Monday, December 19, 2011

A Gingerbread "House"

It's almost Christmas and while celebrating this holiday is a growing trend here, it still isn't EVERYWHERE like it is at home, and until just a few days ago it didn't really feel like the Christmas season at all. Two things changed that: a Secret Santa we had at work on Friday, where I baked and baked and baked because I knew the person whose name I got would like that better than anything I could buy him, and the Mega Project that my friend Jacqui and I took upon ourselves on Sunday. What started with us making a simple Christmasy gingerbread house morphed into us making a gingerbread mausoleum.

Why, you ask, would anyone want to make a gingerbread mausoleum? Well, you may have heard of Hồ Chí Minh , the iconic former North Vietnamese leader and revolutionary, known in Hanoi simply as "Uncle Hồ". Uncle Hồ was known for leading a very simple life and living as just one of the people, and in his will he asked that he be cremated and have his ashes scattered in the mountains. Instead, poor Uncle Hồ's body has been preserved and a mausoleum was built to house it, where anyone and everyone can parade by to see him and pay their respects.

When it came time for Jacqui and I to plan our gingerbread house, we decided that a typical house wouldn't do, and we wanted to do something Vietnamese. The mausoleum seemed perfect! While it's not technically a house, in a way Hồ Chí Minh still "lives" there, so why not?

We took our time, made elaborate plans, measurements, and blueprints, researched and discussed ideas and recipes, and shopped for ingredients and the necessary accessories for hours. I rushed home from a cooking class (more about that in a future post) to mix up the dough so it would have ample time to chill, and on the big day Jacqui had to make a speedy recovery from food poisoning in order to come help!

At first I had difficulty rolling out the dough, as it's something I have not done for a long time and I'd forgotten how frustrating it can be! However, I soon got the hang of it and with the help of some rather gluey icing I think it came together quite nicely!

Just the beginning....
Yummy gingerbread!

Careful measurements were made according to the blueprints.


We had to make it realistic, so we put Hồ actually inside the mausoleum, with a stocking and a Christmas tree.

These are some of the key ingredients, including the gummies that I carved into the shape of people (we needed soldiers to guard the mausoleum) 

Jacqui cutting sour gummy worms into reins.

Gluing the last pieces on...
Adding the finishing touches...
The final product! We think it's probably the first ever gingerbread mausoleum ever made.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Lotus Tea Time!

When I first arrived here in Hanoi I was put up in a hotel for a week. Breakfast was provided every day, which included coffee or tea, and since I'm not a coffee drinker at all I asked for tea. Rather than getting the typical Lipton black tea that I was expecting, the girl asked if I would prefer jasmine or lotus scented tea! Having never tried it, I went for the lotus. It was delicious, and the girl was thrilled and proud that I liked it so much. I enjoyed a cup of lotus scented tea every morning that I stayed there, but I didn't really understand how special it was until about a year later.

In the summer here in Hanoi (and much of Asia, I think) the lotus flowers bloom. For about 3 months from June to August, huge swathes of West Lake are covered in lotus plants, and Hanoians go out by the hundreds to have their pictures taken amongst the leaves and buds.  

There's a lovely tea shop here called OCHÂO, just on the edge of West Lake, that specializes in Vietnamese teas, including lotus scented tea. While the lotus flowers were in bloom, they offered tours to the lotus fields in the Northern part of the lake to see just how lotus tea is made.

One Sunday morning in July my friend Christine and I got up before the sun to take this tour (I can't remember why they had to do it early in the morning). We arrived at the tea shop around 5:30am and were immediately hustled into a taxi and sent to the lotus fields. By the time we got there the sun had risen so we had daylight to see thousands of lotus plants sprawled out before us.

There are two ways of making lotus tea. The first is to open up a lotus flower, pack it full of green tea, and then close it up again, leaving the tea inside to absorb the scent for about 24 hours. Our host was the owner of the tea shop, who sat us down in a bamboo shelter in the lotus fields and gave us a sample of this kind to drink while he showed us the parts of the lotus flower and told us everything we ever wanted to know about lotus and lotus tea!

This guy is actually paddling through the lotus fields, cutting flowers for people to take home.

Once we'd drank our fill and the sun was heating up too much, we headed back to the tea shop, where they put us to work! They'd collected 100 lotus flowers from the fields, and now it was our job to separate the tiny white pistils, which are the parts that give the scent, from the flowers. This was a rather painstaking job, especially because we were told that if we got any of the yellow part in it, the tea would be bitter! No pressure!

It takes a long time to get just a tiny amount of pistiles! It takes something like 1.4kg of these to scent just 1kg of tea. No wonder it's so expensive!

They mix the pistiles with the tea, seal it up in a jar or a bag, and leave it for a couple of days. Then they do the same thing again!
And just look at the mess we made!

It may have been an early morning but it was a fun one and worth it, even if they did put us to work! The fresh lotus tea we made here tastes far better than the stuff I had at the hotel from a teabag. I'm so glad that the owners of Ochao are keeping this tradition alive, and teaching others about it. So now go seek out some lotus scented tea to try!

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

A Thai Food Teaser!

Life in Hanoi is not always easy. Dealing with the traffic and madness every day gets to a person, so sometimes a break is needed. Combine that feeling with a long weekend and I was headed to relative civilization....Bangkok!

One of my favourite temples in Bangkok - Wat Arun (Temple of the Dawn)

Considering that I've spent plenty of time in Bangkok before, I didn't really feel the need to do a lot of touristy stuff. It was more about shopping and just wandering, and since Thai food is delicious, I took a cooking class at Silom Thai Cooking School!

We started off with a market tour, where our guide introduced all the different vegetables you might find in a Thai market. Living in Hanoi, I'd seen lots of these before, but there were a few new ones that I'd seen here and wanted to know about, so I think the guide was actually getting annoyed with me interrupting his lecture to ask questions!

We then went back to the cooking school itself, which consisted of just two rooms (for prep and eating!), a small kitchen with two sinks, and a balcony where we did the actual cooking. We were immediately put to work washing all the vegetables we'd bought.

The bountiful harvest!
The next step was to make coconut milk and cream - from scratch! They grind the meat out of a coconut with a special tool, then add water and kind of massage it with your hands until the cream comes out! Strain it, save the cream, add more water, massage and strain again, and you have coconut milk! It's easier than I thought, (although I didn't have to get the meat out of the coconut so maybe not!) but still not as easy as getting it from a can (and honestly, when it's cooked up with other ingredients I can't tell the difference!)

Getting messy making coconut cream.
We then went into the next room, where they had laid out cushions on the floor for us, and all the ingredients we would need for our first dish. They showed us how to carefully cut or prepare each ingredient to get maximum flavour, and then when everything was ready for one dish, we'd go out onto the balcony and cook it! By the time we'd cooked and eaten our dish, some magical invisible being had laid out everything we'd need for the next one in the prep room.

Here are some of the ingredients:



It wasn't all done for us though...we all had to have a go at pounding the red curry paste!

One of my classmates struggling with the REALLY heavy mortar and pestle!
Cooks all lined up in a row on the balcony.
So I know by now you're thinking "C' us the FOOD!"
Well, first we started with a Chicken Galangal Coconut Soup....

Then Stir-fried Chicken with Cashew Nuts and Spicy Mungbean Noodle Salad.... 

Then Red Curry Chicken and Fried Fish Cakes (which I didn't take pictures of, apparently), and finished off with Steamed Banana in Coconut Milk.

In case you're wondering, yes, it did all taste as good as it looks! I left that place with a stuffed belly and a book of the recipes we'd cooked that day. Not bad for four hours of fun!