A culinary journey and insights on life in Vietnam

A farmer at Duc Son pagoda poses next to the mushrooms that he grows for nuns.

A culinary journey and insights on life in Vietnam

16/06/14

By Mirabelle Lý Eliot

London-based British writer Mirabelle Lý Eliot, 23 was the winner of the 2013 Yan-kit So Memorial Award, worth £2,500. Here is her blog about her two-month trip to Vietnam in November 2013 to research a Vietnamese vegetarian cookbook which she undertook after winning the Award. She travelled from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh and back again, staying with friends as well as in hostels and using trains and buses. She used her time there to sample lots of different types of vegetarian Vietnamese food at street stalls and in Vietnamese people’s homes; she also had cookery lessons and visited the kitchens of restaurants and Buddhist pagodas.

I’m just about feeling normal again after returning from Vietnam with Luke, my photographer, last November. And I can tell you, coming back from there to London after spending the Autumn in 28 C monsoon Vietnam was a brutal shock.

By the end of our travels, we spent much of the day sitting on the pavement making notes and taking snaps whilst drinking fresh soy milk or tropical juice (my favourite was watermelon) and Vietnamese-style coffee (an expresso shot mixed with lots of condensed milk and poured over lots ice). As my friend Giang told me in Hanoi, “in Vietnam, everything happens in the street.” Cooking, eating, socialising, selling, gambling, chess playing – it all takes place outside, in the sun.

Iced Vietnamese coffee at Tracey Lister's Hanoi Cooking Centre in Hanoi, Vietnam

Iced Vietnamese coffee at Tracey Lister’s Hanoi Cooking Centre in Hanoi, Vietnam. Photo by Luke Walker

 

Ice lime juice with lemongrass, cinnamon and ginger syrup at Reaching Out Silent Tea House in Hoi An. Photo by Luke Walker

Iced lime juice with lemongrass, cinnamon and ginger syrup at Reaching Out Silent Tea House in Hoi An. Photo by Luke Walker

After this, imagine our sensory confusion at entering Costa Coffee inside Gatwick Airport at 6am one rainy winter morning on our return. We were thrust back into the dark, cold, indoors, wearing only sandals and multi-coloured monsoon macs.

Apart from the weather, one of the biggest differences between the UK and Vietnam was the abundance of strictly vegan restaurants, known as ‘chay restaurants’ in Vietnamese. They were plentiful in every Vietnamese town we went to, mostly run by the local Buddhist pagodas as a way of raising extra money.

A worker having lunch at a Buddhist restaurant in Ho Chi Minh City, surrounded by books about the benefits of veganism. Photo by Luke Walker

A worker having lunch at a Buddhist restaurant in Ho Chi Minh City, surrounded by books about the benefits of veganism. Photo by Luke Walker

Veganism was much more widespread there than it is in the UK. Most Vietnamese go vegan at least one day a month on special days in the Buddhist calendar. Eating vegan  known as ‘ăn chay’ in Vietnam includes avoiding garlic and onions so as not to inflame the senses. It’s all seen as a way of collecting good karma, and so as full-time vegetarians we were given a very warm welcome and were admired there for what was seen as our holy and disciplined characters!

Fresh coconut and kohlrabi salad at one of Hanoi's most venerable vegan restaurants on Tran Hung Dao Street, in the old French quarter. Photo by Luke Walker

Fresh coconut and kohlrabi salad at one of Hanoi’s most venerable vegan restaurants on Tran Hung Dao Street, in the old French quarter. Photo by Luke Walker

In these ‘chay’ restaurants we ate many special vegan dishes that I kept a record of in my travelling journal. We had salads made from shredded banana blossoms, fresh coconut, kohlrabi (a type of cabbage) and green mango; we had tofu that was caramelised, deep fried, curried, and marinated; we even ate ‘mock meat’ made from flour spiced and crisped to taste like pork or chicken and then simmered in lemongrass and chopped tomato.

Occasionally, the simplicity of the Buddhist vegetarian food made it difficult for our palates, accustomed as they are to the strongly flavoured food that vegetarians tend to eat here in the UK. I confess now that once or twice we actually ate pizza and missed hummus!

