Saturday, January 8, 2011

Food Glorious Food

7 January 2011:

Awoke this morning to the sound of heavy rain. One cannot possibly be homesick for poor old sodden Queensland when it's pissing down here like a small dog with a bladder infection. 

It was clearly far too wet for us to walk into town to go to our cooking class. Aside from the fact that it was just too wet, there is a great deal of construction work going on in Hoi An near our hotel, and the roads are one great big quagmire of brown mud and potholes the size of the Great Lakes. We ordered a taxi and for the princely sum of $1, we were deposited near Le Loi Street. Cars and motorbikes are only permitted in certain areas of Hoi An, and even then, the motorbikes are only permitted in certain streets at certain times. If someone is riding a motorbike when the curfew comes, they have to stop it, get off and push it the rest of the way until they're outside the pedestrian zone. We had to walk the rest of the way down to Morning Glory and luckily we had the huge golf umbrellas given to us by the hotel staff. 

Another thing I love about the Vietnamese people is just how hard working and enterprising they are. I swear that before 10 drops of rain have hit the ground, you will find a gaggle of women materialising out of nowhere to offer ponchos and umbrellas for sale. They appear as if by magic. When one stops to consider that most Vietnamese people earn less than $250 per month, it's no wonder and completely understandable that they must try to earn a living in whatever way they can. I applaud them for their tenacity and creativity.

Because we had our umbrellas and were relatively dry, we waved off about 4 poncho bearing vendors before we arrived at Morning Glory. It's a combined restaurant and cooking school, and although the name Morning Glory causes most westerners (particularly those of the Y chromosome variety) to snigger with juvenile mirth, morning glory is actually a water spinach in Vietnam and is very tasty and nutritious. It's  absolutely divine when stir fried with garlic and chili. Morning Glory Street Food Restaurant and Cooking School is another of Madam Vy's businesses and it's just beautiful. We sit around for a few minutes awaiting the arrival of the rest of the participants. As we wait, the rain becomes heavier and heavier and we soon realise that there's not a chance in hell we're going to be able to walk around the markets without a poncho. We curse ourselves as we scour the now empty street for one of the ladies who could supply our desired item. Sure enough, within seconds of our popping our heads out, three ladies popped out of the mist like apparitions, laden with dozens of ponchos in a variety of colours. We select our ponchos and part with the $1.25 that they cost us. 

It seems that we have a completely full class today and we're split up into various groups. Our guide for the markets was a gorgeous, tiny little thing named Thuet (Tweet), which apparently means snow in Vietnamese. She had a lovely big smile and a softly lilting voice. We head off towards the food markets, trying to avoid big puddles and the occasional doggy doo doo. Thuet had warned us not to take money in our pockets because the markets were very busy, and like every place in the world where lots of people are thronging together in close confinement, there are pickpockets around. I was OK because I had my backback bag on under my poncho. Trying to keep the camera dry was another story, but it seemed to be safe for the moment. The market is absolutely fascinating. Like many cities and towns throughout Vietnam, there are no supermarkets in Hoi An. Everyone buys everything fresh every day from the markets. Firstly we visit the vegetable market where we are shown a variety of different roots and vegetables. Some we could identify and some we couldn't. It's astonishing to see some things in their natural form when we are used to seeing them other ways - turmeric for example is one. It is a root like ginger but I'd only ever seen it in powered form before. The market stall holders were very good in allowing Thuet to demonstrate the cutting process for some vegetables. At one point, after she'd finished cutting some shallots with a fabulous knife that looked like a trowel, the stall owner returned and spied the remains of the shallots on the knife. The look on her face was a classic Kodak moment and she spoke sharply to Thuet, much to our amusement. We questioned Thuet as to whether she'd just gotten into serious trouble for befouling the knife, to which she replied, "Oh, it's OK, this is my mother so I can do this". We all then said hi to Luong and she gave us all a big smile. As we left the stall to move onto the meat markets, Thuet leaned over and confessed that Luong wasn't really her mother, but she says that so that people think everything is OK. We laughed at this - we've discovered on quite a lot of occasions that people will tell us that someone is their relative when they're not. I'm sure that the people figure that us stupid westerners won't know the difference anyway, so where's the harm.

