Category Archives: Viet Nam

Peruvian food in Viet Nam???

An article appeared recently in Viet Nam News about a Peruvian cooking class which took place recently in Ha Noi. The class was organized by the Peruvian embassy and was for invited guests only, mostly diplomatic staff around the city, some local chefs and various media.

A Peruvian chef cooked up a number of traditional dishes for the guests, most of whom had never sampled the cuisine previously. According to the writer of the article, there were many ‘oohs’ and ‘ahs’ as the Vietnamese chefs were surprised and delighted to learn many unique ways to prepare potatoes and corn.

Reading this article, I was filled with nostalgia for the time I spent in Peru. I have been there three times; in 2012 I was fortunate to be able to live in Lima for 6 months. Even if the country did not boast an exceptional cuisine, it would still be well worth visiting, given its astounding natural beauty and numerous archaeological treasures.

Ceviche_mixto_con_zarandajasIf Viet Nam is lucky enough to attract a Peruvian chef to come here and open a restaurant in Ho Chi Minh City or Ha Noi, it will be time to celebrate. I think we are probably still years away from that happening, but who knows? The country is developing quickly and opportunities abound.

In the U.S.A., foodie types in cities such as San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, and Washington DC have known about Peruvian cuisine for years. However, outside of those metropolises, it is still virtually unknown. Portland boasts one excellent restaurant, but when I was living in Seattle in 2011, it still did not have a Peruvian restaurant. I often sent emails to my friends in Peru, begging them to come to the Northwest and open a restaurant.

peru_mapThe staples of Peruvian cuisine are potatoes, corn, and chili peppers. The potato is native the Andean region of South America and there are somewhere between 3,000 and 5,000 varieties, depending on who is counting. When I was a young man, I remember reading Jack Weatherford’s classic book Indian Givers, in which he explained, in great detail, how native American foods, once introduced into Europe, changed the course of world history. The potato in particular was to have an astounding impact on population growth in Northern Europe.

The humble spud: so unpretentious, boring, and often ugly. Yet, it is so versatile, easy to grow, delicious and filled with carbohydrates and calories that it can sustain a population almost by itself. Recently, I introduced my Vietnamese girlfriend to the joy of fried rosemary potatoes, and she became instantly hooked.

quinoaThere are many other native staples besides corn and potatoes, which are stars in their own right. Quinoa, for example, is slowly and steadily gaining popularity all over the world; its rich, nutty flavor, high protein profile, and easy preparation make it an ideal carb sidedish. It is now available in Viet Nam though it is prohibitively expensive.  Kiwicha, which is known as Amaranth in most English speaking countries, is another delicious and nutritious grain, with an almost muciloginous texture. Kaniwa, which looks similar to Quinoa, is yet another. Maca,  a tuber native to the Andes, is now a wildly popular add-on at smoothie bars in stores like Whole Foods Market. The tuber is ground into a fine texture, which can easily be added to shakes and smoothies or even sprinkled onto muesli and yogurt. Maca has a powerful physical and mental energizing effect. I once did a report on it for a nursing school class.

Peruvians eat meat dishes which are rarely seen outside South America, such as roasted Cuy (guinea pig), Alpaca, and marinated and roasted beef heart, called anticuchos.

variedades_nativas_500These staple ingredients are just the base of the cuisine. From the numerous immigrant groups who came to Peru over the centuries, including the Spanish, Italians, Africans, Chinese and Japanese, a truly unique and wonderful fusion cuisine has developed.  The chef Gaston Arcurio, who is a national icon,  has done more than anyone to popularize it around the world.  While living in Lima, I made sure to eat at least once in his flagship restaurant, Astrid y Gaston, and it was an experience I will never forget.

