When I think of Vietnamese cuisine, my mind is always filled with all those wonderful green things that were served me in Vietnam. These wonderful green things were handed to me either as a mound on a small platter, or in a pile in a small basket. Healthy herbs and fresh vegetables are staples in a Vietnamese diet. Greens, whether tiny or gigantic, figure prominently in everyday life, from mint in a bowl of noodles, to the towering trees lining the broad sidewalks, to the lush gardens in public parks.
I rarely see overweight locals. Aside from their plant-rich diets, many of them bicycle to get from here to there, and the sidewalks are shaded with trees that it is a shame not to walk on them. Strong legs and a healthy heart are probably needed for crossing the streets – the numerous scooters zipping by can cause severe myocardial infarction for the uninitiated.
The Viets have sturdy hearts mostly because of their attitudes. During the war (it is always going back to wartime) Agent Orange poisoned the trees, the soil, and the people. Vietnam still has survivors of that war now living their lives as amputees from land mines, cancer victims dying, or mentally-ill coping with the effects of Agent Orange on their ancestors. It is remarkable how the Vietnamese moved on with their lives without blaming, complaining, or pitying themselves for these are considered weaknesses. Yet, they have every right to. There was carpet bombing, herbicide, defoliant, dioxin sprayed from planes, napalm…
Nevertheless, the soil healed itself and Vietnam now produces crops and fruits and vegetables and spices of such quality and variety that a visit to any wet market will show well-stocked food stalls with myriad goodies. Except for tropical fruits, most vegetables and fruits and flowers come from the highland Dalat.
One has never eaten in Vietnam until one has sat down on a low stool on the sidewalk for a bowl of pho. At around 4 in the afternoon, low tables and stools are occupied by the everyday man as fragrant boiling soup from a cauldron sitting on a charcoal stove is laden onto deep bowls over rice noodles, pieces of meat, and some vegetables. A small basket or a platter of herbs is handed to the customer to add to the soup according to taste. Cousin Robert gave me a list of exotic names with their English equivalent. “Rau hue (basil), ngo gai (Vietnamese sawtooth coriander), and ngo om (rice paddy herb) plus bach ha (taro) = canh chu (VN sour soup). Just add fish. Also need some greens like rau mung (kangkong)… yummy.”
Herbs, herbs, herbs. What better way to get them fresh than to visit a family farm and arrange for a cooking class there. Aidine booked the two of us at Tra Que Minty Garden at the Tra Que Vegetable Village in Hoi An. The package includes pick up from the hotel. Danny shows up at our homestay in a uniform which I mistook to be the chauffeur’s. He tells me that we have to wait for his wife to come pick us up. I think to myself, “The wife has the car and Danny is going to drive it to the farm.” His wife Lan arrives and I find myself staring at a scooter. In my red sleeveless floral frock, I scramble behind Lan while Aidine gets to ride with Danny for a 5 km. ride. We were brought to the couple’s modern two-storey house where a restaurant has been built beside it. By the restaurant is Danny’s family’s share of the Tra Que Vegetable Village. The farm has been with the family (clan?)for 150 years and Danny’s family’s share is a mere 500 square meters planted to vegetables and herbs bound for the market. The space is maximized with a well-planned lay-out and has sprinklers, water is adequate, and freshwater algae is the natural fertilizer of choice. I learned how to make a plot, how to plant, and how to water their way.
I call our cooking lesson the Chef Danny Cooking Show for it really was that. Chef exhibited showbusiness flair as he prepped and did the mise en place and got me and Aidine involved in the actual cooking. This guy is hilarious and very talented in the kitchen. He introduced us to traditional dishes such as Tam Huu (a Tra Que Village specialty); Deep Fried Spring Rolls with vegetables, shrimp and pork; Grilled Fish with Turmeric in Banana Leaves using the freshest red snapper; Hoi An pancake, and other dishes I can no longer remember. I just remember Chef Danny’s culinary antics including surprising me with a flambé and his rib-tickling jokes. Tra Que Minty Garden is highly recommended by Trip Advisor. You can check out its Facebook account and email at email@example.com to book.
When in Vietnam, enjoy your pho, your banh mi, your fruits, herbs, and vegetables, and even weeds (our alusiman becomes soup topping here), and enjoy the knowledge that this country’s agricultural sector has performed beyond expectations.