Monthly Archives: January 2011

A Curious Man, A Curious Woman: Two Very Different Things

(Visitors who read this blog to learn about working in a restaurant, Asian cuisine and recipes be warned—this post is totally different… I also write about travel and this is what today’s post is about. If you are uncomfortable with words such as” thrusting” and “g-strings”, skip this piece and come back when I visit the subject of tasty food once again)

I shiver as a gust of wind whips around the corner and blows through the narrow alley in which I’m standing. I pop the collar on my coat, attempting to block the icy wind from penetrating and trickling down my back. Red lights reflect off the puddles of rainwater that have pooled in the uneven cobbled streets; their glow is both eerie and romantic. Feet in front of me, behind a large glass window, stands a beautiful woman wearing a skimpy bra and a g-string slid low on her hips, suggesting that it wouldn’t take much effort to enjoy what the two inches of cloth are struggling to conceal.

She’s not alone, there are dozens of these moving window displays. They stand—legs spread—rocking their hips back and forth, twirling their hair, filing nails, talking or texting on their cell phones. Occasionally, one taps on the window trying to get the attention of possible clients as they walk by. Men of all ages and backgrounds mill about. Sometimes they’re alone, but often with one or two friends. They peer into the widows, knock on doors and whisper with the women inside.

Curiosity has brought me to Amsterdam’s famous Red Light District. I want to know who these women are and where they come from. Do they have families? Are they beautiful? Are they young? Some questions are easily answered. Most are young and beautiful. They look to be from all over, but mainly Eastern Europe. However as these questions are answered, many others surface unexpectedly. Do families live in the gorgeous apartments right above the brothels? The grandmother on the second floor sitting on the sofa reading her book… is she accustomed to the sound of women standing in the doorway negotiating their price with groups of men? How long has she lived here? Did she used to be a prostitute in her youth?

I look in one window and see a woman in a lacy red bra and thong straightening a ruffled bed. I think to myself, “How many men has she serviced there tonight?” “I wonder how long it takes her to take care of one client?” “Does she share that bed with the other woman in the booth or is there another bed behind the tiny bathroom?” I’m fairly confident these are not the thoughts racing through the minds of the men leering at the same scene.

I’m pretty liberal; my attitude is very much whatever-floats-your-boat. But I’m also curious as to why something strikes your fancy, or more crudely but aptly put—gets you off.

There are many reasons why men visit prostitutes, too many to even begin listing, and sometimes I kind of get it. But I don’t really understand what lures young, handsome, educated men, bachelor parties even, to Amsterdam’s brothels where they dole out 50-150 euros to spend five minutes nervously thrusting into a woman who would obviously rather be elsewhere. (Okay, perhaps not all men are nervous, and maybe some of the women are actually happy to be there. Maybe. I would hate to spoil the fantasy with my cynicism).

The issue is far too complex for my little mind to sort out alone. So I asked. Here are the answers I heard. Drugs, could’ve guessed that. Alcohol, yeah no kiddin’. Curiosity, WHAAAAAT?

Now I would say that I’m a curious person… let me take that a step further – I think most women are by nature curious creatures. When we hear a story we immediately ask numerous follow up questions. We love details. The why, when, how, who and any other tidbit worth extracting, we want them all.

Men, not so much. My husband can talk on the phone for ten minutes to a male friend who has just announced that he and his wife are having a baby and the only information that he will come away with is that his friend is “good.” Due date? Didn’t think to ask. The baby’s sex? Didn’t come up. Are they registered anywhere? What’s that?

Okay I can hear the men protesting… “Well I’m not a baby guy. Those details aren’t important to me”. That’s fair. However, I could plug in just about any major life event and the result would be the same. New job. Decision to go back to school. Moving abroad. Engagement. Divorce. I wager that if your lady friend asked you five follow-up questions after a conversation on any of those topics you’d struggle to answer three. And that’s being generous.

Nonetheless, I don’t think that the guys I talked to were lying when they said that it was innocent curiosity that lured young men to Amsterdam’s brothels.

Maybe men and women are just curious in different ways. Women ask for details when we hear a story. Then, we are able to construct the entire experience in our minds with that information. We can recreate a scene or conversation as if we were there.

Unfortunately this sometimes means our curiosity is self-limiting. I’ll eat chicken feet because I’m dying to know what it is about them that Chinese all over the world love. But I draw the line at chicken butt. Likewise, I will never sleep with a 300 pound man out of curiosity to know what it would be like to sleep with someone three times my size. If I think I’m not going to enjoy something based on similarities to past experiences or from details gleaned from someone who has done it then I’m not going to waste my time or money pursuing it. But maybe my chicken feet is some man’s Amsterdam hooker.