Gastón-AcurioA signature dish of Peruvian cuisine, and one served in every restaurant along the coast is ceviche, sometimes spelled cebiche. It a small, simple, and elegant dish made from fish which is marinated or ‘cooked’ in lime juice, with sliced onion, corn and often a side of sweet potato. You will often see a mixed seafood ceviche as well. Another well known dish is causa, which is made from boiled, mashed  potatoes which are then artfully layered with other foods and presented in a colorful manner. Papa a la Huancaina is a dish of boiled potatoes which is layered with melted cheese and served on a bed of lettuce. It is extremely popular in Lima and featured on most menus.

 

LucumaLucuma, native to Peru, is a fruit that is easy to become addicted to once you have tried it. Many restaurants in Lima serve it as an ice cream or smoothie flavor. Chicha Morada, a refreshing drink made of boiled purple corn (to lend color), cloves, cinnamon, sugar, and ice, was a daily staple for me. The Pisco Sour is the national cocktail of Peru. It is made from the Pisco brandy, key lime juice, syrup, ice, egg white and Angostura bitters. Though it will never achieve the fame of the mojito, it too is becoming well known around the world.

 

Chicha_moradaAs Peruvian cuisine  becomes known in new markets such as Southeast Asia, the never-ending story of food and cuisine cross pollination continues. Hopefully soon, average Vietnamese will have the opportunity to sample ceviche and causa, and Peruvians in Lima and Cusco will perhaps try their first bowl of Pho.

 

 

 

Smoking: a modern tragedy

One of the most difficult aspects of living in Asia for an non-smoking American  is experiencing the huge gulf between smoking attitudes in the U.S.A. and here. Whereas smoking rates have been in decline in America  and in some other parts of the developed world, they are increasing in most  of the developing world and remain stubbornly high in Eastern Europe.

The giant tobacco companies have seen their bottom line take a hit over the last couple of decades in the U.S.A. as a result of litigation, increasingly strict laws,  and an educational  campaign run by health advocacy organizations. However, R.J. Reynolds , Philip Morris, British American, and Imperial Tobacco have not been sitting on their hands. Their boardrooms all have large maps of the world on the wall. They are trans-national corporations and for every smoker they lose in the U.S.A., they gain two or three in Nigeria, Egypt, Viet Nam, China ,  Singapore, and Brazil. China now has 320 million smokers.

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Here in Viet Nam, I’m situated at their furthest pole from America in terms of tobacco education and public/government attitudes toward smoking. The Vietnamese have the unfortunate distinction of having one of the highest smoking rates in the world, especially among men. The official government statistics claim that over 50% of the male population smokes, though I estimate  the figure is closer to 75% based on my observations around Ho Chi Minh City.

According to statistics from the World Health Organization, Viet Nam has 18 million smokers with tobacco killing  40,000 every year. Over 8 million people are exposed to second-hand smoke in the workplace and 47 million are exposed at home. The future does not look bright and one major reason is that the government has a disincentive to decrease smoking rates as it has a monopoly on cigarette production. Additionally, cigarette production employs 15,000 and taxes  on cigarettes bring in $350 million to the state budget yearly. Given this situation, I think what we will see is more laws will be passed to placate those sounding alarm bells, while simultaneously doing nothing to actually enforce them.

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The laws that do exist, such as the 2009 decree which banned smoking in public places, are universally ignored. People light up everywhere and anywhere. The only non-smoking establishments which I have come across are a few European-run, fine- dining restaurants in the middle of District 1. (Which, by the way, are always packed.)

Cigarettes are sold in stores and on the street. According to law, vendors are not supposed to sell to minors under 18, but again this is widely ignored. Vendors sell to anyone who asks for them. It’s a ritual here for groups of men to sit on the street and drink iced coffee and smoke. Young men, especially in the working class, are expected to smoke. You may be considered a sissy if you don’t.

Drive around Ho Chi Minh City on a motorbike, and you will see young men riding with their phone in one hand and a cigarette in the other. Most of the 15 or 20 billion cigarettes consumed yearly here are tossed into the streets.

