The halting decrescendo of the urban symphony pulsating through the city’s streets abruptly faded into a deafening silence following the confinement order. The bustling whir that once animated my day-to-day has temporarily given way to an achingly muted solitude. As we all retreated to our respective nests, the quiet stillness reverberated throughout the confines of my home. I tried to drown out the hushed air with music and the sounds from my own routine movements, but eventually the murmur of my own voice eclipsed all else. When my aloneness became increasingly acute, that voice gave life to my most inner thoughts. And it is within this cloud of thoughts where I seek refuge and companionship during this period of physical severance from humanity.
We are currently in the throes of an unprecedented worldwide pandemic that has dramatically upended our everyday routine. As the novel coronavirus makes its way around the world, it’s taking down economies and overwhelming healthcare systems. In a desperate effort to stem the spread of infections, countries have been forced to bring non-essential commerce to an abrupt standstill. People around the world have been ordered into isolation by remaining in their homes and abstaining from social contact. Never have I witnessed anything that has impacted humans on the entire planet as this virus has.
The thought of baked cakes had always conjured to my mind sweet confections savored as dessert. Here in France though, I learned that baking cakes extends beyond the confines of sugary sweets. Among the simplest of these baked goods is cake salé, which translates to savory cake. The French refer to anything baked in a loaf pan as cake, sweet and savory alike. Whereas, pastries that we Americans know as cakes are called gâteau(x) in French.
Time is a luxury that many of us are often short on these days. While juggling work and competing priorities throughout the day, what to cook for dinner frequently becomes a distant afterthought. When the dinner hour rolls around, we’re left standing in the grocery store aisle starving and without a clue as to what to put on the dinner table. At least that’s a moment that I have lived countless times – peevishly hungry, yet paralyzed with indecision. Whipping up a satiating weeknight meal, however, doesn’t have to be a complicated affair.
Bitter melon drew the short end of the stick when it came to looks in the gourd family. Visually, this veggie doesn’t have much appetite appeal. Wart-like bumps cover the oblong veggie’s outer green surface, which doesn’t look like much of a delight for the taste buds. If its jarring physique doesn’t deter the curious eater, bitter melon’s taste most certainly will turn them away. The veggie’s rough exterior is on par with its intensely pungent bitterness, which some may find difficult to swallow.
I put roots down in France nearly a decade ago. Initially, I struggled with how unlike home France felt to me during my first few years here. My surroundings, the language, cultural norms, and my daily routine had all suddenly become foreign to me. The ocean separating me from my friends and family further exacerbated my sense of isolation. I fixated on elements from my former life that France didn’t have, and I was constantly seeking any and everything that was reminiscent of the familiarity of home, especially food. I was living in Austin, TX before moving here, so tacos, Texas BBQ and Whole Foods were constantly on my mind.
After returning from my first trip to Asia this past spring, I let essentially all of my passion projects fall to the wayside. My life has been veering further and further away from the path that I had envisioned for myself during the course of this past year. The bumpy detour jolted my equilibrium and obliterated my sense of joy and optimism for a good part of the year. Rather than avoid the gloom though, I buckled up and embraced the tumult that came my way. I leaned hard into the ugly, uncomfortable darkness, and it was in these quiet moments of solitude that I recognized that my completely depleted glass needed refilling.
A couple of years ago, I had this nutty idea that I could master French cookery within a few short months. Or, at least enough to pass an exam called the CAP de Cuisine. Students who pursue a career in the culinary arts in lieu of the traditional route culminating in a high school diploma followed by college must pass the CAP before embarking on their careers in the kitchen. In preparation for the CAP de Cuisine exam, students enroll in a 2-year program that equips them with food industry skills, such as French culinary techniques, the science of ingredients, kitchen and restaurant management, and food safety.
Did y’all know that Hainan Province formed several million years ago in the South China Sea after breaking off from what is now the northeastern coast of Vietnam? Fast forward to the mid-1800s, many people from the Chinese island province started to migrate to nearby Southeast Asia in search of more prosperous economic opportunities. When they left the island, they also brought with them one of the province’s most notable culinary exports, Hainanese chicken rice. The Hainanese immigrants forged roots throughout Southeast Asia, and their eponymous dish made a mark on essentially all of the cuisines in this region. Each of these countries has a variation of this delectable chicken and rice dish.
From what I’ve observed, many French people outgrow their religious beliefs and leave them behind along with their childhood. Devout believer or not though, most continue to celebrate with gusto religious rites like baptisms and holidays rooted in the Christian faith. Many of these religious traditions have long been intertwined with France’s history and have thus been tightly woven into the fabric of French culture. So, observance of these religious occasions still persists today more as a remnant of tradition rather than actual belief. But let’s get real, these rites and holidays have survived in spite of dwindling religious beliefs because they give the French an excuse to indulge their hedonistic appetites!
