Tag Archives: cooking

Khinkali and politics

I got so many “likes” on my Facebook post about this day that I thought I’d elaborate a bit on my khikali adventures last weekend. It was an interesting day, for more than one reason.

The first reason was that the group of people I was with were highly engaged, political folks, all of them. One, an American former PCV from Azerbajian, now works with a production company here in Tbilisi owned by an expatriate Azeri guy who covers news and stories that are banned in Baku these days. His girlfriend was here visiting from Jerusalem, where she works with refugees. A German guy who is here researching his Ph.D. on Georgian migrants in Siberia, a woman who has worked all over the world in all sorts of interesting jobs … and rounding out the group, our teacher, Nana Chkareuli, the Executive Director of For A Better Future, an NGO and social enterprise working at the IDP settlement Tserovani. I’ve known Nana for about 3 years now, in fact she’s one of the first people I met while in training; it’s always a pleasure to spend time with her.

Our conversation covered a lot of territory. It wasn’t all about politics, but it kind of circled over our heads most of the time. I felt like we were all … worried. Worried about the future and what it holds, not just for ourselves, to varying degrees, but for the constituencies we all serve in one way or another. In spite of this hovering cloud, we had a really good time, proving once again how humans can compartmentalize things!

We met up at Didube, the hub for all routes to the west, and hopped on a marshutka to head to Tserovani. Here I am with one of my fellow khinkali chefs. Right before we took this photo, a Georgian guy approached us and asked, in Georgian, where the Metro entrance was. Well, I understood him, and I knew where it was, and I gave him directions, which impressed my friend no end. But … why did he approach us in the first place? It’s quite obvious we’re not Georgians. I don’t know, but that was interesting. Especially in view of the fact that we were aggressively solicited by at least 8 taxi drivers trying to take us to far-away tourist destinations like Batumi (where, btw, people were rioting that day, supposedly over someone being given a parking ticket – only in Georgia!) or Kazbegi. I never get approached by those guys when I am in Didube alone, which when I was a PCV was a lot, at least every week or two. Never. I think it must be because Michele has blond hair and blue eyes, and I am of Eastern European extraction … but still, a foreigner. Everyone can tell. So, it’s a mystery.







Once we arrived, we headed to the Hello Cafe, a social enterprise created by Nana and a former PCV. When we arrived, Nana was surprised to see me and greeted me effusively, which was nice. I was glad to see her, too. The ingredients for our culinary adventure were all set out – flour, water and salt, for the dough, and ground beef, spinach, onions, garlic, cheese and cilantro for two different fillings. That’s it – couldn’t be more simple.







We started by making the water a bit salty, adding flour, and then kneading until the dough was quite stiff. This was harder than it looked, but we all finally succeeded!








Next, while letting our balls of dough rest a little while, we all chopped up all the other ingredients and mixed them together – no recipe, just however we wanted, to taste. The spinach balls had been bought in that form, frozen, and defrosted – no need for fresh spinach, which is not in season right now. It’s all gonna be boiled up at the end.








Then, we rolled out the dough and, using a small wooden cup with smooth edges, cut out small disks. For some reason, I don’t have a photo of this process, but I definitely have photos of the end result. I was amused to see how the German guy lined all his disks up in a neat line, whereas Nana and I threw ours all over the place. Guess I know where my national inclinations lie, haha.

Georgian style

German style






Next, we pressed two disks together to make a plump little circle, and then rolled it out to be very thin at the edges and just a bit thicker in the middle. Then, we dropped our filling in the middle.






Now, for the really challenging part. The crimping. I’d say my skills were about even with my Georgian language abilities – better than some, worse than others! I was able to make the khinkali pretty well, but they were a little … wrinkled, I think I have to say. Here are two samples, guess which one is mine, and which one is Nana’s, haha.

They all tasted good going down, that’s the truth. We made what felt like a hundred khinkali. Spinach (above), the little knob at the top is pushed in; meat, it sticks out. Here’s me giving it my best effort:








Next, into a huge pot of boiling water. You have to gently shake it while its cooking – no stirring, as that may break the thin dough. The khinkali first puff up, then deflate – and then they’re done, maybe 5 or 6 minutes cooking.

