have my own boat, but to generate enough money to buy one, I would first have to film Nessie.
For most of the first decade my van remained mobile, which gave me the chance to move between three or four lochside villages. However, I increasingly found myself drawn to the village of Dores, on the south shore, from where I had the best view of Loch Ness that anyone could wish for.
About 10 years ago the van failed its last MOT, and so I decided it was time to become static. The Dores Inn car park was perfect, backing on to the beach as it does and, thanks to the owners’ kindness, I had permission to spread out a bit, build some decking out of old pallets, and incorporate a large piece of driftwood to display my models on. Utopia.
Now I have my perfect lochside base, as well as my own postcode and council tax bills. There is no running water or electricity, but the pub has an outside tap, and car batteries charged by a solar panel enable me to run my lights, radio and laptop. My shower consists of two buckets of loch water and a saucepan heated on the stove. The loch deposits driftwood for my stove right outside my door, (much needed, as I’ve seen temperatures reach minus 17C) and a great big concrete patio table on my “decking” makes sitting out on a summer’s day my favourite pastime. I breakfast at this table, put my models out for sale, and wait to see what adventures will turn up.
Tourists arrive to ask me questions, friends come to sit and chat, then maybe there is a Mediterranean-style buffet, an evening campfire, a starry night sky, and, best of all, sometimes the northern lights. Then, when everyone has gone and I have the loch to myself again, I stand at the shoreline and feel the energy that pours off the place, before retiring to watch the night sky through the skylight above my bed. That, to me, is a perfect day.
The Highland weather does not always permit such joys, in which case I find that I can keep myself admirably busy inside my van. I make a few models, possibly do a watercolour painting that I can later sell, read, listen to the radio, maybe even watch the occasional osprey feeding right outside my door. As soon as I feel boredom coming on, I change tack, and anyway I have long since realised that in this life the unpredictable is never far away, be it the Chinese State Circus dropping by for a photo shoot or Billy Connolly inviting me to be a guide for half a dozen of his A-list chums for a day.
Film crews and journalists from all over the world turn up on a regular basis, and I answer all their questions, but they are invariably focused on one subject: is there a monster, or isn’t there? Which is perfectly understandable, but it frustrates me that I never have the chance to get an equally important point across: that if you have a dream, no matter how harebrained others think it is, then it is worth trying to make it come true. I’m living proof that it might just work.
Have I ever regretted my decision? Never, not for one second. link
Photograph taken in Hà Nội by me.
Another random excerpt from my book which goes on sale today. It’s the number one seller in the highly contested ‘Hot New Releases – Vietnamese cooking, food & wine section’ on Amazon.
These kind of pavement tea stalls are some of the best places to hang out in Hà Nội. I say stalls, but really it’s more of a case of the stall holder moving a bunch of stuff from their living into a vacant spot on the pavement. You can find them everywhere. Tea, coffee and soft drinks during the daytime. Perhaps a shot of homemade crow whisky from an old Hennessy or Chivas bottle after dark. I used to come here a fair bit. It’s also where I first met Mark from the Sticky Rice blog. Here are some photos from Mr’s Ninh’s. And here it is on streetview.
Above is the third of seven random excerpts from my book which goes on sale tomorrow. And some context below,
This section refers to Mr. Thìn of Phở Thìn at 13 Lò Đúc street in Hà Nội. That’s him smoking in the picture above. He is something of a soup selling legend. I’ve eaten at his place many, many times. I got to know him a little bit too. He even drew the portrait of me that appears on the book jacket, in place of one of those soft focussed author photos. Phở Thìn is the first stop I make whenever I visit Hà Nội. I’m not the world’s biggest Phở fan. And I prefer the Phở in the south. But, paradoxically, if I had to choose my favourite Phở and my favourite place to eat it, Mr. Thìn’s shack would be it. Below are some photos of Phở Thìn and the Phở sold there.
And it’s a sketch of the Phở Thìn kitchen that appears at the beginning of the book.
Here is Phở Thìn on the map. Below is his Phở. Firstly, a scan of a photo taken in 1999.
Same-Same. In 2005.
And, lastly. Same-Same. In 2013.
