Even for me, this has been a crazy year of traveling. I have to admit that after returning last week from my fifth continent of the year — a journey to Singapore, Cambodia and Vietnam — I am tired, and very, very happy to be home.
It was an amazing and delicious trip (one that, never fear, I will be milking for all its worth in columns to come). But it was somewhat strenuous and fast-moving. We covered a lot of ground, which meant staying in each location for only two nights. And we were hanging out near the equator, so the weather was, shall we say, sultry. (My preferred term, because the more accurate descriptors of “steamy,” “sweaty” and “effing hot” make me perspire all over again.)
I can’t tell you how delightful it has been to put my suitcase away and sleep in my own bed every night, and especially to wake up to fall days that do not rely on an air conditioner for their crispness.
I also truly appreciate having all my closets and drawers to choose from. A wardrobe limited to the contents of one suitcase is liberating in many ways — figuring out what to wear each day is a breeze — but it has been pure pleasure to reunite with the jeans, sweaters, jackets and socks that I left behind when I packed for the tropics.
In fact, everything about returning home has been great, with one glaring exception.
There’s no breakfast buffet at my house.
Other than in Singapore (where the British left them with an unfortunate appetite for toast with too-sweet coconut-and-egg jam), breakfast in Asia is a meal equal to or even better than lunch and dinner, with similar variety. If you haven’t experienced an Asian breakfast buffet, you only think you have eaten breakfast. I’m getting hungry just thinking about it.
I eat very lightly in the morning at home, and I should have done the same this past month, given that the trip was culinary based and we were devouring our way through vast amounts of local cuisine at lunch and dinner. But it would have taken a stronger-willed person than I am to turn my back on the extensive buffets in our hotels.
There were none of those sad platters of thin-sliced cheese and salami you get in Europe. Breakfast in Asia is an actual meal, at least for travelers.
In deference to the West, there was always an omelet and egg station. And corn flakes or other cereal. Sometimes oatmeal, French toast and crepes as well. Even smoked fish and cream cheese at a couple places (though I never spotted bagels).
But there were also dim sum dumplings and steamed buns, as well as congee with shredded chicken and a variety of other items to mix into it. Stir-fried noodles with pork. Fried rice and steamed vegetables. Chicken and vegetarian curries, pakoras and naan.
And did you know that pho is a breakfast food? That’s actually when Vietnamese are most likely to eat it. Our Saigon hotel had a salmon pho that was off the scale.
The fresh-squeezed juices included watermelon, dragon fruit and passion fruit, which were also well represented on the vast platters of fresh fruit, along with pineapple, rambutan, guava, mini bananas and other delights.
The French influence was visible in displays of croissants and flaky pastries. There’s a reason I gained 5 pounds on this trip, and it’s called pain au chocolat.
Now that I’m home, I ought to be dieting, so perhaps it would be good for me to return to my former habits. But my stomach has become accustomed to a full meal first thing in the morning.
It has been almost painful to wander into the kitchen and discover that no army of culinary helpers was at work overnight preparing my breakfast feast. Instead, this morning I had to settle for toast. Toast! You’d think I was in Singapore.
I really need to speak to the management of this establishment. The bed here is very comfortable, the plumbing is first-rate, the closets are fully stocked with weather-appropriate clothing and the accommodations are generally luxurious, but they really need to do something about the breakfast situation. At a minimum, there should be noodle soup, dim sum and a fruit platter to tide me over until lunch. I don’t think that’s asking too much.
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I’m hungry. And as you know, breakfast is the most important meal of the morning.
Daikon and Carrot Pickles
From “Into the Vietnamese Kitchen” by Andrea Nguyen
I’m still somewhat jet-lagged and not up to tackling anything complicated yet, so I thought I’d start my Vietnamese cooking with these simple pickles. They’re tasty as a side complement to meat dishes and are especially good as part of a bahn mi sandwich.
This recipe from my friend Andrea Nguyen’s first cookbook (she has written several and I recommend them all) takes minutes to make. The vegetables only need to pickle for an hour, and keep for up to a month in the fridge, so if you can find daikon at the store, there’s really no excuse not to mix up a batch.
1 large carrot, peeled and cut into 1/4-inch matchsticks
1 pound daikons (preferably smaller ones), peeled and cut into 1/4-inch matchsticks
1 tsp. salt
2 tsp. sugar, plus 1/2 cup sugar (used separately)
1-1/4 cups white vinegar
1 cup lukewarm water
Place the carrot and daikon matchsticks in a bowl and sprinkle with the salt and 2 teaspoons of sugar. Use your hands to knead the vegetables for 3 minutes, expelling the water from them. Keep kneading until you can bend one of the daikon matchsticks without it breaking. The vegetables will lose about 1/4 of their volume.
Drain in a colander and rinse under running water, pressing to expel any excess water.
Place the vegetables in a bowl of large jar.
Make the brine by combining the 1/2 cup of sugar, vinegar and water and stirring until the sugar is dissolved. Pour over the vegetables (they should be entirely covered by the brine) and let marinate for at least one hour.
Makes about 3 cups.