What a feast. Not only did we have our dumplings, which were, honestly, so delicious – nothing like fresh khinkali. And the spinach ones were the BEST EVER. We also had salad, and bread, and wine, and cha-cha from Nana’s mother. Cha-cha is like grappa, made from the skins of grapes after they’ve been crushed for wine. It is wicked strong. I had to take a little nap when I got home.

So, a good time had by all. We made our back to Tbilisi, all full of delicious food and a little quiet on the marshutka. The cloud was hovering a bit lower, for me at least. I was thinking of all the IDPs in the settlement, and how, for all the problems they brought with them, they were welcomed, housed and taken care of by Georgia, one of the poorer developing countries in the world. Some of these refugees weren’t even Georgian – they were, for examples, Ossettians married to Georgians. They were welcome, too. Well … it’s the times. I always feel a bit on the melancholy side, and I know I’m not the only one. Yet, we still have the ability to appreciate something as simple as cooking some khinkali in good company.

Vietnam in 19 stories – Part 2

OK, straight to the chase. Next story:

Day #10 – 12/23/16

On this day we went to the Hue Market in the morning, and took a bus to Hoi Ann. I’ve already talked a lot about markets, so I’ll pass that one by (other than to say it was a really great market – a few photos below) and tell the story of the bus to Hoi Ann.

The hotel where we stayed arranged the bus. It was $8.00 for about a 4-hour drive, and I wasn’t expecting anything special. A van came and picked us up – I could have sworn I was back in Georgia in a marshutka. 16 travelers crammed into a van designed to seat 10, all sorts of luggage, smelly people … ah, how familiar. Then we arrived at the bus station and were ushered on to a bus the likes of which I have never seen in my entire life.

First – air conditioned. OK, I’ve seen that, but it was really nice. Second – the seats were like berths. Arranged in three rows like on an airplane, this double-decker system was so luxurious I was just floored. I gleefully crawled into my “berth” and immediately made a Facebook post documenting the awesomeness of it all. The backs of the seats were adjustable so you could sit up straight with your legs stretched in front of you, or recline it so you could read, snooze, or whatever. I mean … it was so cool. And it wasn’t at all just for tourists (though there were plenty). There were loads of Vietnamese customers riding too.

I enjoyed it, can you tell? The only thing that just drove me nuts was this American guy on the aisle next to me. He played some game on his phone, it involved a lot of explosions, for the entire 4 hours. He never once even glanced out the window. I mean, I enjoy my phone/data plan as much as the next person, but what is the point of traveling that way, I wonder.

As you can see, there was plenty worth looking at out the window. His loss.

Day #11 – 12/24/15

So, this was our first full day in Hoi An, which worked out to be one of our favorite places in Vietnam. About an hour south of Da Nang, it is definitely a huge tourist draw, but that in itself is interesting – you hear every language imaginable around you, and see every type of person. We met a load of people at our homestay, many of whom gave us great recommendations for places to go and things to see. We rented bicycles every day and rode everywhere. We especially enjoyed the Old Quarter and the river. Eli also took advantage of the renowned tailor establishments in town to have some snazzy clothes made – a jacket and pants, and 3 shirts.

That first day was mainly spent exploring and visiting the tailor. The best part was in the evening. We went to a restaurant called “Morning Glory” that is the equal of any fine dining establishment I’ve ever visited in the U.S. – for a third of the price. We drank wine, lingered over the food, and had a glorious time. We also signed up for cooking classes – more on that later.

Here’s a taste of Hoi An:

Day #12 – 12/24/15

No doubt about today’s story – cooking class! This class was a highlight of the trip. It started pretty early in the morning at a large open complex called Miss Vy’s Market. We rode our bikes over to Hoi An Island where it’s located, and began our culinary adventure. Here’s the website: http://msvy-tastevietnam.com/. There are tasting stations, a restaurant, lots of food for sale, and big rooms for all the cooking classes upstairs. It’s all very sophisticated and clearly tailored for tourists, but it’s well-done and we had a blast.

