Tuesday, March 25, 2008

水, вода, 물, น้ำ, voda, air, víz, apă, nước, tubig, uisce, wasser, eau, agua, acqua

This past Saturday was the 16th-annual World Water Day, a U.N.-sponsored event begun in 1993. Its purpose is to raise awareness about major water-related issues, such as the fact that there are over a billion people in the world who lack access to safe drinking water, and to encourage further action on U.N. development goals concerning water. It's also a good opportunity to reflect on the ways in which we interact with and rely on water in our daily lives.

The title of this post lists the words for "water" used in many of the countries I've traveled to. Thinking back on my experiences abroad, I've definitely had different relationships with water in some countries than in the U.S., but I've never come close to experiencing water scarcity.

In Seoul, South Korea, visitors are advised not to drink from the tap...by guidebooks and their home governments, that is. I think the Korean government has officially designated the city's tap water safe, though I couldn't find a figure on how many people actually drink it. The result is a lot of plastic bottles, and a lot of money spent. I'd never buy bottled water in the U.S.--most comes from the tap anyway--but the talk of heavy metal contamination was enough to convince me otherwise in Seoul.

Needless to say, I didn't drink a drop from the tap during my bicycle tour through Southeast Asia either. It's also supposedly a bad idea to order drinks with ice, but I ignored that rule and suffered no obvious consequences. Bottled water was significantly cheaper, as low as 15 cents for the small ones, though I imagine this is still too expensive for some people in the region.

I guess tourists, no matter where they go, are not exposed to the hardship of water scarcity. It's overwhelmingly the people of the developing world that must face it in day-to-day living. According to this website, almost all of South America, Africa, and the south of Asia faces shortages of some kind. And it's not only drinking water we're talking about. A lack of potable water also means inadequate sanitation, which can be just as deadly as drinking from a contaminated water source.

One scary prospect for the future is the privatization of water. Cochabamba, Bolivia, got a taste of this in 2000, and it wasn't pretty. It came at the behest of the World Bank, which threatened to withhold a $25 million loan from Bolivia--South America's poorest nation--unless it privatized the city's water works. Only one entity placed a bid, a consortium of foreign corporations called Aguas del Tunari, and the Bolivian government signed over all rights to the water in its third-largest city. Rates immediately jumped by 35%, and anyone who couldn't pay had their water shut off. This included a large segment of the impoverished city's population, and unrest grew quickly. After four months of national strikes, marches, and some violent clashes with police, Aguas del Tunari was forced to return control of the water works to Bolivia, and the "Cochabamba Water Wars" were over.

The only scenario worse than this would be an actual water war. In fact, there are some policy experts who feel armed conflicts over water in this century are likely. As the pressures of population growth, climate change, and unequal wealth distribution converge, we may be locked into a global struggle for resources like never before. Countries that share vital river systems--such as the Nile in Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia and the Tigris and Euphrates in Turkey, Syria, and Iraq--could be the first to go at it. But any conflict that would deprive the losers of the most necessary of life's substances should concern the entire world.

Obviously, the U.N. has some good reasons for declaring March 22 World Water Day. So in that spirit, here are some facts on water use you might find surprising:

* It takes 2,500 gallons of water to produce one pound of beef, 250 for one pound of soy, and 25 for one pound of wheat.

* Agricultural irrigation accounts for 70% of the world's water use.

* In 2000, water use by American power stations, both for generating electricity and cooling equipment, amounted to 195,000,000,000 gallons...per day.

* It takes 300 gallons to water the average lawn.

* 75% of the human brain is water.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Addendum: Portrait of an Ingredient

No, this is not turning into a food blog. But after writing about laap a few days ago, I got to thinking about one particular ingredient used in that dish that might but somewhat unfamiliar to Western diners but is nonetheless a fascinating substance: fish sauce.

My interest in the subject was first piqued by a book I recently finished, Catfish and Mandala, by Andrew X. Pham. It's a memoir-style travel tale about the author (a Vietnamese American), his family, and his return to Vietnam to cycle the length of the country. He was born in the city of Phan Thiet, which he identifies as one of the major fish sauce capitals of the world. More intriguing, though, were his references to the condiment when describing his heritage. Apparently, Vietnamese expatriates (called Viet kieu) who return to visit the motherland are not always highly looked on by those who never left. Pham has a hard time convincing the people he encounters that he is in fact Vietnamese and not Japanese or Korean. In his attempts to do so, he often tells them he is "full-blooded Vietnamese, pure undiluted fish sauce."

