Finding work in France has never been difficult. The challenge has always been finding a position that was well aligned with my interests and skill set. Needless to say, the job market in France does not mirror that of the US. The labor market here lacks the diversity seen in the US and is woefully resistant to change. France’s inadequate investment in scientific research has consequently stunted the evolution and growth of many fields, including my own. So, I’ve always settled for positions within the realm of my field of work, but the work was never quite what I wanted to be doing.

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As soon as summer comes to an end, there is no shortage of events and art exhibits to keep us entertained during the fall. Most of the interesting events take place in Paris though, so I was pleasantly surprised to see the town I live in host a Food Truck Festival a few weeks ago. The event was the first and largest of its kind in France, and perhaps even in all of Europe (so says this article). Nearly 50 food trucks from all over Europe, including a craft beer truck that made the trek all the way from Italy. The food trucks served everything from traditional French fare, American classics, Brazilian desserts, North African specialties, Balinese dishes, and even Vietnamese favorites.

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I recently read in the latest edition of the newly revived French Master Chef magazine that Vietnamese cuisine includes at least 500 dishes. 500 dishes – that’s astronomical! After reading that, I feel like a neophyte of my own cuisine, even though I grew up in a Vietnamese household subsisting mostly on foods from my parents’ native country. I haven’t even come close to eating through the cuisine, and I’m constantly discovering dishes through D’s mom’s kitchen, exploring restaurants and the internet, which gives me the chance to uncover the cuisines from around the world without having to set foot on an airplane.

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Given the speed at which we pass from one thing to the next, it’s no wonder that few things hold timeless value anymore. The digital age has transformed how we chronicle our lives and interact with one another. Our compulsion to document just about everything, including our most mundane routine activities and banal thoughts, has become second nature. Reaching for our mobile devices to digitally capture everything, however, diminishes the significance of any given moment, because we’ve become so fixated on the images and videos themselves, rather than savoring the instant.

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This post is a short one because I didn’t have much free time to write this week. I finally buckled down and spent most of this week working on my master’s thesis. My ideas are finally starting to crystallize and I made quite a bit of headway. I didn’t, however, want to abandon this series after only one week into it. Though this one is brief, I have another post in the works about a classic Vietnamese dish. So stay tuned next week!

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I should be working on my master’s thesis, but I decided instead to create a weekly blog series. Too much of the same routine can lead to stagnation, so I wanted to throw something different into the mix (as well as concoct new ways to procrastinate). I haven’t quite figured out exactly what this series will entail, but I would like it to serve as a space for sharing interesting stories that I come across, most likely those with a food bent. Continue reading

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During the summer months, Paris dials down the city’s tempo to a languid pace. The city becomes a near ghost town, especially in August, when city dwellers leave en masse for their summer vacations. Many businesses also close up shop for the month, while work projects come to a halt, only to resume à la rentrée (back to school/work in September). While the Parisians flee the city in search of respite elsewhere, I prefer to stay behind, enjoying the quiet and revelling in the vacancy of the streets. The subdued rhythm of the day-to-day gives me a chance to catch up on things that have fallen to the wayside and to just simply take a breather.

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When Albert Camus wrote that “real generosity towards the future lies in giving all to the present,” I doubt that he imagined a world that is perpetually plugged-in like ours. Being fully present in any given moment has become a near impossible feat with the constant inundation of information and content enticing us to mindlessly swipe and stare at our screens. We’ve become a society that is increasingly tethered to our mobile devices, so much so that our attention span has diminished to less than that of a goldfish. Consequently, this dependence is starting to interfere with our cognitive abilities and hinder learning. Our daily digital consumption keeps us continuously stimulated, leaving us virtually no quiet moments to be alone with our own thoughts. We often bemoan not having enough time to do anything, yet we willingly allow our smartphones or tablets to monopolize a good chunk of our time and attention.

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Change is inevitable, but may not always be as timely as we would like. When inertia starts to become too comfortable, you yourself must sometimes catalyze the disruption of static routine. This is where I was last year when I realized that I had reached an impasse in my career. Continue reading

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Before day even broke, I hopped on a bus for 2€ one Sunday morning last October and headed northwest to Rouen, the capital city of Normandy. The minute the driver revved the engine, I was out cold, snoozing the entire 2 hour ride only to wake from my slumber once we reached our destination. The bus was continuing to Le Havre, but like us, most of the other passengers got off at Rouen for the weekend long Fête du Ventre, which literally translates to the Stomach Festival. I knew nothing about Rouen nor the annual festival. We had learned about the food festival through D’s Norman co-worker, who commutes daily from Rouen to Paris. He goes to the festival every year and stocks up on traditional Norman products. Curious and never ones to turn down an opportunity to eat, we looked forward to seeing what the festival had in store and exploring the city.

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Growing up in California, we didn’t have to think twice about where our food came from. We lived in the heart of the San Joaquin Valley where the land is among the most fertile in the world. The state grows a staggering amount of fruits and vegetables, representing a considerable proportion of the produce consumed and exported by the US. California’s abundant sunshine coupled with its fertile land make growing almost anything possible. My grandparents and my aunties grew a variety of edibles, such as pomelo, persimmon, plums, pomegranate, asian pears, tomatoes, strawberries, chili peppers, lemongrass, and Vietnamese herbs. Being able to grow ingredients integral to our cuisine in our own backyard made preparing Vietnamese dishes infinitely easier, because we had very few Asian grocery stores within close proximity at the time.

