They say a way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, Vietnam tried to seduce us in every way possible way using this manner. The agricultural tradition and availability of fresh ingredients in Vietnam makes the food exceptionally good and tasty.
Although Vietnam has experienced enormous economic growth, working the land is still at the heart of daily life. The doubling of the population since the war has also meant further subdivision, requiring these small areas to be hand tended without machines. As we passed through the landscape, we saw jigsaws of fields, with bodies bent over, their hands dipping into the earth, there individuality removed by the trademark conical hat. The water buffalo, the sacred animal, makes this machine less work bearable, and provides companionship for the lonely worker. Our friend’s father told us stories of his childhood, lying on the back of his buffalo working the fields and also sleeping and reading on it. His buffalo was a female with one good and eye and much to the ridicule of the neighbour who was a male and twice the size. Agriculture accounts for 22% of the GDP and 60% of jobs, so this way of life is integral to the communist vision.
The market is the corner stone of most villages and cities, operated by mostly women and open for business at 4.00 am, they sell fresh vegetables, herbs, spices, live animals, bread, fish, knick naks and flowers. Pigs are slaughtered at 1.00am with all their parts displayed artfully for the discerning customer. Buyers, mostly women will start their day in the market at 5.00am to get the best quality, while their men go to the cafes and drink iced coffee and smoke cigarettes.
Typical morning scene with men drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes, while the women keep the engine running
During our stay in Hoi An, we had the privilege to experience the amazing cooking classes given by Ms Trinh Diem Vy of the Morning Glory Cooking School. Ms Vy stressed the importance of fresh local ingredients and creating strong relationships with the suppliers. The class began with an insightful tour of the market, tasting a custard apple for the first time felt like a desert in itself. The papaya, banana and mango all come from the central region, grapes and watermelon from the Mekong delta in the south of Vietnam, oranges and grapefruit from Laos and Thailand and absurdly convenient seedless grapes from the USA. Next we sampled the roots that give the hearty flavour to marinades, the bigger ginger had a milder flavour, where as the smaller one was more potent and good for the throat, lemon grass sliced then pounded smelt divine. We were informed that the big chillies were from Saigon and the small potent ones from the central area, they use chillies to preserve food and stay warm in the winter.
We then passed through the slamming meat cleavers, with live chickens and ducks, the fish market sellers with it’s familiar odour, were chopping up huge mackerel. We were informed that the colour and cloudiness of the mackerel’s eyes indicates it’s freshness. There were kitchens (street stalls) in operations, with people sitting closely enjoying the chat. Woman work very hard in Vietnam and seem to maintain the backbone of the country, in the market they were on their mopeds gathering up all the ingredients for the Tet holiday, similar to the preparations that are required for Christmas.
Moving through the market, we arrived at the fresh herbs, with the woman sitting on the side of the road surrounded by them. The woman appeared arranged like something from a stage set. They sell the freshest most perfumed herbs you could ever imagine, lemon basil, coriander, mint, aniseed, fish leave, morning glory. Then back to the restaurant with our utensils and burners at the ready.
Morning Glory Cooking School
First on the menu was Shrimp and Cabbage soup, Ms Vy told is that this was a must for any new wife to prepare for mother in law. Preparing this demonstrates her patience and her ability to maintain her husband. The shrimps are blended with egg white, cooked cabbage leaves are then use it to wrap the shrimp paste and it’s all tied together it with a scallion. Cabbage, carrot, fried shrimp and shallot oil are added to soup and cooked until broth is clear and cabbage is soft. Amazingly, this dish with lowly cabbage as it’s main ingredients, is surprisingly delicious.
Fresh Spring Rolls
There is no real dairy in Vietnam, no milk, calcium is extracted from greens and the shellfish and beef is only eaten on a special occasions. Next on the menu was fresh spring rolls, this is considered treat food and is beautifully wrapped so that it appears as much a delight to the eyes as to the taste buds. Dipping sauce is very important and is made of fish oil garlic, chilli and saffron oil.
Marinated Chicken and Mango Salad
Chicken was marinated with an explosion of flavours – lemon grass, garlic, fish oil, saffron oil, chilli, sugar cane and fresh turmeric. This was wrapped on a skewer and put between mesh and roasted on hot coals. I had seen the street chefs prepare this and was intrigued by the aromas; I slowly then began to understand the culture and loved it. To wrap up the cooking experience, we made mango salad, using a traditional peeler to create fine slivers of a juicy sweet mango then added pomelo, garlic dressing, sesame seeds and garnished with crispy shallots.
The Business of Eating
Hoi An is a town in central Vietnam that generates 80% of the employment from tourism. Ms Vy, our teacher at the Morning Glory cooking school, is a wonderful and inspiring businesswoman and extremely passionate about what she does. She is a the second generation of a family restaurant and employs 180 staff directly and multiples indirectly in four restaurants, a hotel, a cooking school and now a book. She went abroad and saw how much money westerners were spending on cakes and treats and saw it was a good way to make money and opened a patisserie for the tourists in Hoi An. When Vietnam fist opened their doors in 1992, Ms Vy said it was like North Korea is today. The only foreigners they saw were Soviet Uncles, so they presumed all the foreigners were Russians.
Spaces to Eat
All the towns and cities contain warrens of small lanes and alleyways that change character throughout the day. During the morning, the breakfast ladies serve noodles, bread, tea and eggs; people sit on little stools under canopies enjoying the cheap and tasty snacks. Mid-morning, ladies sell fruit and gut fish, also providing shoes repairs or offering souvenirs for Tet. In the evening the young people sit in front of charcoal barbecues, roasting pork on a stick served with street beer or tea and pumpkins seeds as appetisers. The ritual of extracting what little the seeds offer is more rewarding than filling feeling of the snack.
The next generation, fun loving, engaged and snacking on the street
The Art of Eating
Eating in Vietnam is about community, sharing and not choosing individually what you want. Most of the base ingredients have a rice origin, but this is innovated and presented in different forms to dress up and make the most of a seemingly plain ingredient. Pho bo, is the loyal servant, made of rice noodle, bone marrow broth, shavings of beef and seasoned with mint coriander, fish oil, liquorice, bean sprouts, lime and chilli. Corn is available almost everywhere, boiling pots at the side of the road, or roasting on hot coals on the back of a bicycle. Desserts have always been considered a luxury and mostly consist of the indigenous coconut milk, jelly, green sweet corn and sugar cane.