Having always assumed that fish sauce must have originated in China or Thailand, I was surprised to learn of its Vietnamese roots. After further research, it appears that many Southeast Asian cultures probably developed some variety of the sauce independently. In fact, the ancient Romans quite liberally used a condiment called "garum," very similar to modern Asian fish sauce. But regardless of all this, the Vietnamese seem to feel the most intimate connection to the stuff.

Fish sauce has been a vital source of protein and a staple part of the Vietnamese diet for centuries. Pham even describes how in the past it functioned as currency in his hometown. Called nước mắm, it is used to add saltiness to most dishes and can also serve as a dipping sauce. It can be made with pretty much any species of fish, but anchovies are most frequently used due to their omnipresence in the South China Sea and the fact that they're not in demand for consumption. Salt is added to the fish and they are placed in wooden boxes and allowed to ferment, sometimes for up to a year. The anchovy layers are slowly compressed, much like apples in a cider press, and the resultant liquid becomes fish sauce. Simple as that. Of course, the taste and quality can vary greatly depending on the duration of fermentation, the type of fish, and any other ingredients that are added.

According to one website I found, Vietnam sold its fish sauce worldwide up until the U.S.-induced trade embargo in 1975. It was 20 years before the country would reenter the fish sauce market, and apparently Thailand took advantage of the situation during that time to develop something of a monopoly. I'm not sure how accurate this description is, but it's certainly true that the fish sauce sold at grocery stores here invariably comes from Thailand.

As a final note, it's worth pointing out that vegetarians have a hard time finding a substitute for the unique flavor of fish sauce. I prefer the real thing but recently had cause to play around with concocting a fish-free replacement. What I did was boil some dried kelp (the thick kind, like you see in miso soup) in a pot of water--the longer the better, so that you end up with a stock with that very "oceany" taste. I then added some soy sauce and extra salt, let it boil a little longer, and that was it. After removing the kelp strips, it looked just like fish sauce, and the taste wasn't far off either. Of course, I don't have pure, undiluted fish sauce running through my veins, so maybe I don't know any better.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Portrait of a Dish

Sometimes when we travel we get so caught up in sightseeing that we forget to take a moment to enjoy the simple pleasures of the day. And what's simpler or more pleasurable than food?

Laos is a country that has stuck in my mind. I enjoyed how the Mekong River dominates life in the south. Its waters lend a lush fragrance to everything around it, rustic and fresh. And it's this freshness that comes across whenever I eat laap, the national dish.

Laap (often seen as larb on Thai menus) is a warm salad that can be made with any variety of protein--chicken, pork, raw beef, water fowl, freshwater fish, or even water buffalo (I make mine with tofu, seitan, or a combination of the two). The key is that the meat must be minced. To achieve this effect with tofu, it's best to freeze it first, which results in a grainier, crumbly texture when thawed.

Of all the ingredients, I'd say the glutinous rice powder gives laap its most distinctive flavor. This is made by toasting uncooked grains of sticky rice (usually available at Asian markets) until they turn golden brown, then grinding them in a coffee/spice grinder. It may smell like stale popcorn, but it really makes the dish.

The clear, light freshness of laap comes from the use of fresh herb leaves--mint and cilantro--chopped green onions, and fresh lime juice. A liberal dousing of fish sauce enhances the flavors. And of course, it wouldn't be a Southeast Asian dish without some heat. Diced serrano peppers do the trick for me, but an Asian chili would be more authentic. Heap it all on a bed of lettuce and you're good to go.

If you need something to accompany the dish, hand-rolled balls of sticky rice are a must, and some people like a mixture of freshly chopped tomato, cucumber, and basil as well. For specific measurements and instructions for all this, the recipe I follow (more or less) is here.

Even with snow on the ground outside, when those bright flavors touch my palate, it's easy to imagine myself resting cross-legged on a cushion in front of a low wooden table, watching the Mekong's swift current rush off into the sunset. And that's about as good as travel gets.