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...


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.


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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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Wednesday, July 06, 2011

TV Chef Takes Pot Shot At Food Bloggers

I wish there were more chefs like Gordon Ramsay’s former right-hand man Mark Sargeant in the world. Chefs that just say what they want rather than check with their PR agents first.

The TV cook let rip on Twitter today over negative comments in two food blogs (take heart Adrian Gill there are some critical food bloggers out there) about his new restaurant Rocksalt. But he didn't name names - because he was “not here for petty arguments just voicing my opinion as they clearly feel they can!”

“Also I'm not cooking for stars so why would I do anything more to Dover sole than cook it simply! Un imaginative!?! Stay in London please!!” he twatted.

Ironically, the unnamed blogs he was referring to – Dos Hermanos and Gourmet Traveller – made references to how the purpose-built restaurant with its trendy London ways and “sleek modern decor” looked a “tad incongruous alongside the small wooden shacks selling whelks and crabsticks” in Folkestone.

It was almost like he’d set it up that way for rich Londoners and second-homers rather than what Dos Hermanos called the slightly “chavtastic” locals who “worship regularly at the temple of St Primark”.

“Ps thanks for calling my restaurant an "up Market chain"! I hope your 10 readers enjoy your "reviews"!” Sargeant ranted, referring without name to Gourmet Traveller’s comments about “feeling distinctly underwhelmed” by the “unadventurous menu (and) lacklustre service”.

It’s an easy swipe having a pop at bloggers. But it’s also very out of touch with the power of social media. Gourmet Traveller’s twitter account has almost 5,000 followers – nearly as many as the fuming chef himself – so even if only 20% read her blog, it’s still 1,000 readers. Probably more than the local Kent rags he puts his (obviously) glowing advertorials in.

And then he let off more steam, slamming the lack of research in food blogs by pointing out that he didn’t even have tripled-cooked chips on the menu (a reference now corrected by Gourmet Traveller).

He couldn’t stop himself: “Also we serve more than just one local beer if you care to look at our bottled beer list! We even stock 3 varieties of cider from Kent!”

Sargeant’s PR agent got involved, and @HERMANOPRIMERO – one half of the excellent Dos Hermanos blog - pointed out that he’d only been “offered Early Bird that was local” and suggested it might be better to highlight the local booze on the menu because he’d completely missed the Kent wine section.

There was a bit of banter about which blog Sargeant, 37, was referring to with which update, and what was wrong with a few critical comments anyway. “Think it was a cherry picking from both. Must remember that the phrase ‘nascent chain’ might offend,” said @HERMANOPRIMERO.

Many bloggers said they couldn’t see what all the fuss was about, and said if people have opinions – even negative ones (eek) – it’s always worth the owner checking them out. Others praised the chef for having the courage to speak his mind – without the usual PR muzzle.

Then Rick Stein’s ex-wife Jill plunged in, pointing out how reviewers from that there London always criticise a restaurant if it serves decent, simple food (at £30 a fish).

“They used to criticise us for cooking food simply. They don't get it,” she complained. “Because we cooked fish simply I am convinced that is the reason Michelin never awarded us a star!

“When Rick cooked I think he would have liked a star. I didn't!”

It was certainly true. The first thing the Italian sous chef told me when I began my chef training with a week at Stein’s Seafood Restaurant, was: “Do not, under any circumstances, mention Michelin stars to Rick! Even Bib Gourmand make him crazy!”

“Coming from you Jill that's a big honour. I am a massive fan of what you do down there you are the blueprint of what to achieve!” replied Sargeant.

It was true. Sargeant is harbouring dreams of turning Dover, sorry Folkestone, into Padstow, or as Dos Hermanos called it, “a sort of proto-Padstein. Sarge-ville if you will”.

Sargeant, who clearly has a lot on his plate what with running Rocksalt and his other new venture, an upmarket fish and chip shop specialising in sustainable species, quickly put it behind him.

“Right, moving on....some stunning fresh seabass caught this a.m. With roast fennel and vanilla. Josper lobsters and beautiful turbot!”

There was no picture attached. Perhaps he was too angry? He couldn’t help himself...

“All simply cooked of course!!!”

I’m pleased there are restaurant owners like Sargeant ready to let off steam and that the occasional rant still slips through the PR net. But you’re left wondering about that old saying, if you can’t stand the heat, stay out of the kitchen. Because it holds as true for marketing and PR as it does the dripping brow of the cramped furnace.

When a chef like Ramsay’s bright-eyed former TV side-kick enters the realm, or at least the precincts of the realm, of becoming a celebrity chef in his own right, then he can’t start moaning if he gets a bit of negative publicity once in a while - as well as all the rewards of running a branded gold mine like Rick Stein’s.

Neither review was particularly harsh, people are entitled to their opinions (even food bloggers), and every new restaurant should expect teething problems – especially with service. You can understand him being protective about his first restaurant, but after all those years working for Ramsay, you'd think he'd have the hide of an elephant (see video below). It makes you wonder what he'd say if he got a bad review.

Sargeant as junior sous chef being savaged by Ramsay:

Sunday, July 03, 2011

Vietnam: Eating Artichokes In Dalat

It's good fun being out on the road, roving about, living a nomadic life of cheap hotels and expensive Scotch, but I can feel the tropical tonto coming. The heat is stifling and the air smells of rancid gutters, and news travels slowly in a place where they steam the stamps off letters.

As I sat in a bar in Nha Trang a few nights ago, drinking a bucket of vodka limon with a Saigon Green chaser, I knew I needed to get away for a bit – somewhere cooler with a breeze, where you might even have to wear long trousers in the evening. And about the only place you can get that in Vietnam is Dalat - a mountain resort famous for its flowers, fruit, vegetables, coffee and endangered wild meat.

