by Karen Topakian
We arrived at the Morning Glory Street Food Restaurant and Cooking School in Hoi An just before class was scheduled to start. Ten of us filled the booths in the front of the brightly colored restaurant.
Within minutes, Ms. Lu, a pretty woman with a bright, broad smile, identified herself as our teacher. She quickly explained how the morning’s class would proceed: first a trip to the Central Market, then back to the Cooking School for a demonstration of fresh rolls, a fish or chicken dish for the main course, Vietnamese pancakes and finally, a green papaya salad.
As we trooped down Nguyen Thai Hoc Street*, to the Central Market, Peg walked beside Ms. Lu and learned that she had been working at the restaurant for 17 years, since she was 12. Now she was the head of the Cooking School.
The Hoi An Central Market covers a few city blocks. Housing everything from fruits to fish and spices to silk. Our previous foray into this world of women vendors consisted mostly of wandering, looking and trying to keep out of the way of the sellers and their customers. But today we would be able to explore.
Ms. Lu stopped at fruit and vegetable stalls, demonstrating how to select produce for different uses. She started by asking us to identify fruits and vegetable and herbs that she held up: fragrant papayas and mangos, fresh green tea leaves, golden turmeric, sprightly lemon grass, pale green bitter melons and dense pomelos.
Peg and I had seen many fruit vendors carefully peeling the thick, greenish yellow skin of the pomelo and then saving it. But didn’t know why. Ms. Lu solved the mystery. Vietnamese women use the peels as a shampoo for their long, dark hair.
When she held up the banana flower, a reddish-brownish large closed tulip shaped bud – she peeled back the leaves to reveal the fruit – a cluster of small nascent yellow bananas. And then declared that new mothers eat because it makes “lots of milk for baby drinking.”
*Named for a Vietnamese revolutionary founding leader of the Vietnamese National Party, who was executed by the French colonial authorities.