Even so, through various contacts and friends I’d been able to cultivate through The Vietnamese Embassy in the UK and organisations such as the Uk-based expat Vietnamese professional networking group VietPro and UK-based Vietnamese supermarket chain Longdan, we met up with many different home-cooks and chefs throughout Vietnam who were generously showed us into the kitchens of their homes, pagodas, training schools and restaurants.

One of the most special cookery lessons  I had was with Anh Tuyet, a lady in the ancient city of Huế, now the capital city of Thừa Thiên–Huế Province, once the imperial capital. She specialises in teaching vegan cuisine. Over half a day she taught me seven local dishes, influenced by Huế’s regional vegetables (such as bitter figs and young jackfruit) and its tradition of complex, royal gastronomy.

Fresh green figs or va, which are commonly used in vegetarian cooking in Hue. Photo by Luke Walker

Fresh green figs or va, which are commonly used in vegetarian cooking in Hue. Photo by Luke Walker

The next day, we were shown around the organic gardens of Duc Son, a local pagoda and children’s orphanage, where the monks and nuns grow all their produce, including fresh green tea, mushrooms, aubergines and chillies!

Ms Anh Tuyet's royal Hue cockerel, with dragon fruit for a body and chillies for a crown. His feathers are made from vegan spring rolls. Photo by Luke Walker

Anh Tuyet’s royal Hue cockerel, with dragon fruit for a body and chillies for a crown. His feathers are made from vegan spring rolls. Photo by Luke Walker

An organic aubergine growing in the gardens at Duc Son pagoda. Photo by Luke Walker

An organic aubergine growing in the gardens at Duc Son Pagoda. Photo by Luke Walker

A vegan feast created especially for us by the nuns at Duc Son pagoda. Photo by Luke Walker

A vegan feast created especially for Mirabelle and Luke by the nuns at Duc Son Pagoda. Photo by Luke Walker

Cooking, especially home cooking, is generally the domain of women in Vietnam.

A nun working as head chef in the restaurant in Duc Son pagoda. Photo by Luke Walker

A nun working as head chef in the restaurant in Duc Son Pagoda. Photo by Luke Walker

As we found when staying with my Vietnamese friend Lily’s family in Hanoi, many Vietnamese wives and others will wake up at around 5 or 6 am to make it to the local market and buy fresh ingredients for the day. They will then go to work full-time, only to return home in the evening to cook again and care for their families. Lily’s mother is a devout Buddhist as well, which meant that aside from making wholesome vegan food every day, any spare hours were spent praying in her shrine on the balcony at the top of the house. Twice a week she would leave the neighbourhood and ride out on her moped to her favourite pagoda near Hanoi’s West Lake.

Spending so much time with female cooks enlightened me on my mother’s upbringing. Although my mother was born and raised in France and does not really speak Vietnamese, her parents were from Vietnam. When I applied for the Yan-kit So grant, it was because food was one of the most tangible ways that connected me to my mother’s heritage, and meeting so many Vietnamese women through cooking presented a new context for me to understand my mother’s own character and struggles, one that I hope to explore further as I write up my notes for the trip.

A roving street vendor selling vegetables from her bike in Hanoi. Photo by Luke Walker

A roving street vendor selling vegetables from her bike in Hanoi. Photo by Luke Walker

A lone cockerel takes a walk down the rainy streets of Hoi An. Photo by Luke Walker

A lone cockerel takes a walk down the rainy streets of Hoi An. Photo by Luke Walker

Freshly pressed tofu sold at a small neighbourhood market in Hanoi. Photo by Luke Walker

Freshly pressed tofu sold at a small neighbourhood market in Hanoi. Photo by Luke Walker

The royal cockerel makes a second appearance next to Ms Tuyet's mixed salad or 'goi' Hue style. Photo by Luke Walker

The royal cockerel makes a second appearance next to Ms Tuyet’s mixed salad or ‘goi’ in Hue style. Photo by Luke Walker

Mirabele will be talking about her trip and recipes with one of the judges of the Yan-kit So Award cook and food writer Fuchsia Dunlop in a question and answer session on Tuesday, 17 June, 2014 at Asia House  at 18.45. There will also be a chance to sample some of  Mirabelle’s Vietnamese vegetarian recipes.

For more details about how to apply for the 2014 Yan-kit So Award, click here.