When fully ripe, the unopened jackfruit emits a strong disagreeable odor, resembling that of decayed onions, while the pulp of the opened fruit smells of pineapple and banana.
I am like a jackfruit on the tree.
To taste you must plug me quick, while fresh:
the skin rough, the pulp thick, yes,
but oh, I warn you against touching —
the rich juice will gush and stain your hands
Ho Xuan Huong, 1772 – 1822,
translated by Nguyen Ngoc Bich
Two acts of generosity led to a delightful day.
The St. Francis dining hall in Portland, Oregon serves dinners daily to “those in need in dignity and peace.” That turns out to be 300 meals per day. At their annual auction, it’s hard to say who is more big hearted: the donors or the recipients. As her auction contribution, Ho Mai Huong, a young accounting student, offered her services as tour guide and chef for a day of Vietnamese cooking. Margo Foeller was the winner and treated me and my friend Trish to a wonderful day.
Visiting the markets
Our first stop: the market Hong Phat where Mai identified and introduced us to a world of fantastic fruits, vegetables, herbs, fish and meats.
Fruits came first. The jackfruit (which can grow to over 80 pounds), banana flower (peel back the outer leaves and slice), four different kinds of mango, litchis, and ‘fragrant fruit’ were just a few. “In Vietnam, there are many more varieties,” explained Mai.
We moved on to a huge assortment of herbs, greens, and vegetables. Many herbs have medicinal applications such as dấp cá or fish mint, used to cure stomachaches, indigestion or, in paste form, for insect bites. The flavor and aroma are strongly fishy. Rau Dắng or bitter herb is used both cooked and fresh. When burned, the vapors are a very effective mosquito repellant.**
Spinach, mustard, and collard? Now these were familiar greens. But hold on! They are not what they seem. Mồng tơi, as an example, sometimes referred to as Ceylon or Malabar spinach, has spinach-like leaves but is a vine and cultivated on a trellis. And might lower your body temperature.
Bitter melon which looks a bit like a cucumber with a ridged dark green skin is used in soups, sautéed or stuffed. Its medicinal qualities are many, including a blood sugar lowering effect for type II diabetics. With each fruit, pod, green, root and fungus, an important therapeutic reason for its purchase was cited.
Will this help my baby grow? Will this cure his cough? Can this ease my pain?
Eat your Gac (gấc)! It is the greatest source of beta-carotene (vitamin A) of any fruit or vegetable. Gac (gấc) has ten times more of the stuff than carrots or sweet potatoes. Did you know that green papaya enhances breast milk production? And, it would appear, that if you have anything wrong at all, just eat a persimmon.
Moving from vegetables to the grocery aisles, Mai discussed the cross over in cooking techniques and recipes between Asian countries and cultures and their subtle differences. Fish sauce, for dipping, is a good example. In Vietnam, chopped garlic and chilies are added to the sauce which is diluted not with water, but coconut juice, as coconuts are very plentiful in southern Vietnam.
On that same topic, Mai explained that Vietnam is divided culturally and economically into the North, Central, and Southern parts. The North has less fruit and vegetables and the food tends to be salty. The Central part of Vietnam is the poorest. It is subject to severe weather (especially flooding) and the soil is poor. The cuisine in this area is very salty and spicy which adds flavor to the food and warms the body. The abundance of fruits and vegetables are the hallmark of the southern Vietnamese cuisine. Fresh herbs, vegetables, and fruits are used in nearly every preparation in the South.
Pho, the hugely popular beef noodle soup is believed to have originated in the North, where it is made with fresh rice stick noodles (banh pho tuoi) and flavored with star anise in an oxtail broth. Typically, it is not served with garnishes. In the South, however, the soup is served with herb and bean sprout garnishes. Suffice it say, there are many regional varieties of this soup.
A package wrapped with a green leaf and tied with red string turned out to be cha lua or Vietnamese ham wrapped in a banana leaf.
“It’s just like spam. That’s what my mother says” a young customer offered.
Among the huge selection of meats (every possible cut of pork and beef) and fishes (including whole frozen fish and about 30 types of frozen shrimp), I was struck by the two types of chicken:
- Walking chicken (not always tender but very flavorful) and
- Black chicken (quite a small variety and good for fatigue, back pain and expectant mothers)
Beautiful and mysterious dishes that Mai alluded to:
- Coconuts stuffed with Quail
- Baby clam meat with Jackfruit
Slightly stomach churning:
- Duck eggs with embryos
- Pigs’ udders
- Silkworm pupae (eaten fried with lime leaves)
Our market visit ended in the household products aisle. Mai showed us two types of brooms. One of coarser fiber for the yard; the other very fine and soft for the house. The market sold all types of cooking pots, pans, including a special crepe pan that looked very like a Swedish pancake skillet. I bought a coffee drip pot for making one serving of Vietnamese coffee which is brewed with sweetened condensed milk.
