On The Pagoda Trail

On Monday (9th Sept) Luke and I woke late, at 11:30, to an anxious looking Loi (Lily’s mum) holding the phone, with Mit on the other end asking us if we wanted to come down for lunch. Our jet lag was making us feel a bit embarrassed… It emerged that Lily’s mum had cooked for us the night before but our dinner plans changed when Mit and Bom took us to eat at their cousins’, and so now Loi wanted us to eat up everything on the table so that she didn’t have to heat it up twice. We had a good go at this:

Loi had made the classic dish of fried tofu in tomato sauce, morning glory and white mushroom soup, and a revelation for me – deep fried mock squid. I must learn how to make the batter for these little fritters, I think were I to do them myself, I’d replace the mock squid with potatoes or vegetables, but it was really delicious. One for the book, a simple crowd pleaser with potential to be really kick-ass.

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The whole time, whenever Loi and I couldn’t understand each other she phoned up Mit, even if it was something trivial like ‘what vegetable is this!’.

Mit kindly arranged to meet us later after work at the Ngu Xa pagoda with Lily’s mum, so that we could get a sense of what Pagoda life would be like. The night before, my friend Giang put me in touch with someone who might be able to get us to do a short stay in one of the pagodas around here, so that I can learn to cook under the supervision of the monks. We’ll see how it goes. I would also like to see if I can help out at one of the next feast days where they make special vegetarian food.

And so, hot, wearing our long sleeved shirts and trousers for the first time, we were driven to Ngu Xa pagoda with Lily’s mum and one of her friends. It was near West Lake, one of the plusher areas of Hanoi, and the ride there was beautiful, with wide, tree-lined boulevards and big, yellow colonial mansions. The pagoda itself looked stunning, and after shuffling cross-legged behind the prayer books in the back row, we knelt up and began joining in with the chant (which was actually led by Lily’s mum initially).The attendees were mostly women, and the male monk leading the chant had a very beautiful tenor voice that made the 108 repetitions of various mantras very moving. Mit later explained to us that the reason she believed there were so many female followers in the pagoda was that Vietnamese women often have hard times that they don’t feel they can share with anybody, not even with other women, and so going to the pagoda is a way of lifting these troubled spirits without vocalising the issues.

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During the service was when our Vietnamese lessons really came in handy. Although we couldn’t understand more than a couple of words, Luke and I had been taught our alphabet back in London by our brilliant tutor Tra, so we were able to chant the words out with everyone else. Luke had a bit of trouble with this though as the super glue holding his glasses together melted in the heat on our first day in Hanoi. He developed a bit of a migraine after a few minutes trying to squint at the pages, but kept going till the end anyway.

The ride back home took us past Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum, and as I explained my cooking project further to Mit, she talked to me about Buddhism and the plans for Lily’s wedding. Mit, poised and kind, has ambitions to study in the UK, but various complications have stopped her from going so far.

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Mit and I on her electric scooter

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Loi with her bike – the only time she uses it is twice a week when going to the pagoda

We were very hungry and thirsty by the time we all got home, but before I even realised what had happened, Loi had cooked another lovely dinner of stir fried rice noodles with mushrooms and eggs, and more of my beloved squid doughnuts. I keep meaning to join in with her cooking but she seems to anticipate our movements and by the time we come into the kitchen she’s already finished.

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We chatted the evening away with Bom, Mit and Loi, eating yoghurt mixed with sweet ice coffee, ice green tea, and planning the months ahead, and arranged to meet at 7 in the morning for Loi to take us herb shopping in the market, and for me to get ingredients for my tofu curry for dinner.

8:30 am the next day and luke nudges me awake. My alarm doesn’t seem to go off and there’s a missed call from Mit – oops. I run downstairs in a panic but Loi is still there and in a good mood, she doesn’t seem annoyed that we’re late! So quickly we make our way to the market down the road.

We walked down the winding alleys, that we normally speed down through on mopeds, but took a left turn this time and suddenly a load of small stalls emerged (one right outside the house), each selling something different – various cuts of meat, freshly pressed blocks of medium-firm tofu, fruit everywhere: rambutans, jackfruit, papayas, guavas… all sorts of green beans, round purple aubergines and some tables purely dedicated to herbs. I’m familiar with the names of some of these from my research and food lessons, but most of them I’ve never tasted as I haven’t been able to find them in the UK.