We go to the meat market and see all the unfortunate chickens and ducks lined up on tables, complete with their heads and feet. Their feet are stuck up in the air, claws forever curled in rigor mortis. There are large tubs of liver and every other kind of offal you can imagine. There are also whole pigs, which is a little creepy to see, but that's how they come.

The fish market was rather surprising in that it didn't smell at all. This is an indication that the produce is very fresh. Mercifully, everything at the fish market was already dead and there wasn't anything squirming around on any of the tables. The only ghastly thing on display was shark embryo - apparently this is a delicacy and we saw a large sac filled with unborn baby sharks. I almost fainted just looking at it. Absolutely revolting but the locals love it. 

We went back through to the fruit market, and along the way, several of the tarps covering the stalls became so waterlogged that they buckled and water came pouring down on top of us. There's absolutely nothing for it but to laugh. we were wet, and wet we were going to stay. 

Once we'd seen all the market stalls we headed back to the cooking school and went upstairs into the classroom. Madam Vy was there and we were all beside ourselves with excitement. This woman is legendary in Hoi An and is revered by hundreds. She employs half the town and has wonderful business practices. We were just so excited that we were actually getting Madam Vy to take our class. 

Madam Vy demonstrated how to cook five different dishes and we all copied her. The food was absolutely sensational and we were loving every minute of it. Along the way, she gave us loads of information about the culture, society and family life of Vietnam. Madam Vy is an inspiration, and to learn from her is both an honour and a delight. She sold her wedding ring to buy her first restaurant, The Mermaid. After six months of solid hard work, she had saved the total sum of $100. She said she felt like she was the richest woman in Vietnam because she had so much money. She said that she gave it to her mother to keep for her. Vietnamese people don't trust the banks so they keep their money at home. After continuing to work very hard Madam Vy had enough money to open some more restaurants, always giving her mother her money when she made it. Madam Vy's mother is her banker. She said that for a long time she never bothered to check how much money she had, but when the opportunity to buy the Cua Dai Hotel came up, she went to her mother to ask how much money she had. Apparently her mother was concerned that Vy didn't trust her any longer and asked why she wanted to check. Vy told her she'd like to buy the hotel. Her mother was so excited and ran around the house looking for all the money. Apparently it is also customary to hide money in lots of different places in the house. After an extensive search, Vy's mother came up with $90,000. After Vy wondered whether this was enough, her mother said to her, "just wait. I will do another round and look again". This round produced another $10,000 and so Vy had $100,000 to buy the hotel. 

I've never in all my born days seen a group of Australians (about 22 in all) so quiet. We were all sitting in absolute awe of Madam Vy and were hanging on her every word. Caramel, being the fabulous foodie she is, was furiously scribbling notes into a pad and we were taking photos at every chance. 

We ate the five courses - fresh rice paper rolls, Hoi An pancake, marinated chicken, mango salad and pho (pronounced fer) and my mouth was watering so much I thought I'd dribble all over myself. 

After the class ended, Madam Vy came around and handed out all the recipes for the food we'd cooked, and she also gave us one of those amazing knives used to peel the mangoes. Caramel was beside herself because she was planning on buying one. How we're going to get them back in our luggage is another story, but at least we have them now. 

We rolled out of the restaurant like the Michelin Man and tried to walk off some of the food we'd eaten. The rain had stopped the tiniest bit, but not much. It was still sodden and wet everywhere. We visited our tailors for the fittings that were due, and strangely enough, a couple of the things were the tiniest bit too tight. No wonder after eating our own body weight in food!

After the fittings we headed back to Faifoo to see the lovely Yum Yum and have a coffee. 

We were truly overwhelmed by what an amazing morning we'd had, and it will be an experience we'll never forget.  

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