#Did you know?

The market is more than a place that feeds the body. There is always a coffee shop where men will sit, read the newspapers, talk about affairs, and naturally, gossip. Women, on the other hand, go to the markets to shop, spending more time than they ought and as much time as they like, having a chat and maybe even a gossip too.

Viet markets are as vivacious as the Viets and their food. They provide pleasure and materials for a living. You can pick up food at every stage of preparation; from raw and straight from the fields (live, cleaned, cut and sliced), through assembled packages of raw ingredients, till finished dishes to take home or eat then and there.

Most markets start in the cool of the morning and close by lunchtime. The stalls are usually arranged in a recognizable order, with each type of the stalls clumped together. For instance, fruit and vegetables are often at the centre of the market. The produces are displayed with tender care and refreshed throughout the day with regular splashes of water.

Familiar staples like garlic, shallots, lemongrass, galangal, ginger and kaffir lime and of course chillies of all kinds are there. More exotically, there are bundles of taro roots, banana flowers, lotus flowers, fresh turmeric, betel leaves, sweet potato varieties including wild accessions, farmer varieties, and breeding lines, taro roots, fish mint, Vietnamese perilla, bitter herbs, young coriander, and rice paddy herbs. But this is only a small part of the cornucopia.

Nearby are stalls laden with small plastic bags that contain everything a cook needs; Phan Rang white pepper, dried chillies, rock sugar, tamarind pulp, star anises, cinnamon barks from mountainous regions of Central and Northern Vietnam, and coriander seeds, fish, soy and oyster sauce. At the coconut stall, the fresh coconut is cut in half then grated and pressed to order, yielding a succulent fresh cream very different from its canned cousins.

Down one of the aisles, there is a fish stall, selling the most parts, clear-eyed fish; seabass, red emperor, red spot whiting, glorious squid and live prawns and crabs. There is always a tub of live fish, usually freshwater catfish and serpent-head fish. Very often one or two of these beats will have escaped and be wriggling across the floor. These fish are killed and cleaned as required. Prawns and crabs are sold still kicking. Even in the smallest markets, the quality of seafood outstanding. Meat, pork, beef, and poultry take the sidelines, having been introduced quite late into the diet due to the Buddhist prohibition on the taking of life.

Let’s take a look at the various types of produces that you can find yourself with at the wet market:

Banana flower (bắp chuối)

Normally used for the Vietnamese Banana flower salad (Gỏi Bắp Chuối Chay) and Banana Blossom Salad. The outer petals are too tough and bitter to eat but are often kept for decoration, for an added splash of colour. Hidden beneath the outer layer are tender petals suitable for cooking, which add a delicately bitter taste to dishes like salads and curries. These inner petals are almost white at the stem and turn into a light purple towards the tip of the flower.

Banana flowers discolour easily so the preparation needs to be fast and close to serving time. To avoid blemishes, only stainless-steel knives should be used and the petals need to be soaked in water with lime juice. The water will soften the petals and the acid from the lime prevents the petals from turning brown.

Other parts of the banana plant are also used in everyday cooking. Apart from the banana fruit itself, the waxen, thick leaves are a natural alternative to foil when it comes to wrapping food for cooking and preserving.

Peanuts (đậu phộng)

Among the few cash crops grown in the Northern Highlands are peanuts. The bushy plants thrive in subtropical to moderate conditions and are suited to the area’s often poorer mountain soil. Peanuts-which is legumes rather than nuts-are is also known as “groundnuts.” The flowers of the plants sit above ground, while the pods grow underground. The pods contain the peanuts and have to be dug up during harvest time.

Native to the Andes, Portuguese traders brought peanuts to South-East Asia, where the locals immediately put them to good use. Peanuts are a great source of protein, supplementing the protein-poor crops commonly grown in the highlands, such as rice and corn. Furthermore, 50 per cent of the peanut is made up of oil, which intensifies the flavours of any other ingredients added.