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In the evenings, one can often see groups of Asian men sitting in restaurants, enveloped in a cloud of smoke. This scene occurs not before or after the meal, but during it. The men will hold their fork or chopsticks with the right hand and the cigarette in their left. Take a bite, inhale, take a bite, inhale. The first time I saw cigarettes listed on a menu, I was astonished.  Not only do the restaurants here allow smoking, they encourage it. Might as well make a little money if everyone is already doing it.

doctor smoking

I have had to quit going to a few excellent restaurants, simply because I cannot tolerate the smoke. There’s a restaurant on Le Lai Street near my house which serves excellent food and has a wide selection of hard -to- find European ales. Unfortunately, it is quite popular with Asian men who come sample the ales and they all smoke. Once,  I noticed a young boy of 10 years old, probably the son of one of the servers, who was sitting inside, and I remarked to the women, “Do you know how much smoke this young boy is getting exposed to every night he hangs out here?”

The woman replied to me, “I know you are right, but what can we do? These are our customers. I cannot tell them to stop.” I explained that she could indeed make her restaurant non-smoking and that her customers would still come back for the good food and drink. She was unconvinced. This is the common mind-set here. The fear is that if you enforce a non-smoking rule, the smokers will become irate and abandon your restaurant.  I use the example of the USA as a counter argument to this, but it is an uphill battle to convince business owners.

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Finally, it should be noted that Vietnamese are hardly the only ones who have problems with tobacco addiction. I live near one of the prime tourist areas of downtown Ho Chi Minh City, known as the ‘backpacker district.’ Judging from what I see amongst the European crowds sitting on the sidewalks, in the cafes and in the restaurants, their smoking rates nearly match the Asians. I see mothers and daughters placidly sharing a pack of smokes. The majority of young European females I see around the district smoke. It’s a given. The French, of course, smoke like chimneys. Just last week, I sat in one of my favorite diners in the district to have  some lunch. At a small two-top in front of me sat a middle aged  French woman with an older  French woman, possibly her mother or an auntie. When the older woman finished her meal, she casually took one of her expensive European cigarettes out, lit it, and began blowing smoke into the younger woman’s face, while she was still eating. They were sitting not more than a foot apart.

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What can be done? Considering the wealth, power, and advertising budget of the tobacco companies, combined with the addictive power of cigarettes, the struggle for a healthier world promises to be a long and arduous one. The native Americans used tobacco ritually, and safely, for thousands of years before the arrival of the Europeans. The  new arrivals discovered  the plant and started smoking  it but, divorced from its ritualistic and cultural context,  its addictive properties soon took a toll. The tobacco companies, not surprisingly, added their own cocktail of chemicals to the natural plant  to increase its addictiveness. It’s been said that tobacco is the red man’s revenge on the white man for alcohol, which has so devastated Native American communities all over the Americas. Looking at the world today, the red man’s revenge has also extended to the yellow man in Asia , the brown man in Latin America and the black man in Africa.

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/andrew-lam/smoking-vietnam_b_3839177.html

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2162732/New-Vietnamese-law-bans-smoking-public-places.html

http://tuoitrenews.vn/society/9197/smoking-kills-100-people-in-vietnam-every-day

http://yourhealth.asiaone.com/content/cigarette-smoking-puts-millions-risk-vietnam

Monsanto moves into Viet Nam; disaster looms for the country’s farmers

Monsanto, with the aggressive backing of the U.S. embassy and State Department,  has been busy lobbying  the Vietnamese government to introduce its GMO crops into the country.  Events are moving along at a good pace for Monsanto who, along with Syngenta and DuPont,  has  been pushing their ‘frankenseeds’ into developing countries for years.  Monsanto tested its first seeds here in 2011.

