Wednesday, October 26, 2016
The locals seem to be interested in the food I’m buying. Recently I walked down to my favorite street market to get vegetables, about a 2 km walk from the house; and on the way back it started to rain pretty hard so I jumped on a bus headed home. The conductor pointed to the empty seat directly behind the driver. As I plonked down and put my bags on the floor, the driver, noticing me in the rearview mirror, said in English, “Where you from?”. “America”, I replied, to which he gleefully said, “Ah! AMERICA! Ha ha ha!”, then rambled off a few things in Vietnamese to the conductor. She leaned over from her seat across the aisle and began digging through my grocery bags to see what I had bought, picking out lettuce and herbs and showing them to the driver. I’m guessing he approved, because he kept nodding and grinning.
This is something I’ve gotten used to. It would be different if random people were rifling through my handbag, but this is just groceries and I’m guessing they’re just curious as to what I’m eating. One day while I was waiting for Larry to get a haircut after a bout of grocery shopping, one of the stylists sat beside me and started poking through my grocery bag. “Ca chua… Mit…”, I said, as she pulled out a tomato then some jackfruit sections. “You good!”, she exclaimed, “You know Vietnamese food! I teach you more”. So she pulled out other items and had me repeat after her what they were.
Sometimes on my way back from shopping I’ll walk along Dong Khoi street (formerly Rue Catinat back in French Colonial days). It’s one of my favorite streets to walk down, even though I’m constantly having to dodge women every 10 feet shoving a flyer for a massage parlor in my face. Dong Khoi is home to some pretty spectacularly cool old buildings, though I believe there’s the threat of them being torn down soon. Halfway up the street a disabled woman sits in front of the Parkson department store selling gum. I don’t know her name, but we’ve become pretty friendly. Sometimes we’ll give her some small bills, but we don’t take her gum because we’d prefer she sell it to tourists and be able to make some money. One day while we stopped to talk in our lousy Vietnamese and her broken English, she made a motion for us to hand over a grocery bag so she could see what was inside. She pulled out ginger, a cucumber, and a lime and held them up to us expectantly. I realized she wanted them for herself, so I nodded. A look of rapture spread across her face and she burst out laughing. So of course now when I walk down the street with any groceries at all, I know she’ll rifle through them and pull out a carrot, or a piece of fresh turmeric, a beet, or another lime (she seems to really like beets and limes). I’ve gotten used to buying a few extra of those.
Today I had some shopping to do at Annam, which is the Vietnamese version of Whole Foods, meaning that everything is overpriced but sometimes they have that one item you just can’t live without. There’s a brand new Annam location in the Saigon Centre shopping mall, and it’s much bigger and nicer than the other store branches. It’s where I go when I’ve had a bad day and just want to look at all the shiny pretty things (some women window shop for shoes; I window shop for food). On today’s trip I bought a head of frisée lettuce from the Da Lat mountainous region where a lot of vegetables in Vietnam are grown. Walking home, I stopped off at one of the international stores on Ham Nghi where my usual clerk waved and came up to see what I needed today. She spied my bag and scowled, motioning for me to hand it over for a look-see. Pulled out the bag of frisée, still scowling at it. “This looks fresh. Good deal”, she said, nodding, looking at the price tag and giving it her stamp of approval, before putting it back in my bag and helping me find a square cake pan with removable bottom, the object of my shopping trip to Ham Nghi.
After a seated event for 12 the other night, after all the cleanup and packing up, I was preparing to leave but sat talking to a colleague of mine while she had a post-prandial ciggie. She’s my client’s assistant, a vivacious and well-connected woman who is extremely efficient at her job (and knows it too). She suffered some kind of nasal injury as a child which resulted in her not having a sense of taste.
“What I like about your food is that you understand textures. I can’t taste anything, so I totally rely on that. You have such interesting textures going on, and a lot of cooks don’t get that”.
Me: “That’s the nicest thing anyone has said to me about my cooking!”
Indeed, I was incredibly flattered. I never thought about my food having textures. As a cook, sure, I instinctively think of textures (I think); you know that adding crunch to a soft dish (like coconut puddings topped with chopped peanuts) will play nicely together and have a really good mouthfeel, but I don’t focus on it. I spend most of my time thinking flavors, and layering of flavors. It made me wonder, do other cooks think the same way as I do or do they think texture first - flavor later? Or is it just instinctive all around?