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January 30, 2006

Occupation: Cook

On my recent trip, there were tons of forms to fill out. Each country usually has a landing permit form and a customs declaration, and some have a visa application, or a visa-on-arrival application. Hotels have forms for your permanent address. Most of these forms have a box or a line for "Occupation:", where after some consideration, I decided to enter: "Cook". Even though I qualify as someone who cooks in the broadest sense, and those forms will never be reviewed by anyone, I have some baggage about the term, and I never got 100% comfortable with writing in "Cook." I felt like a bit of a trespasser. But computer repair guy didn't seem appropriate either, because I'm trying to close that chapter.

For most Americans, our occupations are a large part of our identity. When we ask the vague question, "What do you do?" we mean, "What is your profession, or your occupation? What do you do for a living? How do you make money?" As if what we do for fun or our passion doesn't really count, and isn't even worth mentioning - unless we get paid for it. I don't think I'm alone in carrying these beliefs. We are capitalists, after all.

By contrast, I've heard that in Europe, people respond with their passion first, and their occupation second, as in, "I'm a poet, but I'm also a bank teller" or "I'm a painter, but I'm also a teacher." I like that kind of thinking.

When I explain to people that I'm leaving the field of information services to become a cook, quite a few of them say, "Oh, you're a chef!" But really, I'm not a chef. Chef is the French word for chief. Most of the time, I explain that I'm a cook, and chef is a title for the person who's in charge of a kitchen, or has responsibility for a part of the kitchen, like section or a station. But sometimes, it's too much work to explain, and it's easier to let them go on uncorrected.

With the higher profile and status of chefs and cooks, all the cooking shows on TV, and all the cooking gadgets in stores in the last few decades, I think the term chef is thrown around a bit too easily. I understand the point of it is to make it seem like anyone who cooks is a chef. I suppose the justification is "everyone is the chef of their own kitchen". That sells a lot more gadgets, cookbooks, and recreational cooking classes. But even Julia Child (a tremendous cook) described herself as a cook, not a chef, because she never worked in restaurants.

These are terms from a particular industry and craft. Some may think that this is all semantics, and they're right. Cooking ability is quite separate from what title one may hold. I'm talking about nomenclature. In my opinion, to use the title chef or cook imprecisely diminishes the accomplishments of people who have put in the time, worked hard, and sacrificed much to earn those titles.

What I'm leading up to with this convoluted rant is, the other day, with help from Amy and her instructor Chef de Castro, I got a job at a well-known restaurant, as an entry level line cook. Not a chef, a cook. I have so much to learn, but I can finally say, without any qualifications:

Occupation: Cook

January 16, 2006


Currently about midnight, Sunday night the 15th of January in Los Angeles, California, USA.

All things considered, fairly smooth flights home. Amy was nice enough to pick me up at the airport. I'm gonna try to force myself to sleep now to get back on the right time.

Thanks for all the kind words. Stay tuned for more entries filling in the blanks and some postscript thoughts about my trip.

[To get back to the beginning, here's a link to the start of the walkabout.]

January 15, 2006

The long road home...

Currently about 2:30am in an Internet cafe in the International terminal in Mumbai.

Mumbai has an interesting airport setup. Actually, that's too kind. It sucks. The domestic flights are at a location about 5 miles from the international flights. It's not a big deal if you're staying in Mumbai, but if you're making an international connection, you have to either take a coach, which is fairly efficient but can take a while, or take a cab, where I'm guessing they regularly screw people over. Especially late at night, or if they think someone is in a rush, the driver will probably refuse to use the meter, and overcharge whatever they can get away with. On top of that, the fact that the terminals are so far away from each other also means that they won't check luggage through to the final destination, so you have to go to baggage claim and schlep all your stuff to the other terminal. That is, unless you know somebody, and I don't. In the end, I took the coach, which is about 30 minutes.

There's about a 45 minute line just to get into this terminal because the baggage screening is a bottleneck. After that, I waited another 45 minutes getting to the baggage counter, but they said I'm too early, and they can't take my luggage yet. So I'm killing a few hours at this cafe, at 60 rupees an hour, or about US $1.33/hour.

Around 4am, I'll try to check in my luggage so that I can go relax at the gate before my 8am flight. I guess I could have stayed the night in Mumbai, but I didn't really enjoy it here, so killing 5 or 6 hours in the airport was more appealing than trying to find a reasonable hotel to park in for half a day or something. For some reason, hotels are disproportionately more expensive (in my opinion) in India, and to find something reasonably clean probably starts at about US $50/night, and something comfortable goes up from there.

