Saturday, 1 October 2011

More Tales from the Village

Since last full moon, the astrological planets must have been colliding unfavourably, bad luck seem to follow everyone here especially me. Decisions related to the functioning of the restaurants made without any pre consultation as well as idle gossips effecting working life of some staff members had driven concerned peoples into despair. My ears were filled with tearful “private talks”.

The full mid “August moon” Lunar calendar is considered the brightest and fullest moon of the whole year. It is celebrated in many countries in South East Asia, in Viet Nam it is known as “Tet Trung Thu” (Mid Autumn Festival). Children played with lanterns and adults drink tea with special sweet savoury cakes (Banh nuong : baked cakes) and (Banh deo: non baked cakes, the glutinous flour is cooked by hot water, form into a paste with filling and moulded with special patterns). Since the traditional moon cakes are not very safe to eat, most of them with egg and Chinese sausages or pork fat, and they were displayed in open stalls exposed to the elements for over a month prior to the festival. People only bought them as obligatory presents and usually the receivers threw them out. They usually are the cause of many absentees the following day after the festival. Now people enjoyed the new style moon cakes instead.

 The new style moon cake made with agar agar and various fillings, These cakes have to be refrigerated and only kept for 3 days.

 New style agar agar moon cake with pig and piglets pattern and chocolate flavour

 Children at Village Chance and their paper lanterns on Mid Autumn Festival

Lanterns can be made with wire or bamboo frames in different designs, then covered with either colour papers or cellophane papers, painted with bright happy patterns, the candle holders is fixed securely in the middle of the frame, away from the paper to prevent the lantern catching fire, however often by the end of the night most lanterns were burnt to cinder due to the wind or the candle holders felt over.

 Children lighting the lanterns

 Little Samsung holding his horse lantern

Village Chance School chidren  celebrated Moon Festival

Food laws & Reality

On the Mid Autumn Moon Festival, we were sent to attend the Food Hygiene and Safety course and later on to have our health check so we could get the “green card”, which allows us to work in the food industry.

In theory, the food industry is classified as one of the dangerous to public health industries, therefore it is the most regulated industry.
However, in reality looking at the restaurants, the pavement food stalls, the wet markets in the suburban areas of Ho Chi Minh City so far, I haven’t seen any of these regulations being applied.

 Food Safety & Hygiene Class

Chicken displayed in the open air

And so was the meat

A roadside roast stall with bread rolls and roast ducks collecting dust and traffic fumes

Sausages & pork rolls stall

Dog selling fruits in market

All kinds of snails on market pavement

There must be more than 200 peoples in the food industries attending the course, but judging from the chaotic classroom, the attitude of the students, I doubted that any of the laws was taken in seriously. Some of the most important chapters and the clauses of the Food laws were projected on the large screen; the teacher voice even through the microphone could not compete with the continuous chatting and the movement of the students during the lecture. I stood out as “an alien” so after class the teacher came and chatted to me. I expressed my surprise about all these laws and what I observed in real life and the answer was the laws exist but it depends on people own “heart” to comply with the laws. May be not many people in the food industries having “heart” then!
We still haven’t got around to have our health check yet!

 Dried sardines in baskets at market

 Egg stall: the eggs often are not very fresh, being displayed all day in the sun.

Special fresh water crabs slowly expiring in the heat as the day progressed

 Tofu stall

A Ghostly decision:
An early email announcing that we will stop serving breakfast but without exact time frame, so  people still turned up for breakfast for the next two days.

 Fried egg and bread roll for breakfast at Village Chance canteen
This was the most popular breakfast for the kids

Bun bo Hue at Village Chance Canteen for 15,000 D VN

The Front of House Trainee suggested we make hamburger for breakfast so he bought round bread rolls, they were not as good as the rolls from Australia, but we filled it with "The Work": meat, egg, cheese, lettuce, tomato, pickled beetroot,  dressed with mayonnaise and tomato sauce. The foreigners loved them, but none of the kids from Maison Chance wanted to try it, even they love fried egg with bread roll!  

On the same day when we got the mail, we served lunch to 17 Malaysian visitors, hosted by two representatives from Maison Chance and that night we prepared party food for 60 persons to launch the installation of a new alarm system, most of the management committee members were there, and still we did not hear a single word to officially inform us when we should stop serving breakfast.

 Plating for 60 party goers: Spring roll with vermicelli

An Outing for a change:
Lunch in District 1 at the “best restaurant in VN”
My friend who is getting married came to Ho Chi Minh City from Hanoi for a conference, so on Sunday I went to the City to have lunch to celebrate his engagement. I will miss attending it in Hanoi due to the confusion of date according to Lunar Calendar and Gregorian calendar.
We had lunch at the “best Vietnamese restaurant” in Vietnam in District 1.
The entrance of the restaurant is not very impressive but once inside it opens into a large long room with ultra modern decorated bar and dining rooms on the ground floor as well as the upstairs. The ceiling is lined with beige colour circular lamp shades and the walls covered with computer generated colour portraits of famous international politicians.
We were early and the only two customers in the restaurant, so while waiting to lunch we ordered coffee and water, my flat white was lukewarm and hardly had any coffee in it. My friend’s Vietnamese iced coffee did not look good either.

Lighting in the restaurant

A lukewarm milky flat white

 Ca phe sua da : “Iced milk coffee”

For lunch we ordered green papaya salad, soft shelled crab spring rolls, Hue beef noodle soup and special chicken rice. The waitress was good, she set the table properly and she spoke English well, we ordered a bottle of Stonier Pinot Noir, priced at 1.5 millions Dong (approximately A$75.00), I really enjoyed drinking the delicious wine from a proper wine glass.

 Special chicken rice with soy sauce

 Soft shell crab spring roll with mayonnaise sauce

 Bun bo Hue at District 1 for 85,000D VN with lots of sugar

The green papaya salad was made with carrot and lotus root as well, it was quite sweet, the spring roll is well made, beautifully presented on a rectangular plate with sweetened mayonnaise dipping sauce.
The Hue Beef noodle soup looked similar to our own at Village Chance Eatery but the stock was definitely less tasty and too sweet. My friend enjoyed his crispy fried chicken with yellow rice, cucumber salad and soy sauce with chilli. By the time we finished our lunch there were another two tables of diners. The waitress told us that the restaurant is much busier during week -day, more office workers coming for set lunch menu and at night the upstairs room is filled with tourists.
Our lunch bill including service charge and VAT came to 2, 560100 Dong  (A$125 approx.), which is quite cheap in Australia but in Vietnam it equals to the whole month salary for some.

 HCM City from the 68th floor of the new tower. The glass window has not been cleaned properly

After lunch we decided to visit the new “ Saigon Tower” to have a bird eyes view of the city. The views would be better if the surrounding glass window had been better cleaned, however Ho Chi Minh City looked quite impressive as a cosmopolitan city through the glass darkly.
Later on we walked to Ben Thanh market, my friend was looking for another pairs of shoes because in Hanoi he could not find large shoes sizes. It was very hot and humid, by the time we got to the crowded market we decided to go back to the air-conditioning lobby at the hotel for coffee and to forget about the shoes. We had coffee and by the time I had to go home the rain pelted down, I left my friend waiting for his flight back to Hanoi in the comfortable lobby of the hotel and I went back to my third world country in the monsoon rain.

When I got back from my outing, my kitchen assistant told me that she checked with the manager and he told her to go ahead ordering ingredients for Monday breakfast and she did. We prepared Monday breakfast until 10pm that night.
At six we started preparing for services, but by 6.30 there were no customers, we found out through one of the school kid that they were not given vouchers for breakfast. By then we realised that the breakfast was officially cancelled. We managed to sell a few bowls of soup for some regular customers and the rest was sold to ourselves. We covered the cost of the ingredients for the day.
I messaged Tim but apparently she was not aware of any of this, she said she knew of some difficulty and she hoped it was not important! She said it would l be resolved on Tuesday meeting.
That night my staff was depressed and of course they drown their sorrows in 20 cans of beer. They also bought their special food to dispel bad luck, which was half hatched duck and quail eggs, and cabbage salad with “black pudding” (cooked chicken blood), I tried the eggs, they looked quite unappetising,   but the duck and the quail embryos had a crunchy texture, Vietnamese hot mint was the essential ingredient.

  Half hatched duck and quail eggs and Vietnamese mint. In Vietnamese it is “Hot vit lon”  (Change direction egg) therefore eating it will change the direction of one’s fate!)
 Cabbage salad with “cooked chicken blood and other chicken offal”: one of the popular drinking food (mon nhau)

    Boiled and peeled half hatched duck eggs: the grey part is the newly formed embryo, cover with grey downs. The yolk became hard with a crunchy texture.

A bus trip to Vinh Long
On top of this, one of my staff asked me to accompany her back to her village so I could help her to clarify with her parents about some gossips concerning her.  But the 10 hours bus trip there and back was of no use.
We left Ho Chi Minh at 10am on an air-conditioned express bus, it was very comfortable, unlike other buses it did not stop to pick up extra passengers but one rest stop. The rest station was also run by the bus company with reasonable clean rest room and dining room as well as fruit and specialty product stalls.

The Mai Linh Express bus to Vinh Long at the rest station

  Nem chua : fermented pork paste wrapped in banana leaves: a stall at the rest station, they are one of the popular gift for travelers to take home.  The meat is the main ingredient for “Nem cuon” (Nem fresh rice paper roll)
 Durians, Cherries and pomelos displayed at the rest station

Green skinned Pomelos stand

Cakes and biscuits stall

Selecting fruits at the fruit stall at rest station

The welcome sign before the Australian built bridge

 Green rice fields

Both sides of the road were beautiful green with rice fields and orchards. Vinh Long is now a very wealthy provincial city. The streets are much better and much cleaner than those in my district in HCM City.  The Australians working on the bridge must have something to do with this!!!!

 The Australian built bridge across the Mekong River. When I was here last I had to cross the river on the old ferry
 Shell fishes from the river sold at Vinh Long market

We arrived at Vinh Long after 1pm but from the City we had to take another bus to get to the village and it took over 3 hours, the bus stopped constantly to pick up and drop off passengers. At one stage they managed to cramp 20 people in the 11 seats bus, 4 ladies was sardine into the space next to the driver. I admired the Vietnamese tolerance for discomfort, luckily we got the two seats behind the driver next to the window so only our feet had to bear the weight of some shopping bags and in spite of it I really enjoyed the scenery. The buses went along narrow roads through small peaceful villages.

 4 passengers in the front seat next to the driver

By 5 o’clock we finally came to the village where we got picked up on 1 motorbike. The house was on acreage and surrounded by small waterways, lined with coconut palms. It was very peaceful and spacious, rainwater was stored in giant pottery containers and the courtyard was tiled. The family raised fighting cocks, pigs, ducks and fish and grow citrus trees. We had duck porridge for dinner. I spent most of the evening explaining how we work at Village Chance and assuring the parents that their daughter has not been misbehaving in any way. I thought they accepted my words, but later on a phone call from her cousin reversed all my effort. In a society where moral hypocrisy rules can turn people dishonest.
We caught the bus back to Ho Chi Minh City at 1am with the girl’s mother as well as the mother of her cousin. I tried to sleep right through the trip to avoid joining in their conversation.
By 5am we got home, I showered and washed all my clothing to clean out my anger and negative thoughts. I went to the kitchen 30 minutes late, the cashier and the two waitresses were sitting talking together, no one in the kitchen, nothing was prepared, orders came in, I quickly filled the orders, the kitchen staff thought we stopped trading, the grape vine style of communication was a real problem, no one knew the exact source.