Our next stop was Bui Natural Tofu. Originally, fresh tofu was the only product of this family business which was conducted from their home. Now, the busy shop makes not only a great deal of fresh tofu but also fried tofu, tofu pudding, red sticky rice (its color comes from the aforementioned gac fruit), fermented rice (a digestive after a meal), sticky rice balls with a mulberry in the center, and much more.
Mai had ordered in advance so as we waited as all sorts of containers and packages appeared at the counter. We staggered out to the car.
Lunch at Mai’s Home
Now came the really fun part: Mai made us lunch at her home.
Step one: she quickly put together some snacks for us to sample.
- Using her homemade fish sauce, we sampled the fresh tofu and the fried tofu which contained pieces of fried onion
- The Red Sticky Rice with pieces of Vietnamese ham
- The Tofu Pudding, served in small bowls over which she poured a sugar syrup with slivers of ginger and coconut milk
- A spoonful each of Fermented Rice (the digestion aid)
We were happy to sit and munch but Mai was all business. The fresh spring (or salad) rolls had to be made.
She quickly gathered the ingredients together: lettuce, Thai basil, and mint from her garden, Chinese chives, and slices of the ham. She boiled the dry rice noodles and we helped peel the shrimp. Moistening the rice paper briefly, she showed us her technique for tightly rolling the cylinders with the shrimp with green Chinese chive visible through the wrapper. We each practiced the technique.
The dipping sauce, (which Mai believes is the whole point of eating the rolls) was a fragrant and delectable mixture of flavors: hoisin, peanut butter, and coconut soda. As a final flourish, Mai added fried shallots and a bit of pickled shredded carrot to the dipping sauce. Wow! Completely different from restaurant salad rolls.
As with any unforgettable meal, the food was only a part of the pleasure. As if each morsel stirred up an association, Mai spoke of her family, geography, gardens and poetry. In 1954, Mai’s Catholic family moved from the North to South Vietnam to avoid communism. While she has never been in North Vietnam, her parents and grandparents passed on their northern customs and habits.
“I was named for the 18th century poet Ho Xuan Huong but my parents replaced Xuan with Mai so as not to shock my grandparents…”
Known for her independence, intellect, and subtle and sexy wit, this famous poet from Hanoi was also was very irreverent. Rather than classical Chinese, she wrote in Nôm, the Vietnamese language that has nearly disappeared. While more than a thousand years of Vietnamese cultural history was written in this language, less than 100 people can read Nôm today. The Vietnamese Nôm Preservation Foundation*** hopes to save the language.
Homegardens and Margins
Now, this got me to ruminating about the importance of the margins in culture. Home cooking, home gardens, minor languages, poetry..are these not elements of the margin not the mainstream? I don’t want to offend home cooks, gardeners, translators, and poets by using the word ‘margin’. But I’m not marginalizing anyone, simply acknowledging that certain highly important activities exist and thrive on society’s margins.
The reason I write about home cooking is that there’s a dearth.
There are two ways to look at marginal activity.
- There’s strength in numbers: A custom or habit dies out when it’s not longer necessary. When an activity is marginal, it’s on its way out. (example: the shirt collar button)
- We’re only as strong as our weakest link: When a custom or habit is replaced by a new behavior, the old habit might slip into the margin but will still persist. Sometimes people will attempt a rescue! (example: Nôm)
The second way of looking at this is, to my mind, the optimistic and true approach. Whenever I worry about the ‘branding’ of humanity or fear a dreary sameness leading to decline, I inevitably come across small, disorganized, whimsical powerhouses of marginality.
In Dr. Virginia Nazarea’s book Heirloom Seeds and Their Keepers,**** she speaks movingly about marginality and memory with regards to heirloom gardeners.
“If modernity is ‘forced amnesia’, then there is a need to reinforce the range of dreams and choices that triggers countermemory…Seedsavers pose a subdued but persistent challenge to what those around them take as given and help break the spell of ‘organized forgetting.’…From the margins, seedsavers deploy a message of worth rather than protest wherein the currency is joy instead of anger, the motivation hope instead of frustration.”
In her Germplasm project at the University of Georgia, Nazarea and her associates studied how Vietnamese immigrants arriving in the 1970s reproduced their native gardens with great success. Nhan Couch was a participant in the study and her homegarden below is a delightful example. I love the entire design of the garden, especially the “BBQ pit with pokeweed growing out of it.”
Outside her kitchen door, Mai has a small but robust garden filled with herbs and greens. I asked Mai about the diagram of Nhan’s garden. “This model of garden is very common in rural areas of Vietnam” she said, adding, “I think they do a very good job of organizing their gardens.”
Copyright © 2002 Introduced Germplasm From Vietnam: Documentation, Acquisition, and Propagation. All rights reserved.
Trying this at home
Back at home, I was all fired up to make a Vietnamese dinner.
