Monday, July 11, 2011

Eating On The Buddhist Trail In Vietnam

I’ve always been intrigued by Vietnamese Buddhist cooking (do chay). There is something in its cleanness and simplicity, and its ‘mock meat’ offerings that distracts you from missing real meat – well for a day or two anyway. But it’s not just that. It’s the respect they have for each ingredient, and the way it’s eaten in such a communal manner, with people filling each other’s rice bowls and ladling broth.

My first experience of ‘proper’ do chay was at a weekend retreat run by Vietnamese monks at a convent they’d hired in the Chiltern Hills, west of London - an event that attracted Wagamama founder and Asian food expert Alan Yau. During one meal, we were served something called “nine treasure soup”, filled with seaweed, berries, mushrooms and julienne vegetables, and I’ll never forget it, and sadly have never come across it since.

Stir-fried water spinach (rau muong xao)...

Most of the meals consisted of home-made tofu, formed into faux meat concoctions and cutlets, stir-fried vegetables, mushrooms, spring rolls, tempura, fried noodles, congee, sticky rice cakes (banh chung), steamed buns (banh bao), and always soup to wash it down. The workshops were led by a monk called Thong, whose brother helps run the famous Bat Nha monastery in Vietnam’s central highlands province of Lam Dong.

The dishes came from there, and I’d always wanted to go, seeing pictures of how beautiful and peaceful the pagoda looked, perched on a misty hill-top in the middle of a tea plantation – the scene, incongruously, of some well-publicised violence between two rival Buddhist groups two years ago.

Video of a grotto and shrine at Bat Nha monastery...

I wasn’t looking forward to the long trek across the central highlands though, and had a few hours to kill before my bus set off. So I started my journey with a meal at the Long Son Pagoda with its huge white Buddha gazing down on the coastal resort of Nha Trang.

I’d heard about the Buddhist food they served in the temple’s restaurant. The signature dish was mi Quang, a noodle soup speciality from nearby Quang Ngai province, decorated with mushrooms, steamed tofu, and vegetarian ‘pork chops’ and ‘ham’.

But I’d had more than my fill of noodles, so went for a selection of dishes to remind me of the different flavours that make up Vietnamese Buddhist cooking. The mushroom fried rice was exquisite. The base was courgette brunoise, and the slivers of dried mushroom had the texture and colour of Bombay duck, and gave the dish a pleasant, earthy taste.

The rice was served the traditional way with soup. In this case, a sweet and sour tofu broth (canh chua), deliciously seasoned with fresh tomato and pineapple, and a chunk of red chilli at the bottom spewing out heat.

The seaweed soup was thickened with corn flour, so it had a ham stock gloop that would be lost on most vegetarians, and there was a pleasant hint of sesame oil buried somewhere in the slices of baby sweetcorn, carrot, onion, coriander stalks and seaweed.

But the vegetarian spring rolls (cha ram) were a disappointment, as most Vietnamese spring rolls are, and I folded them away in a plastic bag to give to the beggars who haunt the temple grounds.

I wandered around, and climbed the 152 stone steps to the giant Buddha, and saw the relief busts of Thich Quang Duc and six other monks who’d publicly burned themselves to death in 1963 in protest at the South Vietnamese government’s regime.

Sitting in the shade, were a group of kids selling lottery tickets and chewing gum. I had scarcely reached for the spring rolls, when a fat little bloater appeared from the trees and snatched the bag off me. He was chased up the steps by the rest of the children, stuffing his face as he ran.

The pagoda hall was filled with old Buddhists, who’d travelled there from across the country. One of them looked at least 100-years-old. She held out her hand as I walked past, and I handed her $5.

They would spend the next ten days sleeping and praying in their pyjamas on the hard, stone floor, waiting for the next full moon. It certainly put my 10-hour ordeal across the rugged highlands into perspective. Or at least that’s what I thought at the time.

After an hour stuck on that “bus” – as the booking agent had described it – I’d have gladly swapped places with those doddery old Buddhists. There must have been 20 people crammed into that Ford Transit screaming past the hair-pin traffic. Most of the time we were on the wrong-side of the road, the driver’s thumb fastened to the horn.

I was wedged between four women on a seat for three. But I was one of the lucky ones. Some people were compressed into L-shapes against the ceiling. They’d taken out the folding seats because you can cram more people in that way. And still we stopped to pick up more passengers.

The trucks and buses we’d overtaken on blind bends over forested gorges plunging hundreds of metres down to waterfalls, rocky streams and certain death, clattered past us again. But we were soon on their tails, the horn blaring away, skimming mopeds by inches.

I had my lap-top pushed against my chest, and my money and passport stuffed into my pockets, but after a couple of hours of cramp and claustrophobia, my legs were so numb, I felt hands everywhere.

My bag was in the back, and all I could think about was the back-seat rooting through my stuff, sharing out booty like jubilant thieves. Was that the sound of an electric toothbrush? Not that I could hear anything above the whining from the spiteful toddler on the woman’s lap next to me.

We missed another durian fruit moped by a whisker as we screeched out of the way of an oncoming truck. The pain in my left knee was horrendous after another hour, and the brat was sticking his elbow in my ribs.

After a few minutes, it appeared to be deliberate. He had more than enough room against the window. I mustered the last of my strength, and managed to free my arm enough to nudge him and get my arm back in time, and he started howling again.

Suddenly we screeched across the road, and pulled up for a pit-stop outside a ramshackle bus station with the parking space for about three mopeds. I thought the contents of my bag would be strewn across the back seat. But worse, I couldn’t see it at all. I searched through the sacks of fruit, potatoes, and boxes of ducks, chickens, puppies, and no doubt live spitting cobras, destined for Saigon’s wild meat restaurants. Then I saw a soiled black bag on the far side.

It couldn’t be mine. There was a live bird attached to it. It was flapping around hysterically, and opening its mouth at horribly-distorted angles. I looked again. It still had the green flight sticker on. It was definitely my bag.

The ribbon round its foot was tied to the zipper, and the fledgling had excreted foul juices all over the top. I thought about burning through the ribbon with my lighter, and demanding to know who’d tied a live bird to my bag.

But there was no point. No-one spoke a word of English, and I’d given up Vietnamese weeks ago after my hundredth attempt to order a hot, black coffee without a wheelbarrow of ice and sugar shovelled into it.

Then a mean-looking rice farmer with a scarred face started feeding the greedy creature kernels from the steamed sweetcorn he’d just bought, and I realised it was probably his, and returned to my six inches of seat space at the front.


The towers were built by Cham Buddhists in 817AD...

Girls dance the traditional Cham way with pots on their heads...

Pillars are all that remain of the meditation hall...Think on!


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Anonymous said...

Love the blog and pictures. I'd love tom go back to Vietnam

Cathryn Kemp said...

Your blog is brilliant - love the chicken tied to your rucksack. Bloody hilarious! Your photos are superb as well. Love the big pink Lilly.

Lennie Nash said...

Many thanks Cathryn! So it is a lily - never been much good at flowers.

Lennie x

Anonymous said...

Love your writing! Pretty inspired right now to travel like this myself one day!