 One of the
 pampered birds: they get washed, fed with special food and some of them sleep inside the house on special beds.

The Meeting
I wrote down all I wanted to say directly to the Chairman of the meeting in the afternoon:

-I had told the person in charge of volunteers and Tim that I no longer want to work as a volunteer under the present conditions.

-I have been living and working in Australia for 50 years, I am used to clear and direct communication, and I am respected for what I contributed to the culture of my adopted country.

-I believed that I am making some progress with the trainees and they should be encouraged and supported for their effort instead of every time they made a step forward, they were pushed back two steps by the unconsulted decision made from “above”.

-The breakfast and to please the taste of the local district population were not in my agenda, I was asked to set up an “international standard” restaurant to attract better clients and visitors from overseas and to train some young people who want to work in the food industry.

-After six months there is still no restaurant licence, therefore the intention of advertising the restaurant through travel guidebooks and airlines magazines could not be realised. It is like trying to place the plough before the buffalo.

-To widen the repertoire in the training program, I decided to offer lunch or dinner to a few regular customers.

The full management Committee including the Chairman of the Association were present, and from the restaurant was represented by the two trainees and me. I spoke my pieces; they were all ”surprised” at what was going on. And they apologised to me for all the unhappiness they caused me and they asked me to continue my volunteer work training the “in house” people and they decided to dismiss all the paid employees from outside. I mentioned to the Management Committee about the case of the girl, who was forced to give up her job by her cousin, of course no one was aware of it.
So from now, my job is concentrated on training and to prepare food for lunch and dinner by appointment only.
So life goes on.
The next day I had meeting with the trainees and the new “manager” from the Management Committee to outline my training program and to work out the budget.
The following day was full of activity; we helped the bakers to serve morning tea and afternoon tea for over 80 people. The volunteer bakers from France and Belgium had been toiling for the last few days in the kitchen trying to make little choux and tartlets using a tiny little oven, but amazingly they managed to produce over hundred little delicious cakes to serve at the tea parties.
Delicious Madeleines and choux for morning tea for 80 guests

 Tarts before dressed with chocolate
 Apricot tart with cream roses for the birthday girl
A sad story
That day was the birthday of the baker from France as well, so we were trying to organise a dinner for her.
At 2pm, I was looking for my trainees to run the afternoon class, I found one of them sitting next to a pile of empty beer cans, crying inconsolably. He was told by the social worker that after she enquired about his mother and his siblings in his native village, prior to their visit to reunite with his family after 16 years, the local authority informed her that his mother had passed away 3 years ago. He had been so excited about the reunion a few days ago but the news destroyed him completely. I took him into my arms and cried with him. It happened to me as well, in 1974, while I was in Sydney, my mother died but I did not know until a month later when I received a fat envelop with the pictures of her funeral. I remembered that I could not even cry then being so angry with my family.

Relaxing after a long day preparing food for a party.

