Saturday, March 31, 2012

A Phú Quốc holiday with AMAZING food!

Before you start to read, you might want to get a cup of tea or something. This is a long post with lots of pictures to look at!

Last week I had a "down week", which is the week we have between terms when there are no classes. It had been quite a while since I'd had a beach holiday and I was tired and burnt out and needed to relax, so I booked myself a flight to Phú Quốc Island, waaaaaay down off the South coast of Vietnam.

The northern end of the island has beaches that
go on for miles, with almost nobody on them!

After a fair bit of searching online for satisfactory and budget-friendly accommodation, I said to myself, "Right. What's #1 on Tripadvisor?", not thinking for a second that it would be a place I could actually afford. And that's how I discovered Freedomland.

The owners of Freedomland, Peter and Rita, bill it as a homestay rather than as a hotel. It consists of several small bungalows that are described as "basic" but really are far nicer than most I've stayed in before. The homestay part comes in when you get to the common areas. Dinner is served as one big communal meal where everyone eats the same thing (unless you have specific dietary requirements).

The communal dinner table.

The bar.
Communal sitting area.

There is no obligation to eat dinner at Freedomland, but there aren't many other options nearby, and after my first meal I knew I wouldn't be eating dinner anywhere else.

It's not cheap, by Vietnam standards. The cost of the meal depends upon what Peter has to pay for ingredients at the market, and usually comes in at around $14-15. However, it's a five course meal every night, made with the freshest produce and just-caught seafood. It's presented with incredible attention to detail, with superb combinations of flavours and textures. For a meal like this in any major city in the world you could easily pay $100. I asked Peter where he'd learned to cook. He said, "I didn't. I just improvise." Oh to have that kind of talent!

The first night I didn't take my camera to dinner, and wished I had, so every night after that I annoyed my dining companions by taking pictures of every dish and making my flash go off in their eyes. Sorry!

Here's a selection of photos of the food we had:

Spring rolls with peanuts, noodles, and some kind of white vegetable inside.
The second night I was there, instead of having the usual 5 courses we only had 3, but the middle one was all-you-can-eat seafood hotpot!

As this was added to the hotpot they
kept adding more and more and more to
the plate, until we had to beg them to stop!
The hotpot and its ingredients

My bowl - to be eaten and refilled again, and again, and again....

I joined a German couple to ride bikes up to the northern beaches one day, where we stopped at a little seafood restaurant with beachside huts and hammocks. Unfortunately, my companions were non-fish eating vegetarians, and the restaurant had very few veggie dishes so they ate french fries while I had fish grilled with chili and salt. It was amazing - cooked absolutely perfectly and SO delicious!

The perfect lunch spot!
Happy fishermen!

Kids coming over the bridge to see the "Tays" in a village we rode through.
The edge of a typical Phú Quốc fishing village.

Cute kid in a big floppy hat.
Ok, back to the food! At Freedomland they had these barbecue buckets that they used almost every night to cook meat, fish or seafood. I saw them in the market for 60,000 dong (about $3) and seriously considered bringing one back with me!

Build a fire in the bottom, put a wire rack on top and you have an instant barbecue!
The third night I was there we started with a pumpkin soup, then had these beautiful noodle baskets of cucumber, tomato, and pineapple salad:

After that it was up to us to wrap our food: fresh spring rolls with meat and my old favourite bánh xèo !

I was going to ask if I could watch them making the bánh xèo so I'd
know how, but got a bit too distracted with the eating and forgot!
The next night started off with a beetroot soup (but not like borscht, it was really good!)....

then we had tuna on a bed of noodles with pomelo sauce....

then a crab cake tower....

The tomato was hollowed out and the inside was replaced with salad.
then prawns skewered on lemongrass and noodles with a sort of pesto-ey sauce (but it wasn't basil...I'm not sure what it was)....

and followed it all up with pannacotta!

Yes, I ate like this every night. This is NOT a place to go if you're on a diet!

I love the place this guy found to sleep!

Part of the main town, Dương Đông.

A Phú Quốc sunset

And back to the food again:

Crunchy bread stacked with eggplant, prawn and squid
and a delicious garlic aioli type sauce.

It's time to roll stuff again! Herring this time.

The contents of my roll, before it's rolled.
There's a piece of fish underneath all that somewhere.

Banana fritters! Sooooo good!
On my last night there we had a sunset barbecue on the beach.

The bucket barbecues again!

Staff hard at work.
Sorry, I didn't get a picture of the other food. But I did get one of the glowing sky.

When it got dark they built a bonfire on the beach so we could have some light and hang out longer. What a perfect last night!

A few photos of the wildlife I encountered:

These little frogs often came to hang out in my outdoor bathroom.
It rained really hard for a few hours one day, which obviously
delighted them because that night they were SO LOUD!
Little crabs like this were digging their holes all over the beach.

ENORMOUS freaky looking bug on my bungalow's balcony.

And some less scary wildlife:
Freedomland's Phú Quốc dog Piggy had just had puppies!

So cute! I wanted to take one home!

Freedomland is not for everyone. They make it quite clear when you book that there is no AC, no TV, and no pool, and that the beach is actually about a 10 - 15 minute walk away. If you're looking for town-type amenities, you have to drive or cycle 7km. However, they do everything they can to help you out and make sure you're comfortable, and I would absolutely not hesitate to recommend this place. It was exactly what I needed. It was kept sparkling clean, the staff were sweet and friendly, there's a great social atmosphere, and that food....all I can say is wow. Go there!

Monday, March 26, 2012

Graduation cupcakes

Every 11 weeks my classes end, and typically on the last day of class we have a "party", which consists of the teacher providing a cake bought from the local bakery, and the students playing whatever music they want and taking lots of pictures on their mobile phones.

My last class was probably my favourite class I've ever had at this job. I can't really explain why, but they were just an absolute joy to teach. So, when it came time for our "party", I decided that instead of buying a cake, I'd make something for them myself. Because they were a Level 7 class, which is the last level before they can enter the degree program, I decided to make them these Graduation Cupcakes to symbolize their graduation from the English Program.

I started with a basic chocolate cake recipe and made both normal sized ones and these tiny ones:

I then made chocolate mousse and left the cupcakes to cool and the mousse to set while I went to work. That night I dug out the tops of the cupcakes and filled them with the mousse.

I topped these with white icing, put one of the tiny cupcakes upside down on top, and stuck a flat piece of chocolate on top with a dollop of icing.

For the tassels, I cut up some red Fruit Roll-Ups into strips, stuck two on each cupcake with icing, and topped it with a red M&M. Presto! RMIT colours!

One thing to note is that Fruit Roll-Ups melt if you leave them hanging like that overnight! The cupcakes my students got had tassels that were half melted onto the cupcakes, but they didn't care! They LOVED them!

Trang loves cupcakes!

Big smiles from Nga and Thuy Anh...

And an even bigger smile from Giang!

Ngoc and T.A.

Khoi and Duong
Me with my class

Delicious mousse inside!
These were delicious, and my class was pretty happy. When I told them they were the first class I'd ever baked anything for, their reaction was, "Oh, so we're SPECIAL!" And they're right.