And I’m glad I did, because eating artichokes in the central market there was a major highlight of my trip so far through Vietnam. It immediately took me back to long summers in France, ripping off artichoke leaves and dipping them in vinaigrette, and watching the world go by from a cafe pew overlooking a dusty street.

I made do with one of those ubiquitous, ridiculously-low plastic chairs that surround every food stall in SE Asia, and leave anyone over 5ft 5in tall with their knees bent up around their chin like a flying yogic hopper who’s just fallen off a bed. But I wouldn’t have swapped it for the world.

Although there were thousands of beautiful artichokes in the market, lined up next to the massive avocadoes, bulging beetroot, cabbage, peas and strawberries, there were none for sale in any of the restaurants.

My only cooking equipment is a small kettle which I use to boil an egg for breakfast some afternoons, and I knew I wouldn’t be able to cram one of those beauties in there, so I tried to persuade a stall owner to cook a couple for me and my Vietnamese translator Qua.

I bought two fat specimens for 60,000 dong (£2) from a one-eyed woman, who'd stabbed her eye on an artichoke spear leaving a bluey-white smear in its place, and handed them to the cook. We ordered a bottle of the awful local wine, and a plate of garlic prawns (tom xao toi) and fried pork and rice to sweeten the transaction.

I had no idea what to expect. The stall specialised in “ancient hotpots” (lau thap cam) that combine everything from prawn to squid to beef to pork to vegetables in a simmering pot of spicy, herby goodness, so I imagined it would be something like that. But after five minutes I still wasn’t sure if the cook knew what I'd meant, or whether she thought I was just giving them to her as part of some bizarre, foreign good luck custom to ward off food poisoning.

Then a huge metal hot pot appeared with artichoke quarters sticking out. The cook put the dish between us and lit a paraffin burner underneath to get the water bubbling. It broke every cooking convention putting those beautiful artichokes in cold water, meaning they go through the 65C to 85C temperature band where vegetables lose their colour and bite (which is why you plunge them into boiling water).

But the taste was incredible. Out of this world. I delved around in the pot with my chopsticks – it was just water, salt, sliced onion, fresh coriander, and a few chopped up artichoke stalks to flavour the broth. And the preparation was as rustic as the delivery. They hadn’t bothered removing the fibrous choke – this was a stall in one of the best fruit and veg markets you’ll find anywhere in the world, and it seemed fitting somehow that every part of the thistle should be cherished, or at least acknowledged. Every thorn has its rose, as it were.

As with all Vietnamese hotpots you get an intense boil for a couple of minutes, and then some sort of amalgamation of colours and flavours, and then the dish just putters away for a bit, and then the burner runs out. Not that I waited that long - the veg was so fresh it took barely 10 minutes to cook. And soon we were pulling off leaves and scraping the mushy, vitamin-packed goodness against our bottom teeth.

Somehow the haphazardness of the dish made it all the more appealing. By chance, there was the perfect amount of seasoning in the stock to give the artichokes a delicious, intense taste, while making a wonderful pea-green soup to drink afterwards.

The hearts were mouth-wateringly divine, and I soon got fed up with fishing out the fibres, and just bit into them to devour their succulence, and I’ve still got a fibre stuck in my throat as I write this two days later. They had a moreish, bitter aftertaste that massaged the roof of your mouth and screamed of Provence – from where they’d been introduced 100 years before.

The French turned Dalat into a tiny corner of France to escape the heat of Saigon, and revel in the produce of its incredible microclimate as only the French can do.

Tropical fruit and vegetables were grown in the foothills, while further up, where the air was thinner, the soil lusher, and the temperature more reminiscent of the Med, it was the perfect growing spot for European produce.

As well as being the world’s artichoke tea-producing hub, Dalat also has wonderful milk and it would have been churlish to say the dish needed butter – as how it would have been served in France. But I haven’t eaten butter in the five months I’ve been in Asia, and I didn’t miss it and nor did the dish.

There was something in its simplicity that summed up Vietnam’s watery, pot-based cooking. It was the understanding of food, the respect for ingredients, and the knowledge that smothering the natural goodness is a crime.

When the bill came, Qua kicked up a fuss when they tried to charge us 50,000 dong (less than £2) for "cooking" the artichokes. She got quite upset about it. I was more than happy to pay, and pointed out how much a similar meal would have cost in the UK, and how if she hadn’t been there they would have charged me double, and that I was happy to pay for the theatre and the occasion, and I did have some sympathy with the cook. But to her it was an appalling rip-off.

“Fifty thousand dong for water, onions and a few bits of cilantro!” she kept saying. “FIFTY THOUSAND!”

“And they probably got the water from the lake,” I added, trying to make light of it.

But she just glared at me and back at the stony-faced cook when she returned with my change, and the atmosphere quickly turned as spiky as those violet, thorny inner leaves that had taken that woman’s eye out on the stall next door.


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Lau hai san Thai (hot and spicy Thai-style seafood hotpot):

Lau nam thit ga (Vietnamese chicken and mushroom hotpot):


The road to Dalat:

Welcome to Dalat:

Advocado shake (once a decade is more than enough):

Bun rieu (a very sweet soup):

Donut and coffee stalls line the streets round the market:

Deer at half the price:

The region is famous for its flowers:

Street hawkers selling their wares:

Strange landing craft in the highland resort's Xuan Huong Lake:

The gardeners' paradise is known for its strawberries and jams:

Trimming coconuts for tourists:

Massive guavas add to the quality of life in the former colony: