There are elements of Vietnamese culture that invest significantly in symbolism. Colors. Numbers. Days of the week. Seasons of the year. Phases of the lunar cycle. I-Ching astrological fortune tellers play important and still visible societal roles. Your given name has a deeply considered poetic meaning.
And the cuisine of Việt Nam?
Food creates the foundational background in this linchpin Southeast Asian country. Tasting its endless dishes is an easy entry visa for the outsider. And in that Vietnamese background always lurks China. Which is why Việt Nam is a miracle of a country, its cuisine indeed geographically close to The Middle Kingdom found on its northern border but at the same time so very far away.
Layer upon layer, like a complicated millefeuille, the language and the food of Việt Nam are coming into clear focus for me. With the help of our brilliant teacher Nguyễn Hoa, my wife Jan and I are fortunate to be breaking through both the pronunciation and vocabulary of this fanatically precise intonational world. For the cuisine, we are guided by Đàm Quang Minh, who wanted to take us shopping for some of his Tết Lunar New Year dishes to the amazing Đồng Xuân Market.
We met Minh and Vũ Nhật Tân in the bustling Tết Street Markets spread across the enchanting Old Quarter of Hà Nội, one of my most favorite urban environments on the planet. As we passed both truly authentic and very fake ceramic vendors surrounded by tea sets, red lanterns, yellow pennants and various holiday items and trinkets, we were well on our way to an insider’s tour of the legendary Đồng Xuân Market.
Trust me, we’re off the tourist route entirely! Let’s take a look!
After we emerged from the delightful energy of the Old Quarter street market, we crossed a busy main boulevard and proceeded down the narrow alley you see pictured above. Normal things in plethora, glasses, bowls, dishes, socks, underwear, flower vases and pots, toys, street food, all line this work-a-day route. At the same time, we’re able to see life unfold naturally, out of the gaze of camera and tourist. A motorbike roars by with a friendly greeting to please pass, a smiling vendor’s face asks if you’d like tea or candy. But we’re undeterred by various normal distractions. Đồng Xuân Market is the goal as Minh needs a lot of hard to find ingredients!
At our first meeting a few weeks ago, Minh brought the “Indo” back into French Indochina, now a somewhat pejorative memory but nonetheless an accurate description. And what he was getting at is the often neglected impact of India upon Southeast Asia in general, but Việt Nam in particular. In particular in the South of the country, India has had a presence for centuries. The legendary spices of the sub-continent seeped into Vietnamese cuisine over time. Thst original blur is now complete as the cuisine of India and Việt Nam are quite separate. At the root of the difference between Vietnamese and Chinese cuisine are many of the herbs used in the typical Vietnamese kitchen, and what contradicts both India and China is the freshness of ingredients used in Việt Nam as garnish, in particular the array of green herbs.
And another way to understand the influence of India in Việt Nam? The Himalaya range ends a few hours north of Hà Nội, creating the border with, you guessed it, China!
As we walked in the Đồng Xuân Market, the huge bags of dried herbs were staggering and inspiring to encounter. For example, the Beethoven 5th of international Vietnamese cuisine, phở bò soup, is not possible without a combination of star anise, cassia bark and roasted black cardamom, and I now return home to California with the mixed metaphor of these real McCoy’s in my suitcase, knowing how to use them in the correct proportion.
Another way to learn how to speak Vietnamese, but just a different strategy!
Đồng Xuân Market is packed to its rafters with vendors, quite similar to markets in México. There is only a narrow path between each stall and each aisle. Negotiating this web is fascinating, but following Minh to his favorite places was the treat of a lifetime. Because it’s those dried fish, sea cucumbers, mushrooms and bamboo shoots that look like something out of The Wizard of Oz or Into the Woods that always confused me. Not any more! All you need is one word: soup.
As an outsider to this cuisine but an insider with my own, shopping with a friend was equivalent to a semester of cooking lessons out of country. We’ll be cooking together for the Tết Lunar New Year and I can’t wait to learn how Minh uses these ingredients to make a very special soup for us to welcome in the Year of the Dog.
We had been out for a long time, and as we left the Đồng Xuân Market with bags of purchases we proceeded down the narrow Đồng Xuân Alley, motor scooters and pedestrians politely making way for each other, a tight fit but always easy and courteous, you’re never shoved by anybody in Việt Nam. But Jan and I were feeling a bit zonked, and sure enough, on cue, Minh and Tân stopped at their favorite dessert place for a late afternoon pick-me-up. We chose a luscious coconut and longan fruit drink.
Is was time to talk music, ideas, culture, the continuing mix of the Hà Nội New Music Ensemble and Minh’s Đông Kinh Cở Nhạc Group of ancient players of Tonkin, an upcoming trip to Sài Gòn and how we will celebrate the Tết cycle together. Việt Nam moves at its own pace, and I’ve needed nine trips to realize that Tết was an essential ingredient to my understanding of this amazing country.
So there’s more to come as Tết unveils itself to me for the first time. Look for many new posts that I hope you will find as interesting to read as I do to write!
And that life memory I already sense being shaped? Sharing the inner world of Vietnamese cuisine with my friend Đàm Quang Minh!
One thing that contributes to my friendship with Minh is our back and forth conversations are in French, as he lives half the year in that other city as interesting for food on the globe as Hà Nội, which is Paris. Both my French and my Vietnamese improve simultaneously when we’re together. This makes for a wonderful exhaustion, especially when jet lag is in the equation.
He gave himself away on our trip to Đồng Xuân Market by wearing a stylish black Parisian beret. Minh’s knowledge of the cuisines of Việt Nam and France is formidable, which helps him explain cooking technique to me. And regarding Paris, we had a huge and raucous laugh after a successful concert last week, a story you might enjoy. I was mentioning that I’d like to cook a blue cheese risotto for a friend, and asked Minh if he’d serve red or white wine.
“Rouge, bien sûr,” he answered.
”But what about a Sauternes with a blue cheese risotto?” I responded with curiousity, setting a friendly trap knowing there might be a joke around the corner.
“That’s not white wine! Don’t you know? Sauternes is tap water for a true communist in Paris!” And our laughter just about got us thrown out of the restaurant!
If you’re getting hungry reading this, don’t worry. I’ll be back soon with a post about the meal resulting from this trip to the amazing, off the tourist track Đồng Xuân Market!
Best, best, best,