Often if men are interested in something they’ll simply go out and try it. Maybe they visit the Red Light District knowing full well that it’s not going to be an earth moving experience, but they’re curious about what it would be like. They can’t imagine it nearly as well, or as easily, as they could just go and experience it for themselves.

I could continue to ponder this for hours but I think I’ll pass this one off to that ambiguous, lazy, but all-too-true explanation. Men and women are just different creatures. I may never understand why hundreds of young men go to Amsterdam every weekend and dole out cash for something they could get for free from the loose women at their local dive. This is a rare instance where I will admit that I would be better served focusing my curiosity elsewhere. This may be one experience I will never understand—no matter how many questions I ask.


Banh Mi: My Kind of Sandwich

My two passions, foreign policy and food, are engaged in a heated battle inside this warm sandwich. A result of French colonialism the banh mi is an example of colonialism bad, culinary influence, good.

The Vietnamese baguette is made with a mixture of wheat and rice flour resulting in a thin crusty exterior with a soft, airy interior. Most of us don’t have a Vietnamese bakery in our neighborhood, so go ahead and grab a baguette from your local Whole Foods or supermarket. Try to buy it when it’s fresh though, as it can be discomfortingly hard if it sits too long.

There are numerous variations of the banh mi, but the basics are: pickled carrots and daikon, cucumbers, cilantro, chilies, and some kind of grilled meat—often chicken, pork or beef. Pâté and fried eggs are also excellent additions. Sometimes I add torn up mint leaves; the cooling quality of mint balances nicely with the fiery chilies. The recipe here uses the same pork belly recipe that I use for ramen and buta kakuni.

This sandwich has luscious fatty goodness from the pork belly, tangy and crisp pickles, herbal cilantro and a little kick from the chilies. What’s not to love?

1 carrot
½ daikon (Japanese white radish)
½ large cucumber
1 hot pepper (Jalapeno, Serrano), thinly sliced
2 tablespoons rice vinegar
2 tablespoons fish sauce
½ teaspoon sugar
¼ teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons warm water
Pork belly, sliced (see recipe tab)
French baguette
Sprigs of fresh cilantro

  • Start by making a quick pickle: Peel the carrot, daikon and cucumber. You can  julienne (long thick matchstick shape) all the vegetables or, what I like to do, use your peeler and continue to peel the edible flesh. You’ll end up with long identical strips of carrot, daikon and cucumber (stop when you reach the seeds).
  • Put the sliced chilies, rice vinegar, fish sauce, sugar, salt, and warm water into a large bowl. Stir to dissolve salt and sugar.
  • Add the carrots, daikon, and cucumbers. Mix. Cover and refrigerate.
  • Slice the pork belly to desired thickness. Heat skillet. Add the belly and reheat, caramelizing both sides.
  • Portion the baguette to desired sandwich size and then slice each piece horizontally. Warm up the bread slightly in the oven (the goal is just to warm through not toast it).
  • Spread mayonnaise on one side of each sandwich (I’m a big fan of Japanese Kewpie mayo). Layer each sandwich with the pickles, chilies and pork belly. Finish with fresh cilantro sprigs.

Grown Up Instant Ramen

My next major culinary project is to learn how to make real ramen broth. The sous chef at the restaurant I stage at kindly loaned metwo Japanese magazines on the intricacies of making ramen. But with my rapidly deteriorating Japanese reading skills I fear I may never uncover the secrets to rich, complex and creamy tonkotsu broth.

However, I remain determined to learn and in the meantime I’ll continue to use store bought ramen packets to satisfy my cravings. I’m not talking about the dorm room favorite— Cup Noodles, rather than buying the packets with dried instant noodles look in the refrigerated section of your local Asian store for the ones containing fresh noodles. They are definitely a major step up.

Prepare the noodles and broth as stated on the back of the package. Then gently reheat three or four slices of pork belly. Quickly sauté cabbage and bean sprouts in a hot skillet with a little chicken stock (liquid or powder form, no one’s judging), salt, and white pepper—finish with a splash of black vinegar and sesame oil. Other great ramen toppings include soft-boiled eggs, seaweed (dried or fresh), bamboo shoots and shiitakes.

Place the pork belly, vegetables and toppings of your choice in a bowl with the ramen noodles and broth. Enjoy this elevated college staple on your real dining room table rather than on a stack of old pizza boxes that you’ve draped a sarong over in an effort to disguise its origins. Seriously, did that ever fool anyone? Congratulate yourself on becoming a grown up… of sorts.