We started with a boat ride back to where we came from, which Eli and I found kind of funny, to visit the market. By now we’d been to a lot of markets, but the difference was that we were accompanied by a cheerful guide by the name of Lu, who explained how all of the fruits and vegetables and fish and meat were used in Vietnamese cooking, and lots of tips, like how to tell if a fish is really fresh. We learned arcane facts like how to tell female from male crabs, how to eat silkworm larva, how to make rice noodles and how sea cucumber is used. Here’s a few photos:

After this, back to the food complex, where we went around to several different tasting stations. We tasted grilled meat, pancakes, noodles, ginger candy, spices, soup … everything. We stopped at a station that explained what Vietnamese people ate when food was rationed during war and afterwards, when times were hard. We saw “strange food” dishes. By the time we headed upstairs for the actual cooking class, we were already full – not that we let that stop us.

So, now we begin the actual cooking class. I think it was the most fun, and possibly the most successful cooking experience I’ve ever had. We made 4 dishes – cabbage leaf parcels with shrimp mousse in broth, BBQ chicken and lime leaves, mango and prawn salad, and banh xeo (pancakes crepes wrapped around pork and shrimp with greens). Every recipe called for nuoc mam (fish sauce), or as our teacher called it, “our best friend.” I will let the photos speak for themselves:

Afterwards we all got a cooking tool (a slicer for mango) and recipes for all the dishes we made. You can be SURE I will be doing some more Vietnamese cooking when I get home – I’m hooked. Fresh, delicious, fragrant and so fun to make. But no larva or pig heads, sorry. 🙂

Day #13 – 12/25/15

Hmmmm, it’s hard to pick a story for this day, because a lot happened! We went to the beach. We went to dinner at a somewhat famous Anthony-Bourdain-endorsed Binh Mi local restaurant. Eli had his final fitting and looked very spiffy … well, I’ll cover it in photos below, but I think I have to go with the beach.

I don’t remember last time I went to the beach, but the weather was lovely, we had bikes, and we wanted to explore. So off we went. I’d say it was about half an hour of cycling alongside rice paddies, canals and open fields until we came up over a small rise … and there it was, spread out in front of us, a beautiful, clean beach, with restaurants in front and comfortable beach loungers and umbrellas on the sand. We asked a few people what the deal was with the loungers – did we have to rent them, or what? It turned out that there were roving restaurant employees who said we could use the loungers but then had to eat at their restaurant, or 50,000 dong (about $2.50) rent.

We settled in, surrounded by hundreds of tourists. This was definitely not a Vietnamese gathering spot, though there were fishermen who cast off from the shore. There was shade, a breeze, clean sand and blue water. Who could want more? Well, I wanted a bathing suit, but I didn’t have one so I spent a few hours just observing the behavior of my fellow travelers. There was a group of skanky American girls who were loud and clearly desperate – I mean, like, frantic – to hook up with a guy. Any guy. And there was quite a selection of guys, especially glow-in-the-dark skinny white English guys. This depressed my appetite for the required restaurant meal, as did the French girl who stood within 5 feet of me popping pimples on her boyfriend’s back and showing him the results until I finally asked her to do that somewhere else. There was a young Dutch family that was unnaturally attractive, and a wide variety of other folks. I really didn’t need a book, I just people-watched and enjoyed the beach, while Eli toasted himself in the sun and swam in the ocean, at one point inexplicably wearing his sunglasses.

At some point we switched loungers, not realizing we were changing restaurant territory when we did so. When the time came to go, as our Vietnamese restaurant handler began to escort us up the stairs to her establishment, the handler from the nearby restaurant ran up, and an epic battle ensued. I mean, yelling, gesticulating, pushing (of each other, not me), demands for money (which were directed to me – 50,000 dong to one restaurant, eat at the other – double whammy) and just an altogether unpleasant exchange. I finally paid the money just to end it and went off to eat at the first place. When we ordered, the woman was mad because we didn’t order an entire meal! It left a bad taste in our mouth, so to speak, one of the very few times we had a negative experience in Vietnam; when Eli went back to the beach the next day, he rode his bike up a few miles and found a non-restaurant-infested area where he could sit in peace. No loungers though.