As someone who was born and bred in the US, my natural inclination is to reach for something sweet to start the morning. A bowl of cereal with a splash of milk has been part of my breakfast routine since I was a kid, and it hasn’t wavered much even after moving here to France where viennoiseries abound. In Vietnamese culture, however, it’s not uncommon to fuel up in the morning with savory dishes. My stomach never growls for anything salty when I wake up, but D, who grew up in Vietnam, habitually starts the morning with what I would consider dinner. His typical morning meal includes a bowl of rice topped with something savory, such as caramelized pork ribs or ginger chicken. Sometimes, he’ll have a bánh giò, that is if I make them!
y baby Plated Palate turns 3 today! I celebrated the occasion by baking some chouquettes. It’s been quite awhile since I’ve baked anything aside from the occasional batch of cookies, so baking doesn’t feel as intuitive anymore as cooking savory dishes has become to me. When I was still living in the US, my baking obsession was what initially propelled me to start my first and now defunct blog. After living in France for a few years, I launched Plated Palate to give myself a blank canvas to explore my culinary predilections. While I wrote just about any and everything and shamelessly posted unappetizing photos on my old blog, I’ve dedicated this blog to Vietnamese foods and the occasional French delight.
Paris is undoubtedly among the top gastronomic destinations for travelers seeking to indulge their appetite for culinary experiences. Yet, the city still has a ways to go when it comes to Vietnamese cuisine. Most of the Vietnamese restaurants are concentrated in the 13th arrondissement, while a number of take-out eateries are scattered throughout the city. I have dined at most of the restaurants in the 13th, but I’ve found only one where I go back to time and again for their house speciality, bún bò Huế. As for the take-out places, you couldn’t pay me to eat the foods served there. Everytime I look through the windows of these joints, the unpalatable food looks like highly processed frozen junk sitting in gelatinous sauces.
Earlier on my walk today, I came across an Asian grandpa walking with his grandson, who was probably no older than 4 years old. After I had walked past them, I heard the pitter patter of the little boy’s shoes behind me and him calling out “madame, madame!” I turned around to see what was up, and the little boy was running after me with a handful of flowers that he had picked on his walk. He simply handed them to me and ran back to his grandpa before I could even say anthing. That sweet little gesture from a complete stranger completely touched me and made my day.
My time spent cooking in the kitchen has been a continuous journey of learning. I have graduated from being the head herb and lettuce washer in my mom’s kitchen to the one calling the shots at the helm of my own little kitchen in France. When I was cooking only for one, I stuck to a handful of dishes that I had mastered and added variety to my diet by frequently indulging in the decadent Texas cuisine in Austin.
The last leg of this winter has been exceptionally brutal in Paris and the surrounding areas. Several severe storms and torrential showers pounded the city throughout January, which caused the water levels of the Seine and the Marne rivers to overflow. We also saw very little relief from the thick shrouds of gray gloom that blanketed the skies all month. The sun only made a handful of rare appearances that were so fleeting that if you blinked, you likely missed it.
Before I started dabbling in Vietnamese cuisine, cooking the dishes that I ate growing up always seemed so daunting. My grandma, mom and aunties would make these dishes with such ease and never once did they ever refer to written recipes. It wasn’t the techniques or the step-by-step preparation of the dishes that seemed difficult though. The challenge for me was being able to accurately replicate the flavors of the dishes by seasoning them with the correct proportions of spices, salt, fish sauce, etc. Without recipes specifying the quantity of each ingredient, it was always difficult to know if what I was making was on its way to becoming a disaster or if it could still be salvaged.
My mom became a widow when she was only 28, an age when many of us are still trying to figure out how to navigate life. My parents had only just begun to plant the seeds to the life and future that they were hoping to cultivate for our young family. But before those seeds could even begin to take root and sprout, those hopes and dreams were violently crushed to a pulp within an instant. Our lives were derailed without forewarning, and my mom was abruptly propelled into single motherhood when my younger brother and I were only 6 and 4 years old. We suddently became three and New Orleans no longer had anything left for us.
Only in recent years have vegetarianism and its derivative regimens started to gain greater recognition here in France, a country whose culinary identity is inextricably bound to dishes that prominently feature meats and offal of all varieties. When I initially arrived here, most of the French people I met could not fathom the idea of omitting meat or dairy from their diet, and they considered meals served without animal protein as unsatiatingly incomplete. Friends visiting from the US who had dietary restrictions would have difficulty finding restaurants catering to their needs. But over the last few years, I‘ve noticed that meat-free as well as gluten-free dining options have become increasingly more common in Paris. I even met a French vegan in the master’s program that I just recently completed. I was astonished to learn that he had been vegan for the last few years, because I didn’t think that that eating lifestyle would ever be a thing in a country where cheese reigns supreme.
Alsace is nestled between the Vosges mountain range and the Rhine river along France’s eastern border with Germany. I first traveled to this region a couple of years ago to visit the villages along the Alsatian Wine Route, which is the oldest one of its kind in France. The idyllic villages, sprawling landscape dotted with vineyards, warm-hearted friendliness and the tantalizingly unique cuisine will easily charm any neophyte to the region. Alsace’s firmly established cultural identity and traditions are relics of its long history tied to both France and Germany. During no other time of the year are these traditions more prominently on display than during the Christmas holiday season.