Pan-roasted then crushed or chopped up, peanuts make wonderful toppings for salads and give substance to fillings in such dishes as vịt tiềm thuốc bắc (steamed herbal duck soup), or they can be boiled and served in Chè Bà Ba (Sweet Soup with Coconut Milk, Taro, Cassava, Sweet Potato, and Tapioca). They can also be crushed and mixed with sesame seeds and salt to form a mixture called muối vừng lạc, which sticky-rice balls are rolled in.

Lotus seeds (hạt sen)

Maybe it is the contrast between the muddy ponds and the radiant pink colour of the flower sitting on stems straight as arrows, that made the lotus flower the Buddhist symbol of purity. So taken were the emperors by this plant, which grows plentiful in the moats of the imperial palace, that they demanded their tea be made only from the dew which settles on the leaves of the lotus flower overnight.

Lotus flowers are a powerful symbol, but they are also a versatile foodstuff. The Vietnamese will use the seeds to add a nutty flavour and texture to savoury dishes, like stews and soups, or turn them into a sweet paste as filling for pastries.

The lotus seeds from Huế are famous for being particularly sweet and tender. The beige-coloured fresh seeds, which have a creamy texture, not unlike chestnuts, make an appearance in the markets during the harvest season in late April and May. The market sellers remove the bitter green shoot at the centre of the seed with a needle and often string up the lotus seeds like pearls on a necklace. It is also possible to buy dried seeds, which need to be boiled or soaked overnight to soften them up before cooking.

Artichoke (atisô)

The globe artichoke is the bud of a fairly large plant belonging to the thistle family and a wonderful example of Vietnamese cuisine taking on board foreign influences. Believed to originate from the Mediterranean, this hardy perennial made its way from Italy to French at the end of the Middle Ages and in the nineteenth century travelled to the market gardens of Đà Lạt in France’s new colonies.

The artichoke’s closely overlapping leaves are sometimes compared to fish scales, and they tightly enclose the tender heart at the bottom of the stem. The leaves are tough and fibrous at the top, but almost creamy at the bottom. A good quality artichoke should be evenly dull green and feel heavier than its size suggests. Both the heart and leaves are used in cooking, but the Vietnamese also occasionally add the spectacular purple flower to soup and stir-fries.

The Vietnamese prizes the plant more for health than culinary reasons. The artichoke appears to be a medical wonder plant: it is a diuretic, improves the liver function, lowers cholesterol and even rejuvenates the skin! Most popular is artichoke tea, produce in and around Đà Lạt and exported to the rest of the country and beyond. For the more openly health-conscious, there is also a cold drink available-stronger stuff made from artichoke leaves, stems, and flowers.

Tamarind (quả me)

Over the last century, Đồng Khởi street has had its ups and downs but once constant remained throughout its fascinating history-rows of tamarind trees lining both sides of the boulevard proving much-needed shade for the Saigon shopper. Yet the tamarind is more than an ornamental plant. The pods from these large trees with their spreading branches and feathery leaves add a sweet tartness to many dishes of the region.

The shape of the pods is quite similar to snow peas, but the shells have a rich brown colour with yellow speckles. The ripe pods are turned into a pulp and then often dried, so it needs to be reconstituted with water to turn it into a paste for cooking. The sweet and sour taste is caused by the fruit’s acids, which are offset by the plant’s natural sugars. The complex taste of tamarind paste is used to give depth to soups and fish dishes.

Have you ever heard of the Vietnamese Iced Tamarind with Roasted Peanuts (Đá Me Đậu Phộng), Vietnamese Tamarind Soup or the Tamarind dipping sauce? Try it when you visit Vietnam!

Rice paper (bánh tráng)

Being the centre of Vietnam’s rice production, it is only logical that the Mekong Delta is also the centre for the production of rice paper and thin rice noodles called vermicelli. Most rice paper production takes place in small backyard factories. These are often no more than open sheds with thatched roofs, housing what looks like operations from the height of the industrial revolution-noisy two-stroke engines with exposed belts and workers toiling over the steam rising from the cooktops.