Reading through this story, it sounds like I didn’t have a good time at the beach. On the contrary, other than the last bit (and the French girl and her boyfriend’s back, that was gross), I did in fact have a lovely time. The weather couldn’t have been better, it was so relaxing, the water warm and the sand soft, the bike ride long enough to feel like I accomplished something, but short (and flat) enough that I didn’t do myself in. Viva la beach!

Here’s just a few other pics of the events of the day:

Day #14 – 12/26/15

This day was lazy and laid-back. Eli went to the beach; I wandered around town. We ate at a nice restaurant, stopped and had coffee. Eli sketched; I recorded music. We took a nap in the afternoon! I’m not even going to tell a story, it was that relaxed and unremarkable – but all the more remarkable for it, as days like that are very far and few between for me. Although I am a “volunteer” here in Georgia, I often work just as hard as I did in the U.S, and I have secondary projects, both PC-related and personal, that I work on as well. So a day with nothing to do but enjoy my surroundings and to be relaxed enough to actually not think about work or worry about the future – heaven.

Day #15 – 12/27/15

This was our last full day in Hoi An, and we spent most of it at an absolutely fascinating silk worm farm. I’ve always wondered how silk is made, and now I know, from beginning to end. The tour took us through the entire process, including traditional and modern weaving, so I got to see looms in action!

The photos below will tell the whole story, but I’m going to tell just one small part of it here. It’s short, and it’s disgusting. ELI ATE A SILKWORM LARVA! Yeach! He just popped it in his mouth and ate it! He said it tasted like a potato, to which I replied, well, why not just eat a potato then? LOL, it was even more revolting than the French girl and her spotty boyfriend.

OK, here’s what we saw, it was very very cool:

Day #15 – 12/28/15

On this day we left Hoi An, with some regret, and moved on to visit Da Nang. We arrived there in the early afternoon, checked into our hotel, and just spent time walking around the city. We found out about an upcoming international classic guitar concert the next night and bought tickets – we just saw a giant poster, went inside the building (which turned out to be the Ministry of Sports & Recreation), and were helped by a pretty young girl with pretty good English – she learned it in Australia, as I discovered when Eli inquired about her Australian accent, which I could not even remotely hear.

My story for this day is a little one, but it also concerns English and it was so sweet. We were walking around the city when 3 little boys excitedly approached us on the street. Well, excitedly doesn’t really describe it. They were so worked up that they looked like they were having tiny epileptic fits. They were dancing around us squealing “hello!!! hello!!!” like crazy boys. Of course we said hello back, and as they pointed at themselves and said their names, we did the same. Then they started pointing at our clothing and saying the colors, and they were so pleased with themselves I really thought they were about to faint. We were having a lot of fun with them, but then an older lady appeared in the doorway of the building they came out of, and she wasn’t too happy. I don’t know why, they really were cute and weren’t doing anything wrong, but she called them back in and we had to say goodbye. I will always remember their smiling faces. No pictures – we were just enjoying the moment. Here’s a few general shots of Da Nang, though – a very vibrant and welcoming city.

Day #16 – 12/29/15

This day in Da Nang was mainly spent at a fascinating museum that showcased the art of the Champa People. The Champa were the dominant culture in Vietnam starting from roughly the 2nd century through the 1800’s, though the height of their power was in the 9th century. Their descendants, the Cham, still live in Vietnam and throughout Southeast Asia. The majority of Cham in Vietnam are Hindu, though elsewhere they tend to be Muslim. At the museum, you can see a heavy Indian/Hindu influence in the sculpture. Though you’d never know it from the museum, a little research on the web reveals a lot of tension between the Vietnamese government and the Cham, with accusations of genocide and deliberate destruction of culture. So in retrospect, the highly respectful museum in Da Nang is a lot more ambiguous than I thought at the time. As usual, nothing is quite what it seems.

And, although this isn’t really a story, I like these photos so much I have to throw them up here – me and Eli at the Classical Guitar Concert we attended that evening. That was really fun.