With Mai’s instructions, I attempted the black chicken, so called because the skin is a deep purplish black. This fierce-looking little bird was to my surprise, very meaty. The other surprise was the flesh with its dark and light striations. Once cooked, the chicken looked a bit like bluefish and I believe, is an acquired taste.
To make this dish, I had purchased a packet of herbs, lotus nuts (which look something like dried hominy) and red dates. At Hong Mai, there was an entire shelf devoted to special herb packets each for different preparations. “Very practical!”
I attempted to write down the recipe as I remembered it. Fortunately, Mai made some adjustments. Here goes:
- Soak the lotus nuts overnight.
- Wash the chicken, removing the head, feet, and innards.
- Dip the chicken in a pan of boiling water and then rinse in cold water.
- To cook the chicken:
Method #1: Put the chicken into the bowl. Put all of the herbs and lotus nuts around the chicken or stuff the chicken with the herbs, dates and lotus nuts. Personally, I prefer to put herbs and lotus nuts around the chicken. Pour 1 teaspoon of fish sauce into the chicken. And then put the bowl into a steam pot. Cook about 1 hour.
Method #2: You can use slow cooker to cook instead of steam pot. Put chicken into the cooker and spread out all of herbs and lotus nut around chicken. Pour 1 can of coconut soda and 1 teaspoon of fish sauce into the chicken. Cook slowly about 2 hours.)
- Cut up and serve with steamed rice.
Mai Huong’s Salad Rolls
It takes a little practice to make these rolls but once you’ve got the hang of it, it goes quickly. If you do this a few times, you will begin to arrange and offset the ingredients so that the rolls will looks very pretty with the shrimp and some greenery showing through the wrapper.
I. For spring rolls: (about 8 to 10 rolls)
- Round rice paper wrappers (banh trang or ‘spring rolls skin’ – Mai used a package with a large red rose on it)
- Rice noodle (Mai used a vacuum-packed fresh rice stick noodle -banh pho tuoi in a pink package from the Sincere Orient Food Co.)
- Chinese chives
- Lettuce, several leaves
- Mint, basil, cilantro – small bunch of each
- 1/2 pound pork belly ( or thinly sliced roast pork)
- 12 – 15 shrimp (double if the shrimp are very small)
Boil rice noodle until it becomes al dente, drain and rinse with cold water. Boil pork belly until well done and slice thinly. Cook shrimp with salt in a dry pan until red and cooked through. Peel the shrimp and if large, slice into halves. Wash the lettuce and herbs.
How to wrap the spring roll:
Fill a large bowl with warm water. Dip one wrapper into the water just to moisten. (Do not soak)
Lay wrapper flat. In a row across the center, place 3 shrimp, 2 pieces of pork, a handful of rice noodle, the lettuce and herbs, leaving about 2 inches uncovered on each side. Fold uncovered sides inward, and then tightly roll the wrapper, beginning at the end with the lettuce. Set aside.
Continue with remaining ingredients until all the rolls are made.
II. Dipping Sauce:
- Shallot, 2 cloves, sliced thinly
- 1 tablespoon cooking oil
- Hoisin sauce (1/2 cup)
- Peanut butter (1/2 cup)
- Coconut milk (1/2 cup)
- Chicken stock or coconut soda (1/2 cup)
- Sugar (1 teaspoon)
- Chili sauce (optional if you like spicy)
Stir fry the shallots with oil about 2-3 minutes in the pan. Set aside. Mix hoisin, peanut butter, milk and coconut soda (or any broth such as chicken soup or pork broth that we have from boiling pork) in a bowl. Pour this mixture into the pan. Stir well until everything is a caramel colored blend. Pour some sugar into the sauce. Taste. Add some chili sauce if desired. Stir in the shallots.
A promising start to the year.
My experience with Mai led me down some new paths from jackfruit to poetry to heirloom gardens to a photograph on the Luxembourg garden gates to extraordinary humans. Ho Xuan Huong, Hiên Lam Duc and Virginia Nazarea.
Thank you Mai and Margo.
Almost a year ago exactly, I saw an extraordinary exhibit of photographs of the people of Mekong river. The beautiful photograph at the beginning of this piece is from that exhibit and the photographer, Hiên Lam Duc generously permitted me to display it. (Doubleclick to enlarge the image.) To see more of his work, go to http://www.lamduchien.com/
*This description of jackfruit (word for word) is repeated on at least 50 websites. So everyone agrees.
**For information on Vietnamese culinary and medicinal herbs, go to this website: http://vietherbs.com/
*** For more information on saving the Nôm language, go to http://nomfoundation.org/vnpf_new/index.php
****Dr. Virginia Nazarea’s Heirloom seeds and Their Keepers, Marginality and Memory in the Conservation of Biological Diversity , 2005, University of Arizona Press is available through Amazon and other sources.