Hopefully, it's a quick and smooth stop in Frankfurt and I'll be home for dinner!

January 12, 2006

Thirteen and a half hours ahead of LA


Shortly after arrival in Bangalore, I was taken to Nandhini. Immediate happiness ensued. This is the meal ordered by one of my hosts, Pooja. Rice is the core item, and they set you up with various condiments, as well as coming around with ghee and other garnishes to mix into the rice. [and it's all-ru-you-can-eat-u]

By the way, the title of this entry is in reference to Indian Standard Time being 5.5 hours ahead of Greenwich Mean Time. Kevo also points out that there are other time zones on the half hour or even on a quarter hour adjustment from G.M.T.

Below, mutton biryani I ordered at Nandhini because I didn't know how to attack a thali meal. Two nice chunks of mutton are tucked into that pot. Over the last few days, I've been practicing eating with my right hand only, and will try to get the full thali experience before I leave.


I'm not sure what this chicken dish is called, but it's tasty. Chicken Andhra (dry), maybe?


This is one of several homemade breakfasts I was kindly served. It's akki roti, a flatbread made of rice flour, with cilantro leaves and spices mixed in, with some curd (yogurt) and chutney podi (garnish spice mix powder, aka gunpowder). Other breakfasts included fresh puris and a green bean and potato dish, dosas and a sesame paste, and steamed rice with a shelling pea stew. Sorry, I don't have all the names of the dishes.


One day I walked around the main City Market. The essential types of produce are there, but it's unpaved and dusty. Most of the pictures I took are of people who asked to have their picture taken. I'm not sure why, but I don't feel comfortable posting those pictures here. I guess because as I took pictures of a few people, they'd point to their friends, and some of them refused. Unlike the guys from Chowpatty, I'll respect their privacy. If there's interest, I'll post them to a separate location. But while at the market, I found this freshly baked dilkush, which is a laminated dough (like a puff pastry, but a bit chewy) with a filling of coconut, candied fruits, and a sweet paste of some kind.


On a another day, we had dinner at a restaurant called Angeethi. It's a cleaned up and transplanted version of a dhaba - a roadside restaurant, usually associated with the North. There's an open kitchen, and this cook is making Roomali roti. He rolls out a disk first, then whips it out using alternating hands, then finally goes for the style points with the aerial toss. For cooking it's placed on an overturned kadai (a round pot, more steeply sided than a wok). The final result is similar to fresh lavash [or a Mexican flour tortilla that is allowed to puff].



Another favored spot is Mainland China, off MG (Mahatma Gandhi) Road. It's an upscale take on Chinese food, modernized in presentation, and tweaked just a bit spicier for the Indian palate. Chef Arjun (from Nepal) came to our table for a quick hello, but we gave him big props and a round of applause for his food. The waiters serve from platter to the plate, so I don't have shots of the platters. However, we went back for lunch another day, and Archie served as food stylist for this shot of Dry Red Chilli Chicken.


Many thanks to my hosts (Archie, Vijay, Smruthi, Pooja, Kabir and the Bhartur and Ramaswamy families, and Mr. Sresta and friends) for their kind, patient, and generous hospitality!

Last stop: Bangalore

Currently about 12:30pm on Thursday in Southern India.

After a little rushing around at the Goa airport with just minutes to spare, I had a great flight on Kingfisher Air (yes, the brewing company owns an airline as well). I'm now fortunate enough to be enjoying the kind hospitality of my friends' family in Bangalore. I'm here until Saturday, then I fly back home.

I also posted a few more pictures from Goa.

January 10, 2006

Goan crazy


Yeah, I'm in India.

This is on the stretch of beach between Calangute and Baga. Although this is Goa, where there are significant numbers of Christians (and hence, beef eaters), cows still enjoy a certain amount of deference. I saw another cow that was rumaging through some sunbeds where tourists are were laying out was simply shooed away.

This part of Goa is all about the beach and beach activities - jet skis, banana boats, parasailing, etc.


Not a very common sight, even here, but there are a few urban elephants.


