Tag: asia

Sort of progress


Hum, I think I’ve sort of made progress in Vietnamese–I can sort of pronounce stuff (after 15 minutes of putting myself back in the proper mood). Now, if I could actually separate words properly instead of pronouncing them randomly (you know, like saying “the yel-low cat da-shes a-cross the lawn” in one long horrible run-on sentence makes sure that virtually no one can understand you? I can do that *so* well).
Also, I need to stop confusing “d” and “đ” (one is a “y” or “z” depending on whether you’re Southern or Northern, the other is a “d”), and “t” and “th” (hard. Sort of the difference between a hard French “t” and a soft “th” like “think”, but it doesn’t always work).

Arg. Need to practise more.

In other news, “to eat” in Vietnamese is naturally “eat rice” (ăn cơm), and “to cook” is “to make rice” (làm cơm). Yeah, figures.

Tomorrow, I will edit the crap out of one short story. And possibly do a green mango salad.

Help with deciphering mah jong tiles?


So, here’s the bonus question: our mah-jong game (a gift from my grandma, bought in Vietnam) came with 16 extra tiles. We have 152 normal tiles (4 copies of the three sets+dragons+winds, and 4 seasons and 4 flowers). From googling things up on the next, we think that the extra tiles we can’t identify are Vietnamese jokers (this site and this site both describe the Vietnamese mah jong variant as having 16 jokers, which can replace a variety of tiles, from the “Emperor” who can replace pretty much anything, to the “Dragon Lady” who can replace any dragon, and so on). However, to start with, those two websites don’t agree on which tile is which! Also, neither of them has the full set of our tiles…

On the off-chance that someone would know either Vietnamese mahjong, or how to read Chinese characters–do those tiles below mean anything to you? (bear in mind it’s a Vietnamese mah jong game, so the Chinese characters are approximative, to say the least…)

And bonus question: anyone have the Vietnamese rules of the game? Sloperama mentions that there are only 19 ways of “going out”, which should correspond to the special hands in Classical Chinese mah jong, but the Classical Chinese rules I can find on the net pretty much fail at having 19 special hands…

ETA: following the find of a Vietnamese set of rules (in Vietnamese *sob*) I am pretty reasonably sure that the two topmost ranks are as follows, from left to right:
Blue: tile which replaces any tile, tile which replaces circles, tile which replaces bamboos, tile which replaces cracks
Red: tile which replaces any ordinary tile (bamboo, circles, cracks), “Great Flower’ aka tile which replaces any flower, tile which replaces any Dragon, tile which replaces any Wind
I have no idea of their names in English.

Extra tiles

Linky linky


-Malinda Lo on “What does ‘authentic’ mean, anyway?”. Some really interesting thoughts, especially the impossibility of saying “so-and-so is more authentic than…” (ie, authenticity isn’t an objective criteria and everyone has different experiences). Even though it’s a tricky business, I definitely think that Malinda is right when she says you can have, say, a character in Ancient Vietnam who insults her mother–but you have to be aware that, within the wider culture, she’s going not only to be viewed as unusual, but as an unfilial daughter, and there will be heavy consequences for her.

-Somehow ended up on deepad’s DW, where I found an old-ish post about emigrants vs. sourcelanders (to over-simplify, the diaspora versus those who remained in the “home” country). Interesting discussion especially as regards authenticity (though I’m not sure I agree with everything. Some of the arguments about who “owns/gets to write about” the cultural heritage of a particular country, for instance, make me more than a little uneasy, though a. I’m hardly neutral on the issue, obviously, and b. I can see where the frustration comes from–an all-too-familiar case of minorities/majorities in Western countries getting more attention than their “sourcelander” counterparts). ETA: sorry, this is the blog post in question. As a bonus and because, on second thought, the post, its comments and some of the attendant assumptions make me deeply uneasy, here’s a set of links to Asian people blogging about their various hyphenate experiences and how it’s affected them. Especially love this one by ciderpress.

-Two Dudes in an Attic reviews Servant of the Underworld (particularly like the description of Acatl as an emo wanker who would be moping and writing bad love poetry, were he alive today).

-Amy Sanderson reviews Servant of the Underworld.

Latest cooking experiments


Not recipes per se, but my latest escapades…

Tomato sauce: was cooking ravioli, and quickly throwing together a tomato sauce from 210g of tomato paste. Which, of course, tastes horrible. I followed H’s advice and put in a tablespoon of sugar, but it still didn’t work. Mmm, time to get creative… I had a jar of dried tomato paste in the fridge, so I threw a heaped teaspoon of that in the mix; taste the thing, still wasn’t satisfied. It lacked… umami, for want of a better word? I swear I reached for the bottle of nước mắm, but the thought of having a fishy-tasting tomato sauce stopped me at the last minute. Fortunately, I had fermented soy paste in the fridge–you can see where this is going, right? Threw in a little more sugar in addition to the teaspoon of soy paste, and pronounced myself satisfied. I then very carefully asked the H what he thought of the tomato sauce before admitting what I’d put into it… (he liked it, but his enthusiasm wavered a bit when I explained the composition process).