Eight years ago, the government in Viet Nam issued a blueprint regarding agriculture which envisioned having 30-50% of the country’s arable land planted with GMO crops by 2020. With such a momentous change on the horizon for  Viet Nam, its farmers, its land, its food and its people, you might think that there is a robust debate going on within the media, the government agencies responsible for coordinating food policy and in the general populace. You would be wrong. In fact, almost no one in Viet Nam is even familiar with the term ‘GMO’, let alone aware that there is a global debate raging over the harmful effects of these seeds on human health, the environment, animals, and plants. In my random sampling of locals here in Ho Chi Minh City, I did not encounter a single person who could tell me what a GMO is.

 

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This is dangerous, and potentially catastrophic for the country. Decisions about the introduction and widespread implementation of GMO crops are being made by a tiny handful of government officials, who have been engaged in many closed-door meetings with executives from Monsanto, Syngenta and DuPont. Furthermore, with the current government wanting to maintain warm relations with the Obama regime, it behooves them to be friendly with some of Obama’s biggest supporters.

The government has done absolutely nothing to inform the population of what GMO seeds are and the science surrounding them. So, it is left up to the local media to bring some awareness to the issue. In that regard, a local paper, Thanhniennews has run some admirably hard-hitting pieces in the last few months, finally calling the government to task on this. The local English language paper, Viet Nam News has done a pathetic and criminally negligent job of covering this story, only running pieces that blithely quote government mouthpieces who work for the ministry of natural resources and the environment and the ministry of agriculture and rural development. We have people like Le Dinh Luong, professor of genetics at Hanoi University, who gleefully trumpets the benefits of GMOs and says that activists shouldn’t ‘make a fuss’ over the hazards of these scientific monstrosities.  Another scientific stooge, Professor Nguyen Lan Dung warned Viet Nam was ‘too cautious’ in planting GMOs on a wide scale. I guess he’s never heard of the cautionary principle.

 

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The fact that GMOs are being embraced so enthusiastically by the government and upper scientific establishment here is not too surprising given the overall direction that they hope to push agriculture in. Since I arrived here, I have been collecting articles on food and agriculture printed in the local media, and looked thru them while preparing to write this piece. In every one, the government talks only of improving agriculture with ‘modern technology’,  ‘hi-tech agriculture’, ‘bio-technology’ , and ‘applying advanced technology to agriculture products.’ More machines. More chemicals. More fertilizers. More technology. The direction is clear, and in this context, it is natural   that they would jump on the GMO bandwagon, even without the arm twisting of  Monsanto and the U.S. State Department.

Viet Nam sits at a crucial juncture.  GMO corn is set to be planted in seven provinces in the North, Central Highlands, and South. If these crops are allowed to be planted in the next couple of years, there really will be no turning back. Neighboring fields will quickly become contaminated. It is much more difficult to rip them out of the ground and try to go back to organic crops than it is to halt this whole process at the beginning. However, there is little chance of a grass-roots movement getting started in time, given how ignorant and uniformed the population is.

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The impoverished and uneducated farmers who have been subsistence farming for hundreds of generations will be easy targets, as company PR flaks, accompanied by agricultural officials from the government, will entice them with golden promises of higher yields, less work, less pests and crucially- more money.

Instead of working toward truly sustainable models , such as permaculture- based systems, which rely on building up the health of the soil, crop rotation, and the implementation of polyculture systems to make the land resilient to pests, the government is heading in the wrong direction:  to a high-tech , machinery dependent, high external input- based agriculture system geared toward the export market and not toward a reliable food supply for the Vietnamese people.

 

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Most of the population is not even aware that Monsanto was the biggest producer of Agent Orange, used to such devastating effect during the war in the 1960s. When they are made aware of that connection, most of them realize that they don’t really want a chemical weapons manufacturer to be responsible for providing their rice.

Apparently, a GMO labeling law was enacted some years ago, but like many laws here, it is not enforced in any way, and therefore useless. A ‘Non-GMO’ label has yet to make an appearance on a store shelf in Ha Noi or Ho Chi Minh City.

As global elitists such as Henry Kissinger have long said, “Food is a weapon.” And that weapon is set to be unleashed on Viet Nam.