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Garnishes are indispensable ingredients that complement the symphony of flavors found in Vietnamese dishes. Fresh herbs, such as red perilla or basil, infuse our noodle soups, spring rolls and salads with a bouquet of flavors that scintillate our taste buds. More savory toppings like fried pork fat impart a crunchy succulence to dishes such as bánh bèo (steamed rice cakes) and cơm tấm bì (broken rice with shredded pork skin). Among the assortment of garnishes that dress our plates, I use fried shallots the most frequently in my kitchen. I always have a jar on hand to top dishes such as, gỏi gà (chicken cabbage salad), bánh cuốn (steamed rice flour rolls), rice porridges or soups. Given how quickly we go through the shallots, I usually make large batches. Though Mark Bittman recommends cutting the shallots with a mandoline, I prefer to use a sharp knife to slice them. They’re a pain to chop, but well worth the effort. You’ll not only have a heap of crispy shallots to munch on or to top your dishes, but also a jar of flavored oil for cooking.

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Generations before me fled in droves from a war ravaged Việt Nam over 30 years ago following the fall of Saigon. The country was shrouded in panic and confusion during the final hours of the war as the Americans pulled out. In the midst of the mayhem, people in South Việt Nam scrambled to leave the country, which was the debut of a decade-long mass exodus. My mom and her family were among the fortunate ones who left by plane days before the borders closed after the south surrendered to the north. Many others left by boat and embarked on harrowing journeys at sea, where hundreds of thousands perished. Those who were lucky enough to survive the perilous journey settled in countries in all corners of the world.

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Mass hordes of people and the incessant noise pollution that come with living in a densely populated metropolitan area can eventually fray one’s nerves. By the end of the week, my energy reserves are completely depleted by my daily commute and the city’s constant commotion. Once the weekend rolls around, I desperately need to let my brain and body rest. While my Saturdays are often spent running errands and exploring Paris or neighboring regions, Sundays are really the only day of the week on which I have the luxury of recharging my batteries without having to tend to any pressing obligations.

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New Orleans was my hometown during my early childhood. We only lived there until I was six years old, so my recollections of life in the Big Easy have faded into fragmented blurs. One of the few things that I do remember about Louisiana is eating king cake during the mardi gras festivities, which is as ubiquitous as strings of beads during that time of year. I actually wasn’t particularly fond of eating the cake, which was often topped too generously with icing and colored sugars. I was only interested in finding the tiny plastic baby buried within the cake, because whoever found the prized baby would be crowned king for a day. When I was In kindergarten, our teacher brought several king cakes to class to celebrate the Epiphany. Although I attended a private catholic school, the religious significance of the holiday was completely lost to me. I was too overcome with the excitement of being one of the kids who had found the baby and getting to wear the crown, which came complete with a scepter and cape!

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When I was a kid, time seemed to have no end and waiting for anything felt like an eternity. Now, every passing year seems to come to an end more quickly than the blink of an eye. Already, this month five years ago, France became my new home country. A new chapter in my life was beginning, yet I was unprepared in every sense of the word for what was ahead of me. I had mistakenly assumed that migrating from one Western country to another would be a smooth transition. I was, however, in for a rude awakening.

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The lazy dog days of summer came to an abrupt end as the French returned en masse from their annual month long respite in August. The concrete jungle is once again bustling and teeming with sharply dressed Parisians, while sightings of t-shirt and sneaker clad tourists have become few and far between. Everyone’s routine has eased back into its pre-vacation rhythm, and already, the daily grind has started to wear down many of the city folks. The sunny disposition that they came back with has long faded along with their over-bronzed tans.

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Paris has finally shedded the thick layer of gloom that has shrouded the city’s skies in dreariness since the winter months. The sun is starting to peek out again, replenishing our much depleted vitamin D reserves. Days are becoming increasingly longer as we head into summer, with the sun setting as late as 10 in the evening these days. Warmer weather also signals the debut of the summer fruits season! Strawberries and cherries started to make an appearance at the fruit stands lining the outdoor markets as early as April, but I knew better than to be tempted by their fragrant scent and bright colors. April is a bit too early for strawberries and cherries to develop their sweetness and flavor, particularly in France, where the weather is a bit milder. Only a couple of weekends ago did strawberries start becoming sweet enough to eat, and the timing couldn’t have been better.

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Open the fridge in any Vietnamese household and you are sure to find a jar of nước mắm sauce. I’m not talking about the pure bottled stuff, but rather the mix that accompanies many dishes on our dining table. It is often served as a dipping sauce for chả giò (eggrolls) or as a sauce drizzled over dishes, such as cơm tấm bì (broken rice with shredded pork) or bánh xèo (savory crêpes). Though the base nước mắm sauce is composed of only a few simple ingredients (lime juice + sugar + water + nước mắm), achieving a harmonious balance among these contradictory ingredients is not an easy feat for the untrained palate. Getting it just right requires a bit of finesse that comes with practice.

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