Bò bún: it helps if you think of bò bún (and other bún dishes) as a giant salad–yes, there’s meat in it, and warm rice vermicelli, but it’s not really a hot dish (and please please don’t microwave it, as I’ve seen a number of takeaway places do. It tastes horrible, and the soy’s gone all limp). So, accordingly, I made my bò bún with honey-dipped beef & shallot for the meat, and salad, soy and the remnants of a cucumber for the veggies. Mmmm… (also, it’s not real bò bún in my book unless the rice vermicelli are swimming in a ton of nước mắm–think of it as vinaigrette, except that it’s not a dribble you put on the salad, but several tablespoons…)

Thursday linkage: diversity in fiction, plus misc.


Couple of links:
-Joyce Chng at the World SF blog on the Russ Pledge seen from outside the Western Anglophone world.
-Jonathan Dotse on why the future isn’t Western
-And two from Cheryl Morgan: one crunching data on SF anthologies, and the other on “Diversity is Hard”.

In other news, Irene Kuo is a genius. I’m down to 6 recipes picked out of her Key to Chinese Cooking (tea eggs, cha siu, white-cut chicken, two broccoli recipes, and the sweet-sour sauce), and they all worked out great. Also, the explanations are really clear on why you should do stuff, and it makes for way easier cooking.

While googling stuff on how to use cornstarch, I found this book: On Food and Cooking by Harold McGee. Science and cooking? I’m sold… (but broke)

Recipe of the day: creative carrot cake (didn’t have raisins, so chopped up prunes after removing the stones; didn’t have orange zest, so added Orange Blossom instead; didn’t have walnuts, so put in pecans. And not entirely sure I had the right quantity of carrots. This could be fun)

Right. Back to the %%% story.

Progress (sort of)


Been working on the novella again. Still not sure about the form–I feel it should be more complex than a short story, but I have this sinking feeling I put way too much in this, and that it’s really a novel in disguise. I’m also fighting my own genre pre-conceptions with this: I wanted to do a generational tale on a space station, focused on the troubles of a family in the wake of a civil war (basically, Dream of Red Mansions rather than Three Kingdoms), and my brain keeps insisting that I’m doing unimportant fluff, and that there should be explosions and battle scenes, and Important Scientific Problems to solve. Grr. Not where I wanted to go. Which isn’t to say, of course, that things aren’t earth-shattering in this, but they’re meant to be far less of a Boys’ Own Tale of Adventure, and more focused on consequences of dramatic acts on families and children (yes, I’m partly doing this in reaction to the whole Women in SF thing. You can tell).

4000 / 35000

Anyway, hope this shakes out all right. But darn, it does feel good to be writing again.

In other news, let’s see if replacing bean paste with hoisin sauce in the xa xíu marinade was a good idea. (my local Asian grocery had no bean paste, as it’s a Chinese ingredient and not a Vietnamese one).

Some thoughts on cuisine and culture


So, I’m still perusing Irene Kuo’s Key to Chinese Cooking, and along the way I happened on a chapter that talked about Asian noodles, and how you could basically substitute spaghetti for Chinese egg noodles. Which struck me as odd because they don’t taste anything alike, but… see, the book was written in the Seventies, and back then, finding genuine egg noodles in the middle of the US must have been really hard (to some extent, it’s still freaking hard to find proper egg noodles in my part of the Parisian suburbs). And this put me in mind of a conversation I was having with a friend of mine, about how nước mắm used to be so hard to find in France, so the very first recipes that the Vietnamese immigrants came up had to make do with soy sauce… (which again tastes nothing like nước mắm)

It all comes back to a subject I find fascinating: the authenticity of cuisine–something I see crop up a lot on the internet, especially with regards to cookbooks. What makes an authentic recipe? What is and is not an acceptable variant? [1] How should a cuisine as a whole be judged? Because truth is, like cultures, cuisines merge and adapt, and evolve. Sometimes, they adapt because they don’t have basic ingredients: there’s a very cute Vietnamese cookbook in French, Le Chant du Riz Pilé (Song of Crushed/Ground Rice), which makes do without half the Vietnamese staples, because it’s an old book and those staples weren’t available in France at the time.

Sometimes, they merge with other cultures: the most well-known Vietnamese dishes, phở and bánh mì, didn’t actually exist before the turn of the 20th Century: they’re creations made in the melting pot between Vietnamese and French culture. Likewise, there’s a pretty common Vietnamese dish, thịt bò khô (beef stew), which has more than a few common points with an equally famous French dish, boeuf bourguignon (the Vietnamese version has more spices and herbs, but it’s strikingly similar). French cuisine now, as compared to the one at the turn of the century, has grown to include Mediterranean dishes such as taboulé and couscous, and Italian pasta have basically become part of every cook’s repertoire.