Below, a fairly spicy dish called kingfish masala fry (dry). That's a masala (spice mix) crusted onto a couple of fish steaks. I had another dish with this called chicken xacuti (sha koo tee), which is also delicious, but not very photogenic. That one is boneless chicken breast pieces, cooked in a gravy with fresh coconut meat, green chili, spices and some herbs. The cook was doing double duty as the waiter (I ate during a lull around 3pm), so we got to chat a bit.


At a different place called the Stone House, this is a chicken dish which is cooked in a banana leaf, with lean bacon and a banana along with a nice tomato, garlic sweet/sour sauce with just a bit of spicing). It seemed like it had been refined a bit (the sauce was glossy, and probably had some ketchup in it), nor was therea local name for this dish, but I quite enjoyed it.


Also at the Stone House, their version of bebingca. It's a dense pudding that is set in layers and ligltly caramelized on each one to acheive that look.


Finally, on our last night in Goa, we staged a Flip Cup "tournament" at a cool bar called Club Cabana. For the club, it's a flat fee (about $7 for ladies, and $13 for gents) and once inside, it's all you can drink. It's on the top of a hill, with cabanas, beds, couches and so on - very trendy and plush. It's been designed with many zones, so that each area has a somewhat different feel - there's a pool area, a dance club, a small terrace, the large patio, etc.

Vijay is our International Ambassador and Instigator of Flip Cup, which is a drinking race set up on a long table. Equal numbers of players on each side each have a plastic cup with some beer in it. The first players drain their beer, put their empty cup face up just at the edge of the table, and use a finger to flip it so it lands upside down on the table. When they've done that, the next person can drink and flip their cup. The veterans can usually do it in one or two flip attempts, but sometimes it can take several tries, in which time the other team can make progress. It's very hotly contested. This particular round had 10 people on each side, some of which weren't part of the group and just joined in from the bar. Good times.


January 08, 2006

Sunny Sunday

Currently about 7:15pm on Sunday the 8th from Candolim, North Goa, India.

I spent the day walking through a market, shops, and a few miles up the beach (from Calangute to Baga). It's pretty hot in the sun - I drank 2 liters of water and haven't needed to make a pitstop. It's the high tourist season around here, but at least I spent today where tourists from India are hanging out.

I just put up a few pics in Goa snippets and Scratching the surface of Mumbai. Or just scroll down on the main page.

January 06, 2006

Goa on the Arabian Sea

Currently about 9:15pm, Friday the 6th in South India.

After a quick 1 hour flight from (where Jet Airways managed to even serve a respectable Indian meal - under the circumstances), I got myself on a bus going to the North Goa area, which is where my friends are all staying. There was no room at the inn, so I had to trek around the area with all my belongings, looking for a place to stay. It's the busy season now because the weather is nice, and the Western holidays means that many people come back from the US, so it has become the time many people choose to have weddings. The fifth hotel had a room.

Goa was under control and influence of the Portuguese for a long time, even well into the 20th century. As a result, there are some specialties showing both influences. I hope to taste several of these. And it's on the Arabian sea, and I'd like to get in and relax for a bit.

Goa snippets


This is the non-vegetarian in-flight meal from Jet Airways from Mumbai to Goa. It's chicken curry, rice, and a pea dish, as well as raita and a chapati. I'm sure Indians everywhere will scoff at this, but I have to say I thought it was a respectable snack. And actually most people cleaned their tiny tray. All this for a 1 hour flight, no less. We barely had time to get to altitude, be served, and eat it. Literally, the attendants were coming back down the aisle with the clearing cart as the plane had begun its descent, more or less drumming their fingers, waiting for people to finish in more or less the same order they got their food. In particular, I love two things about this meal, 1) although I am an avowed carnivore, I think it's cool that vegetarianism is entrenched enough in India to make the terminology veg and non-veg, whereas in the West we would normally say meat-less or meat-free or vegetarian (like it's a bad word), and 2) just like there might be tiny ketchup or mustard, there's a tiny disposable container of lime and mango pickle.


This is a dinner from a tiny family joint called Taste of Goa. I chose this place on a hunch, it was empty except for one South African family. And it definitely was cooked to order, because I waited about 45 minutes for it and almost nodded off in my Kingfisher beer. On the left is a fried pomfret (pompano), and on the right is pork vindaloo. It wasn't very spicy (I forgot to ask for it local style), but had a nice balance. Note the very authentic oil slick.