Making rice paper is a fairly straightforward process. Rice is soaked in water to soften it then turned into a kind of pancake mixture. The skill here is about consistency-a thicker mixture for rice paper, a thinner one for vermicelli. The mixture is then taken in big buckets to the cement hearths. Suspended above a fire fuelled by rice husks are around metal containers about 50 centimetres in diameter, which are covered by tightly stretched cotton sheets, like drums. There is a small hole for a hose to constantly top-up the water and keep the steam coming. A scoop of the rice pancake mixture is put on the cotton sheet, similar to preparing a crepe on a hotplate. After three minutes, the steamed rice paper sheet is removed with a bamboo roller and put on a rack. The sheets then take three hours to dry in the sun until they turn translucent and are ready to be packaged, or shredded into vermicelli.

Fish sauce (nước mắm)

It is the pungent aroma of fermenting fish that first greets the visitor entering the outskirts of Phan Thiết. Rivalled only by the island of Phú Quốc in the south, the town is famous for its fish sauce. The fishing season from June to August marks the beginning of the annual cycle of fish sauce production. The fish is washed, mixed with coarse sea salt at a ratio of roughly three to one, then put in large barrels or earthenware vats, weighed down with heavy stones, covered with a bamboo lid and left in the sun for eight to twelve months.

The fish sauce is then drawn from a small tap at the bottom of the vat or barrel. The first yield, nước mắm nhỉ, is of the highest quality and should be the colour of rich caramel. It is mainly used within Việt Nam only and in dipping sauces and salad dressings. The vats are often topped up with brine to yield paler and weaker second or third extractions for marinades and cooking. The liquid of both the first and later extractions should be clear without ant sediment. The longer the fish sauce matures, the darker it becomes. There is even a special brand of sauce, nước mắm lú đặc biệt, which is kept in a vat for three years until the fish completely dissolves.

Not only does the saltiness of the sauce draw out the flavour of dishes, but fish sauce is also a great source of protein-a nutrient that rice lacks. So the two staples of Vietnamese cuisine-fish sauce and rice-perfectly complement each other. The level of protein in fish sauce depends on its length of maturation-at eight months, fish sauce has 25 grams of protein per litre, while sauce which is matured for longer can reach up to 32 grams of protein per litre.

Rice (gạo)

Rice is closely linked to the cycle of life, and special dishes, often made from the less common glutinous or sticky rice, feature prominently at births, weddings, and New year celebrations. It is one of the great achievements of modern Việt Nam to have turned itself around from a poor rice importer into one of the world’s top rice exporters.

Population density is one of the reasons why rice has become the most important food of the region, as it produces higher yields than any other staple, which is necessary to feed the hungry masses. There are other advantages also-consisting about 80 per cent starch, it is a high-energy food, and it is easy to transport and store.

Việt Nam’s distinct shape is often compared to the bamboo pole with two baskets laden with fresh produce at either end that is traditionally carried by market sellers. The baskets symbolize the fertile Mekong Delta in the sought and the Red River Delta in the north-Việt Nam’s main rice-producing areas. Subtropical, warm and wet, the Mekong Delta produces three harvests per year, while the Red River Delta, with its cool winters, produces only two. But rice is not only grown in the fertile lowlands; the hill tribes also cultivate the plant, albeit a different variety. Many Montagnards produce sticky rice on dry, terraced fields, sometimes still using the traditional slash-and-burn method.

Today, 80 per cent of Vietnamese are still living and working outside the big towns and cities, and the overwhelming majority is involved in growing rice. The work is hard-rice farmers spend their days with pants rolled-up ankle-deep in the mud, trudging behind a plough pulled by water buffalos, or bending over for hours to plant and, three months later, harvest the rice. Rice gives the Vietnamese countryside its characteristic look: the patchwork of rice paddies separated by dams; the tender light green of the young rice shoots; the lush dark green of the mature plant; and finally, the rich golden colour of the harvested rice laid out on village roads for husking.

Because rice can take on all kinds of flavours, it features in virtually every meal. The grain is a true culinary all-rounder. It can be steamed, boiled or fried, turned into flour, paste, paper or noodles, and it can even be made into a powerful wine, Rượu đế.

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