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Fresh Tofu

Rau Ram

Rau Ram

Lemongrass

Lemongrass

Hung

Hung

Perilla

Perilla

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The light was good. The sun was out. After a bit of a wander, I used my dictionary to indicate ‘buy’ (mua) to Loi, and my translated vocab list so that she helped me choose lots of herbs for my curry: La Chanh Thai / Kaffir Lime, Hung / Thai basil, Rau ram / Vietnamese coriander, Xa / Lemongrass, Nghe / Turmeric. Loi began to buy all different kinds – more than I would use in my curry – I think as an effort to introduce me to the herbs. We gradually ticked all my list off (although I first said coconut water instead of coconut milk, so we got both). Each time we went to a new stall lily’s mum seemed to gently, but persistently, haggle the price of every item down to about 5000 Vietnam dong (15p).

We went home and feasted on two sticky rice packages that Loi had picked up for us – one yellow with turmeric, the other white with what looked like black beans. These were delicious and nothing like the attempt I made a few weeks ago, which I blogged about here. The glutinous rice was much softer, which must be to do with the freshness of the produce here (although my cooking methods might be to blame, who knows).

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Loi also made us a huge and hearty tofu, mushroom and vermicelli spicy soup that I’m thinking of stealing for my book. Just need to learn how she makes that stock. Her son, Bom, reckons it’s meat. So maybe not really one for the book.

I explained to Loi that I wanted to cook dinner that night, and started prepping the marinade for my lemongrass curry – Loi corrected my peeling technique a few times (this happens whenever i cook with Vietnamese people, I have a lot to learn). To me the marinade didn’t taste that good compared to normal – Loi didnt say anything when I asked her to taste it – and the soy sauce here is different, a bit stronger than the thin brand I use at home. I hoped it wouldl still taste Ok though…

By then I was a zombie, after another sleepless night, and napped for 3 hours. After spending a few hours on the blog, it was soon 5:30 and I went down to finish the curry. Loi seemed to be praying for longer than normal upstairs, and the first person I saw was Bom, who was tired but still charming after a long day’s work. Then Mit showed up, excited to be trying my food, but Loi came down a little stressed and immediately started talking fast to Mit, raising her voice. I was worried something was going wrong, but Mit explained that Lily’s mum was just going out to visit a friend and would miss my dinner! She also translated Loi’s final comment – that she thought my tofu was too soft. She drove out quickly on her moped (she’s a good, fast driver – Luke can testify after the trip to the pagoda), but only after fetching me some fresh kaffir lime leaves from the tree on the rooftop balcony.

After attempting in vain to finish roasting the peanuts in time for my curry, we decided to just sit down to eat anyway. (I later got the blame for them being undercooked).

The reactions weren’t immediately positive… Mit suggested the pieces should be deep fried (mine is only lightly fried to seal in the marinade before being added to the curry), and that the curry should have more root vegetables. So more like a standard curry you’d get in a northern Vietnamese restaurant. Bom said he liked it a lot but it was a bit spicy for him (it wasn’t very spicy). I was feeling a bit stressed myself by now. Cooking for a family is hard. I can’t imagine cooking for 4 people like that twice a day, but over here it’s normal. I’m told everyone mostly eats dinner at home, the processed meals that I ate a lot as a teenager when my parents were working being unheard of.

At this point though, Lily’s dad spoke to me for the first time in days, saying that Mit (Phuong) only likes burnt pig meat anyway. Initially I thought he was saying my food was bad, but in hindsight I think it was a compliment? Hopefully it was…he took a generous second helping. Who knows…

When Lily’s mum came home she seemed more relaxed and she quickly ate the remaining curry, saying at first that she thought curry was an Indian food. This made me feel a bit anxious again, since yes, although curries came to Vietnam from India, they’ve been making them here for a long time, and I find a curry recipe in almost every ‘authentic’ Vietnamese cookbook I buy. I put this down again down to regional differences, where in the North, people eat less pungent and spicy food and less coconut milk. Curry is probably a Southern influenced dish, whereas Loi’s northern cooking, with her many stir fries and noodle dishes, is influenced more strongly by China. My sense from speaking to everyone up here is that they have quite specific expectations of what food should be like, and they generally dislike food that evokes different regions of Vietnam too strongly.

Loi did say she liked the curry though, and after a yoghurt mixed with a local, untranslatable fruit pickle, which she said would help us sleep, we had the best night’s rest yet of our stay here.

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