January 04, 2006

Scratching the surface of Mumbai

Or barely that, even. But here are a few things I tried. I didn't get much info about this leg of the trip beforehand, so I arrived in Mumbai without a hotel reservation. I used one of those places in the airport to pick a hotel in the general area of where my friends were, then I figured I'd move if necessary. It was and I did. They were so rude to me from start to finish. When I checked in, they wanted me to book for several days in advance. They overcharged me for water. The room itself was a shambles, and there was no hot water. Then when I checked out, the clerk kept giving me dirty looks and making clicking sounds with his tongue. Then as I was pulling away, he had the bellmen stop the autoshaw (tuk tuk), saying that I didn't return the key when I already had. The only thing good I got out of it was this recommendation for Sunraz restaurant. This is mutton kadai (spicy tomato gravy with green peppers), prawn pulao and a roti.


Apparently there are two Chowpatty Beaches in the general Mumbai area. Of course I was interested in the one that has a ton of vendors on the beach, which is Juhu Chowpatty Beach, to the NE of the city.


[Above, I inserted a picture of the beach] I think it goes on all day, but it's more interesting at night. Even at 8:30pm, couples, families, and other self-chosen groups stroll along, stop for a bite, either at a tables or on large, well-lit semi-permanent picnic mats. There are also vendors on the beach selling young coconut, grilled corn, and the like. Below is a potato samosa broken up and served bhelpuri style, with crunchy chickpea threads, tangy/sweet tamarind relish, red onion, some herbs, corn kernels and a few other tidbits.


There's a culture of touting, trying to get people to sit down and eat at a particular stall. There are dozens and dozens of places, seemingly all serving the same dishes. When I finally decided on this booth, they made a big fuss and were saying, "Jepun, take picture." (Japanese guy, take a picture) I think they meant it in good fun, so here they are up on the Internet, in good fun. That big spatula for frying the paste made me think of the monjyayaki I had in Japan. Somewhat similar in texture, actually. Very different spicing, though. The filling is that swath around the front of the griddle.


Pav baji is a dish of the area which is sort of a tomatoey dal stew which they again fry on a big griddle with more onions until it's a bit tighter in consistency, then it's served with buns that are buttered and heated on that same griddle. I ordered this with double butter, hence those extra knots melting on top. I think you're supposed to mix in the butter with the filling and eat it on the bread. It has a sweet/sour aspect to it, it's pretty tasty, but double butter is too much. There's already butter in the filling and there's butter on the bread. Unfortunately I only got to try this one version.


January 03, 2006

En route to Mumbai

I'm en route to Mumbai (formerly Bombay), India. Had a layover in Bangkok, ran over for a nice massage and Internet usage at a hotel which is connected to the airport via overpass, and am now headed back to the airport terminal.

Life is good.

January 02, 2006

More Hanoi Eats


This is one of my favorite dishes that I've had in Vietnam. As a qualifier, you should probably consider that I'm not really a soup guy. I've been confronted by that almost daily since soup and soup noodles are a big part of Vietnamese food, and I've had soup or soup noodles once or twice a day everyday since I've been here. But the fact is, at home I rarely find myself craving soup. And when it gets right down to it, if you force me to choose, I prefer rice to noodles. But dammit, this is full of good stuff. It's called my van thanh - the word my in this case signifies angel hair thin wheat noodles. [It's a Vietnamese type of wonton soup] There's some thinly sliced pork, and a crisp, pork-and-mushroom filled wonton that drinks up some of the pork broth and lends a bit of rich, golden brown flavor. [I forgot that it also has 3 boiled wontons and a slice of poached liver, as well] Most people doctor it up with a shot of chili sauce and/or chilies in vinegar, or some sea salt or spice (MSG). If it's offered, you might also give a squeeze of lime or calamansi. This bowl is VND 10,000, or about US $0.63.

Predictably, a triple hit of pork will make me like a lot of things. [Actually, I guess it's a quintuple hit]

These pictures are the best/most interesting things from over the last few days.


