Thursday, July 14, 2011
Eating Jackfruit And Tofu With Monks
Eventually the packed Transit pulled up in a one-horse town called Bao Lac – a place well-off the tourist beat, that only warrants two paragraphs in my pirate copy of Lonely Planet. And one of those is to tell you about a waterfall 20km away.
I had no idea how to get to the monastery. It was raining hard, and I was too drunk to hire a moped and navigate the narrow, treacherous lanes. Not if there were nutters like that minibus driver on the road. Eventually I spotted a taxi, and we drove through the tea and coffee farms, up and down lush, green hills through tiny communes, until we got to Bat Nha monastery.
It was perched on a hill in the middle of a tea plantation, and the quiet was deafening. It was hard to imagine an armed mob smashing down doors and forcibly evicting 150 monks two summers ago in delicate negotiations between peace-loving Buddhists (see footnote).
But there was no sign of any damage. Everything was immaculate. The pagoda was set back behind untouched, grey stone columns inscribed with hieroglyphics. The garden in front had been manicured with a set square. Every part was tended and loved, and it was someone’s job to patrol around and keep incense burning in every shrine.
To the left, a white statue rose out of garishly-pink petal leaves. A Hobbit bridge led over to the grotto in front. I strolled around the grounds, gazing at every perfectly-trimmed bush and shrub, struggling to think how that peaceful paradise had been engulfed in secular violence, and how depressing it was that the only religion I had ever had any notion of joining, however fleeting, could still be ridden with the same power struggles, intolerance, and hate as every other religion.
I walked past more living quarters, and an old woman told me that an Englishman had been living there for the past ten days, but had disappeared that morning.
“He English, but not fat you,” she said.
I was sure it was ‘less fat’ she’d meant. I’d run out of belt holes what with the heat and the rice diet, and I’d only really been able to keep a respectable amount of flab on since being on the baguettes. She’d definitely misheard. She pointed down the pathway and told me to go and look at the waterfall, which I then heard translated into a shorter phrase in Vietnamese.
I climbed down in my flip-flops, and found a Buddha statue hidden in the trees. All I could make out was a patch of white sleeve to start with, until I cut through the coffee bushes, and slid down the slope. I walked on round, past the snake holes to the pagoda at the waterfall, and then back up again, this time taking a route to the back of the grounds with less holes.
I couldn’t have timed it better. They were just settling down for supper. Two long wooden tables – one for the monks, and one for the nuns - were slowly being decorated with food. Suddenly the heavens opened and a monsoon thundered down on the tin roof. I looked out at the darkening grounds and my long walk back to the idling taxi.
I sat down at the end of a bench, and began jotting notes in my journal, waiting for the torrent to stop. When I looked up, there were 10 children standing around me, studying every pen stroke. They couldn’t believe how small my writing was. They were from the poorest farms in the area, and had probably never used a mobile phone, let alone had their appreciation of life’s humble pleasures trampled on by computer games. It wasn’t even an iPad – just a notebook and pen. Then more came.
The old woman I’d met asked me to join them for a meal. I hesitated at first, thinking about how it looked - a comparatively rich foreigner taking alms from impoverished monks. But I’d made a donation to the monastery, and a cheer went up from the children when I agreed. I’d never met people so easily pleased, and I was too, because I was desperate to try that food I’d heard so much about.
They sat me down at one end of the monks’ table. No-one spoke any English. One of the older monks filled up my bowl with rice, and then pointed at the dishes – golden-fried tofu in tomato sauce (dau sot ca chua), stir-fried pumpkin stems and leaves (rau bi xao), deep-fried mushrooms in pakora-style batter (nam chien), bitter melon soup (canh muop), boiled jackfruit (qua mit kho), and, of course, sticky rice.
The pumpkin greens reminded me of nettles slightly, but they had crunch and flavour, and were delicious. Just as meat-eaters savour every knobble of succulence, almost the same can be said for vegetarian food - from the slipperiness of the bitter melon to the crunch of the mushrooms (pic below).
The tofu dish was absolutely outstanding. The cooking was incredible - the same flourishing skills when it comes to tomatoes as the best Italian or Indian cooks.
I asked who’d made it, and they pointed to a small boy a few feet away. He could have only been 13. I knew it was pointless asking him the recipe, and I went through miming routines to guess at each cooking stage, but I could see he was confused. Either that or he was thinking: “Forty minutes for the fucking tomatoes? Thirty at most!”
I asked him to write down the ingredients, but he had even worse handwriting than his friend. It was full of Cs, Ts, and bent umlauts. I smeared through the paste with a chopstick. Just coils of tomato skin and delicious red sauce. I couldn’t see anything but tomato. No suggestion of onion or garlic, nothing green, no real flavourings apart from salt, fish sauce, sugar, and perhaps some tomato puree, and the incredible blast of flavour you get from knowing how to cook tomatoes properly.
Then a stunning dish of dry jackfruit appeared. You could have put down a roast chicken wafting of herbs, butter, garlic, and bacon, and it would have had the same effect. Well, perhaps not. And certainly not a fiendishly-rare hunk of cow’s buttock with horseradish and fondant potatoes cooked in duck stock, or green ham and boiled potatoes with English mustard, and a proper, roux-based parsley and sage sauce, but it was a knock-out punch all the same.
They looked like lamb steaks for a second. Straight through the leg. I could even see the nuptials of bone and marrow. The flavour was amazing. The jackfruit had been marinated in lemon grass and soy sauce, and boiled in the liquid until it was soft, but still meaty. In fact, it was so Bovrilly, it smashed you round the head like an angry Buddhist, it was so good. Again I got them to write it down. It was something like “qua mit kho”.
“Like bo kho!” I kept saying, taking pride in the only Vietnamese phrase I can pronounce so they know what I’m saying after the fourth attempt. Then I realised I shouldn’t be shouting about beef stew in a Buddhist temple. Not one with such previous anyway.
The rain had stopped and made way for lightning, and I promised I’d visit them the next day. I walked back through the grounds, feeling more sad than emotional. I’d been on the road for so long, I hadn’t felt affection like that for months.
I walked down the tiled steps, past the perfectly-aligned hedgerows facing east, and the taxi already had its lights on. All I knew was I needed to get hold of that recipe for the tofu in tomato sauce. I still couldn’t work out if it was fresh tomatoes AND tomato puree, or whether there were any tomatoes in it at all.
Video of a grotto and shrine at Bat Nha monastery...
BAT NHA VIOLENCE:
More than 150 followers of Thich Nhat Hanh, the French-based Zen monk exiled from Vietnam because of his anti-war views in the mid-60s, but allowed back 40 years later when Vietnam tried to get itself removed from a US list of countries violating religious freedom (a move which led to its admittance into the World Trade Organisation two years later), were forcibly removed from the monastery in 2009.
They said they were beaten by an armed mob, enraged about their ideas on religious reform. The authorities at first denied that any incident occurred. Later, the communist government described the matter as an internal dispute between two Buddhist groups, and pointed out that Nhat Hanh's supporters had organised religious courses without permission and failed to register their temporary residence at the monastery.
Human rights groups said it highlighted Vietnam's suppression of religious freedom, and attitude towards religious groups - particularly popular, radical ones it fears it can't control.
MAP OF BAO LAC AND SURROUNDING HIGHLANDS:
View Larger Map