My Mekong Journey

I just dug up this draft I started 3 years ago. I decided to tidy up what text there was, add some notes, and publish it.

I missed my cookbooks when they were in storage for five-plus months. The cookbooks were one of the first things I dug out of boxes when we moved into the bigger new place. Our little place was only big enough for one guest, yet I daydreamed about dinner parties. Now I could fill in the details of my daydreams by perusing recipes.

In the first days at the big place, when we had no internet, I read the cookbooks. Many have introductory and interstitial text that you never encounter if you stick to reading only the index and the recipes. I decided then that I would set out to read such cookbooks from start to end, only skipping through the most mechanical bits. I have started with Hot Sour Salty Sweet: A Culinary Journey Through Southeast Asia. I have been reading it a few pages at a time for about a month. [Editorial note from 2017: I did finished it. I don’t recall if I read any other cookbooks after that.]

The culinary journey in Hot Sour Salty Sweet follows the Mekong River from the Yunnan province of China to its delta in the south of Vietnam, exploring the difference and similarities of food traditions along the way. The book has also shown me, indirectly, that the borders of modern countries caused me to reduce this region into a half dozen place names, when dozens of cultures and traditions exist, criss-crossing these modern borders. It has also made me crave the flavours of the region and miss places I have never been.

From Chinatown to The Mekong Allee

As an ex-Torontonian, I missed the casual abundance of perfectly yummy Chinese, Indian, and Pakistani food when I moved to Berlin. Now that I have been here over six years [nine years, as of Jan 2017], I can see the charms of Berlin more clearly, and have found some scattered places that serve the kinds of foods I missed.

However, as I read Hot Sour Salty Sweet, I am becoming conscious of Berlin’s cultural ties with Vietnam, Thailand, and Laos. It was only in Berlin that I first had lap (also labb, larp, laap, larp, lahb, or laab), regarded as Laos’ national dish (though one finds it in restaurants labelled as Thai on Foursquare). And though I was aware of the Vietnamese population in Berlin, I needed the book to point out the connections among the people and cuisine of the entire Mekong River basin. For instance, I’ve been unclear what “kind” of Asian shops are abundant here – Vietnamese? Thai? – but I have stopped looking for a country-specific label now that I have noticed that the big one near Alex is called Asia-Mekong, which seems most fitting.

Little Hanoi in Lichtenberg

Morgan and I were at Dong Xuan Center two weeks ago on what happened to be during its tenth anniversary celebration. [Again, I wrote this back in 2014]. Dong Xuan Center calls itself “Zukunft Asia-Town” (Future Asia-town) and is Berlin’s answer to the Chinatowns of North American cities: multiple indistinguishable grocery shops, discount clothes that stink of fake fabric and chemicals, noodle restaurants filled with families, a wide selection of porcelain bowls and woks and strainers on the ends of wooden sticks, a nail salon supply shop. The centre is named after Đồng Xuân Market in Hanoi. AND, it is open Sundays.

The legendary Thai Park

I had heard of this magic place in West Berlin where Thai families had elaborate picnics and would sell you some of their fresh, hot food if you asked. I imagined that getting a bowl of noodles would be awkward, and I’d end up insulting someone in our mutually poor German. I was completely wrong. The people selling food in “Thai Park” make it very obvious, and are extremely friendly. (To see images, check out the Google Image Search results). We spread out a blanket in the sun, and feasted on freshly fried chicken wings and shared a noodle dish that was exotic to me.

When I got home that evening and I flipped the page of Hot Sour Salty Sweet, the first thing I read was the description of what we had had, and so I learned it had a name. And so I learned that Hot Sour Salty Sweet was a book about countries I had never visited that could teach me things about the city I lived in.

Sticky Rice

Several recipes in Hot Sour Salty Sweet end with “Serves 4 as part of a rice meal”, which I gather means either jasmine rice or sticky rice, though for some dishes sticky rice is mentioned to be preferred. The instructions for preparing sticky rice give the impression that having the correct device makes the steaming process simpler and more reliable. With a hunger for a “rice meal” growing, I was on the look out for a sticky rice steamer. I knew it would have a “conical basket”, and imagined something like a spaghetti pot but with a cone-shaped insert. This past Thursday was a holiday, and Fronx and I wandered the neighbourhood, looking for a place near the new place selling fresh fruits on a holiday. (No luck on that front. Yet.) What we did find though, was a little shop labelled simply “K & N THAI ASIA MARKT”.

[This is where the original text ends. I’ll wrap up in my 2017-voice below]

I returned soon after when it was open, and I asked the woman who ran the shop if she sold sticky rice steamers, and she told me “Of course!” and handed me a box containing a light aluminium pot that looked like a fat vase, and its accompanying conical wicker basket. She pressed a bag of rice into my hand, and gave me instructions for preparing it. Feeling a bit like a fool, I asked what goes well with sticky rice, and she handed me a few varieties of seasoning mix for meat sauces, and a bag of pork rinds, and told me with great enthusiasm about serving the sauces with cut steamed and raw vegetables. She pointed out the spread of vegetables and herbs photographed on the seasoning packages.

Before we left, she also gave me a recipe for mango salad that she had typed up. Apparently she led cooking classes in the back of the shop. It was not long after that that I served my first sticky rice meal to friends, which is a meal I have repeated several times and have blogged about only briefly. Sadly, one day not long after, I went past the shop and it was gone. It has been replaced by a butcher.

And now

In the three years since I first wrote this post, I have been given and enjoy The Banh Mi Handbook, I have learned about the Isaan restaurant Papaya on Kantstr (ignore the other locations!), and I have discovered Pai of Pailin’s Kitchen who has taught me a lot with her fantastic videos. In short, I have explored the cuisine of this region even further, though I still know little about the region’s history, or its people. I suppose it is time to read some books that aren’t cookbooks, and then start planning a trip.

One thought on “My Mekong Journey

  1. Regarding finding “a place near the new place selling fresh fruits on a holiday”: that exists here now! The Denn’s at Gesundbrunnen is open every day of the year.

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