Welcome to my Travel Blog- The Sacred Pause!
As Thanksgiving approaches what better way to explore the soul of a country than through its kitchen? After a fun-filled first day touring old Hanoi quarter and taking in a delightful afternoon performance of water puppet theater, I settled into my hotel room for the evening. That’s when it occurred to me that I had no plans for the following day. It’s typical for me to arrive in town with no agenda because I love to be spontaneous in my travels. The fun is following my instincts to discover what I want to explore. So, I decided to pursue something I truly love, cooking. I signed up for a half-day class at the Blue Butterfly Restaurant and cooking school.
A friendly young man named Tien met me in the lobby of my hotel and we walked a few blocks to the restaurant. We had five people in our class, two young Korean women and a sweet young couple from Singapore. I thought they were in their twenties but when I told them later about my son, Kris, who is thirty-one they laughed and said, they were also in their thirties. We had a set menu with four dishes, Pho Bo- Vietnam Noodles with Beef, Banana Flower Salad, Hanoi Spring Roll and Barbecued Pork Belly with Noodles.
A word about Pho, the classic Vietnamese noodle soup, apparently every family has its own secret recipe and no two soups taste alike. Our recipe called for beef bones and tied brisket boiled in water along with spices, onions, shallots, and ginger. My job was to toast the spices, cardamon, cinnamon stick, star anise, and guess what else?….sea worms, little strips of dried worm that pop open and release sand from the inside when heated. Apparently, not everyone uses sea worms in their soup, but Tien does. I learned that heating the spices draws out their essence to be used in seasoning the broth.
While the broth simmered, we headed for the open-air marketplace. We each hopped into a bicycle carriage with the cyclist peddling from behind, When traffic bogs down which it frequently does, you just wait for it to clear. Although Vietnamese drivers honk at one another they seem to be extremely tolerant. I never saw any angry outbursts. I just watched as drivers dodged and dipped around each other as they made their way through traffic.
I loved the marketplace because it challenged my notions of what constitutes safe food handling. Vendors oversee tables covered with fresh meat—chicken, pork, fish, and beef—even fresh tofu cut into long rectangular slabs that ran the length of the table. No refrigeration is needed. Clearly Vietnamese have been surviving for generations eating fresh meat from the market. We watched as the woman neatly cut even strips of pork belly for our lunch. Our next stop was at the fruit stand where we sampled fresh sweet slices of mango, dragon fruit, Asian pear and green guava. It was all delicious.
Back in the kitchen we assembled the Hanoi spring rolls and I was in charge of deep frying them twice. The Singapore couple labored over a charcoal fire laid in the sink and barbecued the sliced pork belly coated with a caramelized sugar glaze. Then we prepared the fresh banana flower salad. We rolled the banana leaves and sliced them very thinly; they are tough to cut. The banana leaf is combined with cucumber, star fruit, bean sprouts, steamed chicken and all tossed in a rice vinegar dressing.
I loved being with new people and cooking together. This is what makes travel exciting. It takes me out of my formulaic bubble of existence and challenges me to look with fresh eyes and a new perspective.
Thanks for joining me on my sacred pause and I wish you and your family a wonderful, warm, safe, and delicious Thanksgiving. Next stop, Sapa, Vietnam.