Bún đậu is one of my favourite street food dishes. After the American War, it was known as “food for the poor”. For that reason, in the late nineties and early naughts, this dirt cheap dish might even have been looked down upon. Not anymore. One famous Vietnamese fashion model has opened up a Bún đậu shed down south. In 2015, you could almost say that Bún đậu is one small part of a nostalgia wave in Việt Nam. A wave that sees the fashionable Việt youth of Hà Nội riding around on old Eastern European motorbikes. Bikes that only farmers, the poor and oddball expats ever rode in the mid to late 90’s. How times change, huh.
Mrs. Nhung cooking up lunch.
Bún đậu lunch for two.
During the research for this book, I visited some tofu makers in the suburbs of the capital. I didn’t include any of the following in the book.
This is one half of the husband and wife team who make tofu on Đường Xuân Đỉnh market to the north of central Hà Nội, Việt Nam. They’ve produced tofu here for 14 years. First, the soy beans are soaked and washed, then ground, filtered and boiled. Yeast is added. The mixture is covered for five minutes.
It is stirred as it begins to set. And then it’s transferred into a series of long wooden troughs lined with muslin cloth.
And spread using a spatula.
The muslin is wrapped around the surface of the raw mixture and a slab of wood is pegged on top so that the tofu sets into a tight rectangluar shape.
After another five minutes. the tofu is fully set. It’s taken out of the wooden contraption, placed onto a table and cut into ready to buy portions. This couple sell 30kg of tofu per day. They also sell bags of fresh soy milk. The by-product from making the tofu is used to feed pigs.
Originally blogged in September, 2014.
Above, is the first of seven, random, micro-excerpts from my Eating Việt Nam book which is published next week. Some thoughts on this dish, this place, this cook and this bit of my book below.
Cô Ba runs a restaurant on Highway 22. It’s about 30 miles north west of downtown Sài Gòn. Like many other restaurants in this province, she serves Bánh tráng phơi sương. If pushed, I would say that this is my favourite Vietnamese dish. It’s just thin slices of boiled pork, some small pickled leeks and a mountain of fresh herbs. Choose what you want. Wrap it all up in a Bánh tráng rice paper. Dip it in fish sauce and eat. Repeat, until full. Up to twelve different fresh herbs, leaves and greens can appear on your table with a serving of Bánh tráng phơi sương. It’s the herbs that give this dish the flavour. As Cô Ba says in my book,
“Vietnamese food is nothing without the herbs.”
And Bánh tráng phơi sương is host to more herbs than any other Vietnamese dish.
That’s Cô Ba. Behind herb mountain.
That there above is Bánh tráng phơi sương. For some reason, I only have photographs of eleven of the herbs. Here they are.
Cóc non – sour, used in canh chua.
Diếp Cá – fish mint. It smells of fish.
Hẹ – Chinese chives filled with an oniony, garlicky, leeky flavour.
Quế vị – sweet and tasty, good for backache apparently, sour taste.
Rau cần – Chinese celery.
Rau chùa – sorrel, sour and tart, biggest, glossiest leaf of the lot.
Rau nhái – has a yellow flower. According to the Internet, Rau nhái translates as Wild cosmos. Which I like. A lot.
Rau om – rice paddy herb, with a lemony citrus tang.
Rau sống – general term for green leaves found along the riverbed. Cô Ba cuts the young leaves from the whole bushes that are delivered to her daily.
Tía tô – perilla. Strong aromatic flavor.
Tràm ổi – Guava leaves.
Plush dining area.
The kitchen at the back of the restaurant.
The washing station at the back of the kitchen.
The TV is on. The altar is flashing. And all is right with the world.
A welcoming entrance.
Very unusual to see a portrait of a restaurant owner on a street sign.
Or on a business card.
Dining table satellite imagery of Bánh tráng phơi sương. This is an absolute must eat for anyone visiting Việt Nam.
My book goes on sale in one week in the United States and Canada. Some people have said some very nice things about it.
It’s got sketches. I drew them.
It’s got around 350 pages, 31 chapters, liner notes and a colophon.
It’s got a foreword from Anthony Bourdain.
It’s got an ISBN number.
If you take the jacket cover off, it’s got a lovely embossed spine and a hard blue cover with Ecco etched into the bottom right hand corner.
Authors tend to be such crushing bores about their books. On and on they go… look at this great review, that great review, this blogger said this, this critic said that, blah, blah, blah… So, as tradition dictates, over the coming days I’ll open the book at random and blog something about what I find there. To begin with, here are the opening lines of Chapter 1.