A trip to a Vietnamese food market is like going to a suburban mall at Christmastime. You make your way in a disoriented fashion; looking for gaps in between people and judging whether or not you’ve eaten too many spring rolls to fit through that amount of space; repeating this process an infinite amount of times through the throngs of people all on a mission to consume. At the end you’ve made a New Year’s Resolution to eat less spring rolls (or just the not-fried type), seen a rainbow of fruit stands, tried foods you’d never imagine, and crossed everything off your grocery list.
Rickshaws picked us up from our hotel at 9 am and with umbrellas overhead we weathered the drizzle and the honk heavy traffic to go shopping. The market had a variety of fresh fruit, vegetables and meat, as well as live fish, prawns, toads, turtles, chickens….and we also passed a cute little pet shop in the middle of the food market selling the most adorable fluffy kittens still suckling from their mamma. I stopped to aww at the little baby fluffies, maybe cop a little pet through the bars, when our chef shat all over my moment, “cats for food”. Yep, I knew that one day it would come to this, but before I had a chance to flex my muscles and rip through my clothing to reveal my secret identity as Super Kitten Liberator, I was ushered away to a stand where I tried some fresh fruit and some fried sea worms. Yes, the picky girl who refuses ketchup, mayonnaise, mustard, relish, pickles, radishes, cake, frosting, cabbage, milk, yogurt, onion rings, dumplings, marinara sauce, thousand island dressing, tuna, eggplant, artichoke, and avocados (to name a few) , this girl sat down at a bench on the street and put patties of fried sea worms in her mouth, chewed and swallowed. To be honest, it was quite good, I would have thought they were a type of tempeh.
Once we were done shopping we went to the top floor of The Orchid where they had a cooking station all set up with fresh ingredients laid out, knives and cutting boards. We learned how to make fresh spring rolls first. There is quite a method to making the perfect spring roll, wrapping it and presenting it. Probably due to my Mexican heritage, my first one looked like a malformed burrito, about three times the desired size, as I handed it over to the chef to present my work, it split it’s rice paper wrapping like a gordito bending over. For the next 5 minutes the chef and his assistant tried in vain to salvage the uber-springroll I created, but power like this was not meant to be contained, so it split 3 wraps before they put it on the tray strategically to hide it’s obesity.
After that, my spring rolls were made with the kind of careful attention to detail and perfection that only results from shame and embarrassment.
We learned how to cut various other vegetables and hand them to the chef while he demonstrated how to cook morning glory salad, caramelized beef vermicelli soup and cooked tomato tofu. It wasn’t the most hands on experience in terms of us actually following the recipes, but our chef was an excellent performer. He produced rhythms with knives on a cutting block while mincing meat worthy of being the back beat of Jay-Z’s next hit. He also was extremely skilled at playing with fire both on a grill and with a wok. This became even more fascinating after we were served his specially hand fermented black rice wine.
We left fully entertained and with extra full bellies.