My trainee told me due to poverty, his mother could not look after all her 4 children, they left home very young. He could hardly remember his family because at 7 he left his village and came to the South, he earned his living from the streets for a few years. When he was 12 he was taken in by Maison Chance and Tim adopted him, sent him to school, taught him French and English, he worked in the office at the Take Wings Centre, hoping ultimately to become Tim’s assistant, however that did not work out, so he moved over to the restaurant as a trainee in the Front of house. Ultimately Tim likes to have the restaurant managed by all her children, the other three kids being trained at KOTO will look after the kitchen and he would look after the front of house.
This boy is particular likeable, he is intelligent, quick witted and has a great sense of humour.  His humour often expressed in lyrical phrases:
“Life is a sea of sorrows, unfortunately some sufferers cannot swim” or
“ I love you as much as our leader loved his country, loosing you is as sad as when the French lost Indochina”.
The trainees are in general devoted to my training but they have no sense of self preservation, they are not the most healthy people I know. They do not eat regularly, like vampires, disappear into the night, eat bad food, drink alcohol like there is no tomorrow and hardly make it to their beds. When they turn up for work they look like  ghosts nursing their ulcerated stomachs.
Any news, sad or happy, is an excuse to get drunk, perhaps it is the only way for them to express their emotions to cope with the ups and downs in their lives.
Growing up in an environment of materially and emotionally dependence for a long time without moral or spiritual reinforcement makes it hard to be anything else may be.
I am trying to pull them along, encouraging them whenever they made some progress, but the road so far is full of large potholes.
A few weeks ago I reacted to all these ups and downs negatively and was desperate to get out of it, luckily I found out about the one day Vipassana course at a Pagoda in Thu Duc for students who already did the 10 days course.  Since I had done the10 days course at Pomona a few years back, I was allowed to attend.
The long trip at the back of the motorbike in the early morning was bearable.

My Vipassana friend and me on the road to the pagoda

We realised we were too early, so we stopped at a vegetarian food stall for breakfast of broken rice and fried tofu. My friend sometimes had breakfast there on the way to work.
There is a number of building projects in this area and the safety wall separating the road and the railway track covered with paintings depicting an ideal modern life offered by these new housing estates???

 New development in Thu Duc

Ideal future living

The course was held at a Buddhist pagoda owned by a member of the Buddhist Association of Vietnam. The environment was totally different from that of Pomona. But the meditation instructions are from the same taped lectures by Mr Goenka. There were a lot of bowings here as well as regular hourly break. I sat through the whole session though, and did not look at anyone.
My head did feel a lot lighter after 8 hours sitting and feeling only my breath over the area of my upper lip and my nostrils.

My head was as clouded as this sky before I went to the course

The pagoda 
The pagoda where the course was held was recently built with green gardens joined together by paved pathways, among the shrubs and small bushes, colourful painted statues depicting the life of Buddha at various stages. 
In Vipassana, only the teaching of Buddha through meditation is followed, it does not believe in any rituals or images of Buddha. 

The colorful statues in the gardens

The head priestess in yellow robe, still actively involved in the running of the pagoda and the monastery affairs
A giant statue of Kwan Yin in front of a man made grotto

A miniature “Bo De” (Buddha) tree: the original Buddha Tree is in India where Buddha meditated until he died.

On the way back, my Vipassana friend took me for a tour of the suburbs of Ho Chi Minh City and he took me yet to another favourite vegetarian restaurant of his where we can get the best “bun mang  vit” (Vegetarian DUCK vermicelli soup with bamboo shoot). The pretended duck was made with gluten paste with duck flavor, the heavy load of MSG in the stock sent me to the local pharmacy the next day for a combination of 3 antihistamine pills to relieve me of the severe reaction.   As they said the mouth ruins the body!

”Vegetarian DUCK vermicelli soup with bamboo shoot!
Training program
The training program began on the 22nd of September, we start the day with lessons on ingredients, kitchen maintenance, recipes and shopping list for ingredients.
The trainees then go to market and when they come back I show them how to prepare and cook the dishes following the recipes.
After 2 hours break the trainees practice cooking the dishes for the few regular diners, while I give my lesson to the front of house.
Besides the regular diners, we prepare special lunches or dinners by appointment, which are good opportunities for practical work for the trainees.
And below are some examples of our training program and our work for the last two weeks:

Kitchen maintenance: the head cook and the assistant cook cleaning and polishing the exhaust canopy and the cooking station

 The head cook thoroughly cleaning the wok station
Coconut shoot: the new ingredient in vogue at the moment. 

It is the new shoot of the coconut palm when the shoot and the unfold leaves are still white, once chopped off the coconut palm dies. The young shoot has the same texture as the bamboo shoot and the leaves are still unfold. They have the most beautiful structure with perfect folds and silky to the touch. Both the trunk and the leaves have a slightly sweet taste.