Day #17 – 12/30/15

This day’s story is not a particularly happy one. On this day we took a sleeper from Da Nang to Ho Chi Minh City. For the first time, the bathroom was kinda … yucky. But that would have been tolerable. What was really awful was the guy who shared our sleeper car. He was probably about my age, Vietnamese, spoke zero English and wasn’t particularly friendly, in contrast to the vast majority of people I met there. However, none of that was a problem, since most of the time we were sleeping (or trying to), anyway! The real problem was that he was sick. Really sick. Like hacking, spitting, and coughing, all completely without any effort to cover his mouth. Moreover, he kept getting up all night (which may help explain the state of the bathroom) and left the door open, letting in light and noise and waking us up. We tried asking/miming for him to cover his mouth and shut the door, but he completely ignored us. Man, we were loopy by the time we got to HCM City, I’ll tell you. Moreover, we both caught whatever he had. Luckily it didn’t manifest until we got home – incubation period – but it hit both of us hard, Eli in particular, who 3 weeks later is still suffering from severely backed-up fluid in his ears. I am still coughing – as usual. At least it happened at the end of our trip, and not in the middle.

What I’ll show photos of here, though, is not our cabin-mate hawking it up into the trash can in the room. Picture me making a disgusted face. Instead, here are a few shots of Eli at the Da Nang station sketching. The captions explain what happened – and this was his experience everywhere. It was really great to watch, and I was jealous! Between his smoking a Vietnamese pipe, and drawing, he had a lot of opportunities to communicate with people, especially children, who really loved the drawings, and men, who really loved to smoke!

Day #18 – 12/31/15

Last day of 2015, and the last full day of our trip. We spent a lot of this day at the botanical garden, and went to see “Star Wars” that evening – in English, albeit with Vietnamese subtitles, and splurged on an extremely good Japanese sushi dinner. On the way back to the hotel, multiple people on the street smiled and said “happy new year” to us. We smiled and said it back.

The visit to the garden provided a great opportunity to engage in one of my favorite activities, photographing flowers. Here’s a few samples:

Day #19 – 1/1/16

This day, our last day in Vietnam, could not have been better. We packed up, checked out, and took a taxi to a small shop that we had found on the internet. It was fairly near the airport and sold vinyl LP’s, which Eli is very interested in, so we thought it would be fun to stop there on the way out.

When we arrived at the “shop” it turned out to essentially be the front room of a guy’s apartment, set back in a labyrinth of windy alleyways. We rang the bell, waited a long time, and were just about to leave when a woman and her young daughter came to the door. She sent her daughter to get the owner (not sure if he was the father, an uncle or the landlord). He came and explained (he spoke English) that the store was closed for New Year’s Day, could we return tomorrow? We explained we were on our way to the airport, but thanks so much anyway. He then decided to open the store and let us in. On his day off.

It was so cool. The room was filled with old stereo equipment, lovingly restored:

There were boxes and cabinets of LP’s, which Eli immediately started going through. What a strange variety of music! There was classical Vietnamese music, gospel, rock, jazz, pop … everything, in no particular order. The owner came in with tea for us. He played the LP’s Eli picked out on one of the stereos. He explained that he was a physics teacher at a local high school and normally had someone working there during the week. He also produces music, and gave each of us a free CD of one of his records. He posed for a few pics and in every way went so far beyond what could reasonably be expected that it was just incredible.

After thanking him profusely (and buying a few LP’s, of course), we dodged an offer to smoke, and found a very local cafe off the main street to have our last pho. I don’t think a foreigner had ever eaten there – we attracted a few friendly but curious stares. The food was delicious, and we easily caught a cab to the airport. It was the perfect end to our visit.

Then we were off to the airport, tearful goodbyes, flight delays, long airplane rides and eventually, back to our respective homes. What memories we made during our time there. I only told 19 stories (ok, maybe a few more), but there’s lots I haven’t even included. It’s all in my head and my heart. I’m so very glad I went.

I’m making a video of all the music I heard there, and will put it up in a separate post, once I finish it. This one’s going up now, though. I know it’s long, but still, I hope it gives you a sense of how wonderful Vietnam was, in all the ways I tried to describe here, and so many more.