In the specific case of immigrants, new dishes become created, whether for the diaspora or for a foreign audience: General Tsao’s Chicken is a pretty good example of a typical Chinese-American dish that you won’t find in Chinese restaurants in France (and, if Wikipedia is correct, which isn’t always the case, a dish that the Chinese in China didn’t much appreciate).
Dishes fall out of favour, or become only cooked within the home of immigrants, because the majority doesn’t appreciate them: there is a fascinating phenomenon whereby most foreign restaurants in a given country will serve the same staples, because they’re the ones that the the majority of people appreciate (it can be because the majority of people is not immigrants, and is freaked out by stuff like pig’s ears; but it can also be because ingredients just aren’t the same. In Vietnamese cooking, chicken used to be a luxury, served mostly for feasts; but when the Vietnamese arrived in France and in the US, they found chicken was available really cheap, and so chicken began to feature on the menu a lot more than in Vietnam). Most Chinese restaurants in France serve the same things; the few Chinese restaurants I tried in the US also served the same things–but not at all the same as the French Chinese restaurants. It’s a fascinating process of accretion, whereby some parts of the cuisine just vanish, and some others acquire a disproportionate weight, depending on where and when the immigration happens. [2]

And, sometimes, things just change because time passes, and mentalities change. French cuisine used to rely a lot on butter for cooking ingredients, and on stuff like homemade stocks. Today, we’re more health-conscious (I don’t use butter, though I do know people who still do), and we’re more pressed for time–so the time-consuming parts of cooking such as making stock tend to get skipped (again, I do know people who make stock. It’s just not the norm anymore). What my French great-grandparents considered a good meal probably would have made me sick; and what I eat today would probably seem strange to them (even sticking to broadly French/European dishes. Let’s leave the nước mắm out of this for the moment…)

Not to mention, of course, that each of us have their own background and their own cuisine, often passed on from parent to child. The H considers his mother’s recipes to be the reference for a lot of things, and will scoff at other recipes (not because they’re inauthentic, but because he thinks they just don’t taste as good). I make my own stuff, mostly pastry, and the odd Vietnamese-French fusion dish (especially when my pantry is bare and all I have lying around are shallots, garlic and nước mắm. You wouldn’t believe what you can improvise with those around). Every French person has a different idea of what good French cooking is, and they’ll likely pass on some of it on to their friends and family–and get stuff passed on to them, as well, from their friends and family.

Yes, I know. I’m having a philosophical moment because of a cookbook. But still… it’s really fascinating stuff. Cuisine as a metaphor for culture. There you go, the thought of the day 🙂

[1] Mileage varies a lot, but here’s a hint as far as I’m concerned: don’t try to sell me chả giò (fried rolls) made with egg roll wrappers (chả giò should be made with rice paper). Egg roll wrappers are for Chinese or other Asian cuisines; the only Vietnamese dish I know which makes use of is a variant of wontons.
[2] There’s also the “restaurant effect”: restaurants tend to serve festive food that you can’t make at home; therefore, most people’s perception of foreign cuisines is really skewed, because the signature dishes tend to be extravagant dishes that are only served for feasts. One good example in France is chả giò, fried rolls, which everyone associates with Vietnamese cuisine in spite of the fact that it’s hardly part of an every day Vietnamese meal.

Tea eggs, and the sekrit project


So, I made tea eggs, a classical Chinese snack, mainly ‘cos I had two eggs, and a lot of time on my hands:

Tea Eggs

(Wikipedia picture, because my egg shells went into the trash, and the H just threw the trash out, before I thought of taking any pictures for posterity)

Basically, hard-boil eggs, crack them, and then steep them in a simmering mixture of soy sauce, spices, and tea leaves. The mixture seeps through the cracks, and into the eggs, giving them this marbled appearance. I used the fast version; normally you’re supposed to crack the shells, let the eggs simmer over low heat for a bit, and then let them brine in the sauce for a couple of days. The H came home as I was cracking the shells, revealing the beautiful network of tea marbling on the surface of the eggs. His first reaction was “what the heck is that?”

I am now trying to convince him to eat the other egg 🙂

(the sekrit baking project went fine–the criteria being that my husband, after tasting a bit, looked at the plate full of pastry, and said, “Surely you’re not bringing all of those to work?” If he wants leftovers to eat himself, we can take it the thing doesn’t taste horrendous…)

“Authentic” Chinese Food by Malinda Lo


If you’re interested in Asian cooking at all, there is a fascinating link over at Malinda Lo’s website. (the article’s focused on China, but a lot of it applies to other Asian cookbooks, and probably other cultures as well)

It’s a bit of a mouthful (it’s an academic article, and it’s quite long), but it takes a look at the notion of authenticity over time, and how it’s mainly built to exclude certain people from the norm (whether the norm is the lost motherland, or later on, the “typical” Chinese American experience). It’s also a very highly detailed analysis of the social and cultural norms behind cookbooks, and it’s fascinating to see the amount of tropes and messages that lurk at the heart of the books. I’ll certainly never view a cookbook in the same way ever again….

Judge Dee movie, or love at first sight


Via Lavie Tidhar and the World SF blog:
Tsui Hark has directed a movie about Judge Dee/Detective Dee, called Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame. And here’s the trailer:

Isn’t it awesome? Sadly, it looks the movie never got a French release, but thank God for amazon.co.uk… Preordered my DVD today.
(I should perhaps explain that my love for all things of Ancient China started with Van Gulik’s Judge Dee stories–hence the squee)

ETA: actually, it’s getting a French release–in 10 days. *squee*