“Ca thu”  (mackerel)  has firm and beautiful pink colour when it is  fresh. The flesh is firm

Ingredients for mustard green and “ca thac lac” soup:  Ca thac lac  (Chichala ornata Mekong)  known as feather back  is a strange fish.

It is a fresh water fish from the Mekong river, it has zillion of small scales and very flat, The only way to use it is to filet it, scrape the flesh and discard skin and bones . The flesh has to blended with coarsely ground pepper and fish sauce and it needed to be mixed and press hard to get a firm texture. It can be used in tomato farcies or  bitter marrow  farcies.

Stuffed squids waiting to be cooked for dinner guests

Vietnamese pomegranates  has much paler colour than the Californian variety. I was going to use it for a sauce but the colour is not right so I ate them for breakfast instead!!!

Some of our regular diners are residents of the Village

Regular diners enjoyed the three dishes we prepared

Members of the “Friendship Association for the Disadvantaged People of Ho Chi Minh City" visiting our kitchen.

VIP lunch guests: Ms Nguyen Cao Ky Duyen, the daughter of  General Nguyen Cao Ky President of VN in the 60s, her friend and Tim enjoying the vegetarian dishes from Village Chance kitchen.

Ms Ky Duyen and me. 
Nearly 50 years ago I was photographed with her mother when General Nguen Cao Ky and Mrs Ky officially visited Australia. As Colombo Plan students, we were invited to the reception by the Australian Government. Life is full of surprises indeed.

Dinner for French visitors 
and some Village Chance school children :
 A very long table for 23 persons.

And here are some of the dishes we prepared for our diners:

Young coconut shoot salad with prawn and pork (goi co hu dua tom thit). This salad is prepared like other Asian salads, but it has more complex flavor and texture, we used the same dressing of lemon juice, fish sauce, sugar, garlic and chili, sprinkled with crushed roasted peanuts and fried golden shallot.

My signature dish: Emperor pork plated by the trainee head cook for a photo to send to Frances Whiting in Brisbane for an article.

Lien Yeomans 
in the Village Chance kitchen with the “emperor pork”

Tri the head cook is very patien in preparing ingredients for plating and he is a good plater.

Braised daikon and shiitake mushroom: a vegetarian dish from the Village Chance kitchen: a dish I learn in Japan but I used fresh coconut juice instead of dashi to make it completely vegetarian.

Beef ragout with green pepper corns cooked in the style of "beef bourguignon" but with Asian spices and Da Lat red wine.
 Green peppercorn is readily available in the market. Pepper is grown in Phu Quoc Island off the coast of Vietnam and Cambodia, and also in the Highlands of Central Vietnam.

“Canh ga chien bo” : Crispy fried chicken in butter sauce with tomato and water crest salad: a very popular dish in South Vietnam. It is on the menu in most up market restaurants.

Crispy fried  “ca dieu hong” pink snapper with lemon sauce: a fresh water fish with firm sweet flesh suitable for soup, steamed or hot pot..

“Pate Maison”: to make sure our food is free of   any artificial additives  we made our own pork pate

“Cha que”: Cinnamon fried pork loaf. We made this in our kitchen as well. The commercial variety can contain alum and MSG. This is our first try so it could be aesthetically improved.

This is my drawing of the  Thac Lac fish: Chichala ornata (Mekong) so you can have a rough idea of this strange fish from the Mekong River
And lastly

“In” my new found friend 

She is 7 years old and she had three litters. She likes me because I always have some tidbits for her. She comes to the dining room with her master who is one of our regular diner.

Next Post
I will be going to Hanoi to attend my friends Jeremy & Thu wedding. I will be staying at West Lake with Han my ex kitchen manager of Green Papaya. I am hoping for a happier tale for the next post.

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