This is what you get at Cha Ca La Vong, a one-dish restaurant. Although it's usually referred to as grilled fish, and it's brought out on a grill, in cooking terms, it's really pan-fried or almost like fondued in oil. But the charm of it is the turmeric tinged oil. The green onion bottoms are kept separate from the tops which are mixed with dill, separate again from some cilantro. What most people seem to do is add in the white part of the green onion first, then add in some of the dill and green onion tops until they are softened. My picture didn't catch the white bun noodles, but as things are cooked, you put them on the bun noodles, and the yellowish oil becomes part of the "dressing" for the noodles. Like many bun dishes, there's something hot against the cool noodles, with greenery, crisp herbs, crunchy peanuts, sweet and spicy from the nuoc cham and chili sauce if you want it. I didn't notice until later that other people got mam tom (shrimp paste) to add some the funky/salty dimension to it, so I'll ask for that next time. It's not as oily as it might seem, and somewhat milder overall that I expected. But fun to eat and tasty in it's own way. The food is VND 70,000 per person, or about US $4.40. Drinks extra.

I believe the dish below is called bun bo nam bo. There's some green leaf lettuce at the bottom, fresh (cool) bun noodles, some marinated beef is sauteed to order with bean sprouts, then covered with crispy shallots and some carrot and green papaya salad. Some of the cooked marinade becomes the dressing for the noodles. Most people mix up the whole works and add some chili sauce or nuoc cham. I need to fix the bluish cast to the photo, but it's tasty stuff.


Fanny Ice Cream seems to be the most sophisticated of Vietnamese ice cream cafes that I've been to. The dish below is called crepe Fanny on the menu, containing sauteed bananas inside the crepe, topped with chocolate sauce and whipped cream. In the martini glass is a scoop of cinnamon ice cream (although it's called cinnamon, what we think of as hot, spicy cinnamon is actually bark from a different tree called cassia - true cinnamon is milder and more flowery), and the other glass is cafe sua da, coffee with condensed milk over ice.


I took a moto to a few restaurants on the West Lake, near the Sofitel Metropole hotel. If you're looking to save money, try to get a Vietnamese person (from your hotel or whatever) to arrange for your moto or taxi. Although foreigner pricing is outlawed for many things, motos and many taxis still start at a higher scale for non-Vietnamese. I paid VND 10,000 to get out there (negotiated by Mr. Ha), and a guy wanted to charge me VND 40,000 to get back after dinner. You might say that arguing over US $0.62 versus US $2.52, isn't significant, but what you could have gotten for your VND 30,000 is pretty significant. That could be 5 banh mi sandwiches, or 2 beers, or 3 scoops of ice cream or... Since the mean moto guy and I negotiated to an impasse, the waiter in the restaurant (who was practicing his English with me while I tried to learn the names of things in Vietnamese) actually brought me back to the hotel and I was happy to give him VND 35,000 for his trouble. It all depends, I guess.

If in case you should ever be in Hanoi and order baby lotus stem salad, nom ngo hoa (I think), I'll warn you now that it comes with julienned pig's ears for flavor and texture. Actually, this is pretty tasty, except the stems are too chewy for my liking, at least the way they are cut.


This dish is called lau Hai Phong. Lau is the generic term for hot pot, so you might see lau Thai (tom yum) or by the type of protein it features, like lau luon (eel), etc. Hai Phong is an important harbor city, so it usually means mixed seafood. This one has shrimp, fish, and squid (tom, ca, and muc). The broth itself is milder than I expected, lightly red from some tomatoes, with some herbs and ginger as the base. Also for the hot pot are my cua (thin, wide wheat noodles), the greens cai cuc, rau ean, and rau cai xanh (not certain, but I think cai cuc is sorta soft and velvety, rau ean is some stemmy green, and rau cai xanh tastes like a type of mustard cabbage). Overall, there are other things I'd rather eat, but it's definitely fun to cook at the table and eat things just cooked.


I bought some new toothpaste, because, I knew what the word was, and I just had to. Take a guess to what muoi is.


Come on, guess...
Muoi means salt, with mint. I actually like it, except that it feels like I just had my entree, and I want to have dessert after I brush my teeth.

January 01, 2006

Happy New Year from Hanoi!


Currently about 3pm, January 1st, in Vietnam.

This is a lotus flower from the pond at the Temple of Literature. It doesn't have much to do with the New Year, except that it's Asian-ey, and I'm in Asia. New Year's Eve was low key - I went out to dinner at Cha Ca La Vong, a restaurant famous for one dish - fish marinated in turmeric and cooked at the table. I walked around for a bit, and aside from people burning ghost money and so on, it didn't seem very different from any other night around here. I think they save up all the festivities for Tet, which is the lunar new year, or it's also called the Spring Festival.

Wherever you are, I wish you a happy, auspicious and productive 2006!