New Year - New Mamas!

As the first group of Mamas to Market finished off 2014 in style with a market stall and two Christmas party catering gigs, they also finished the 10-week Mamas to Market course. It was a pleasure and a privilege to follow them through the autumn, and I hope to follow them wherever they go next - first stop is a catering gig for the Vietnamese Tet festival later this month.


But that is of course not the end of Social Kitchen's Mamas to Market programme. A new group, built in partnership with Family Action in Hackney, has been set up and have trained since January. It comprises Vietnamese, Somali, and Congolese women all very excited about the prospect of having their own market stall, so I'm looking forward to seeing how they get on. From the first impressions it's looking very promising - watch this space, as I'll be posting about their sessions in the coming weeks.


Finally, a third group was set up earlier this month, recruited from Social Kitchen's many children's centre sessions where parents bring their young children in to enjoy healthy cooking, eating, and learning together. I've been to a couple of these sessions in January already and they are always great fun - and great photo ops! I haven't had the chance to meet this particular Mamas to Market group yet, but am looking forward to that and will hopefully be able to follow their journey as well.


It's full speed ahead from Social Kitchen and the eager Mamas to Market! Follow this blog and Twitter for more!

Mamas to Market at Roman Road Winter Festival - Week 10

It’s Sunday morning at Roman Road, and the weather is looking a bit gloomy – but we’re finally here with Mamas to Market! After ten weeks of training, perfecting dishes, creating menus, and practising customer service the group has arrived at the course’s final goal: a market stall, which we are just setting up. Thi and Hoa are getting today’s menu ready, it’s bò kho and chè trôi nước plus a new vegetarian dish, wonton soup. All very warming dishes for a cold December Sunday.


We’ve prepared a lot of the food beforehand. Approximately 300 wonton dumplings were made by hand in the kitchen on a quiet day in the community hall. With no hungry ESOL class to serve, Diep and Hoa brought in bánh bao – a savoury-filled steamed bun – and chicken feet salad for all of us. The group was in high spirits, listening to music, laughing, and chatting away while rolling non-stop from the comfort of the hall’s chairs in the kitchen.


It’s impossible not to notice how the women have changed over the past ten weeks. While they were always confident about their food, they were a lot more subdued and nervous about the prospect of serving customers. Today, however, they show none of these signs. They’re just eager to get the stall going and give the customers a taste of – and for – their authentic Vietnamese dishes. As us Social Kitchen staff are running around like headless chickens, writing menu boards, sorting out electricity, and making the stall look presentable, the women are calm and collectedly concentrating on their food.


With the bò kho and chè trôi nước now ready to go, it’s time to start the wonton soup and we run into bit of a problem. The wontons are splitting! They’ve been frozen and now it appears that fresh tofu does not freeze well. It takes in a lot of water which wants to come out again once defrosting, and this makes the wontons burst and all the filling spill out into the water. We try putting fewer wontons in the water, we try steaming them, but to no avail. It’s impossible to make this dish look delicious, and so we have to strike it off today’s menu, which is a real shame. Tofu lesson learnt. We’re not serving anything that the women aren’t happy with.


After bit of a rainy start, the market is starting to get a little busier. People are walking past stalls, looking interestedly at what’s on offer, but no one seems to be hungry just yet. With two very fragrant dishes we’re trying to waft some of the smells out of the stall and into the street for people to pick up. And while it’s still fairly quiet Hoa volunteers to go out to the market with a tray of tasters to get potential customers to come back for more.

And of course it works. Thi is now serving up hot trays of steaming bò kho for our first customers. And while they stand around and eat their food, more people become interested to try the dish. We’re now getting into proper lunchtime, and in just a short while the rest of the group will arrive to take over from this morning’s team. Vui gets straight in her element, asking everyone walking past to come over for tasters, and really selling the food to them. It’s great to see, no nerves here! A couple of my friends stop by to try the stew and are told to get the dessert at the same time – they just can’t tell her no!

The women really seem to be enjoying themselves despite the cold weather. We’re all in lots of layers, but it’s still quite a bit warmer inside the gazebo than in the street. I’ve warmed up a little on a shared portion of chè trôi nước, but decide it’s finally time for a proper lunch. The bò kho is great – hearty, warming, and a good size portion. I slurp it up in the comfort and relative warmth of the gazebo.

As people are coming back for seconds to take home, the level is falling in the pot and it looks like we’ll sell out. As it approaches three o’clock Kim reckons there’s about four or five portions left, which is a great result of the day. With icy feet and hands – probably from not running around working enough! – I call it a day and wave goodbye to the women who are having a break with hot ginger pudding in between customers.

As today concludes and the stall is packed all up and taken back to Fellows Court, I hope the women feel happy and proud of their achievement here. It will be interesting to hear their thoughts on the different types of business they’ve had so far and how they want to proceed from this point. It’s been a great privilege to follow them this far.

Week 9 - Mamas to Market at Community Psychology Festival!

It’s week 9 and the time has come for the first job for Mamas to Market. The group has been hired to serve lunch to 200 people over two days at a psychology festival in Central London. It’s a big job, but also a good challenge for the women that will hopefully give them some of the experience they currently feel they need to be able to run a food business.


We meet up as normally for the Thursday session to prepare as much as possible for the next two days. The menu is crunchy salad and summer rolls, with my favourite chè trôi nước for dessert. We’re catering halal and vegetarian, so one option will be prawn rolls and chicken salad, the other tofu rolls and tofu salad – and there’ll be three different dipping sauces to make sure we cover all bases.


The group is working hard to get everything ready, but they also tell me they feel a bit worried about tomorrow because it’s their first job and they are not sure they can do it. Sarah reassures everyone that she and Kye will be there to help the whole time, and that it will be an easy first job because there won’t be any money handling or dishing out – the festival’s lunch break is so short that all the food will be prepared and dished into little takeaway boxes before arriving at the venue, so the actual serving is just a matter of asking for the customer’s choice and handing the box to them.


The group works hard, shredding lots of carrots and cabbage, rolling quite a few dumplings, and juicing about 50 limes, before serving the ESOL group a test lunch for their feedback. We then meet early on Friday morning to get everything properly ready. Lunch is not being served until 3pm, so we do have quite some time to prepare the 100 lunches and desserts. It takes a while to roll 200 sticky rice dumplings for Saturday though, and I am discharged from the photography to give Diep a hand here! The rest of the group gets a routine going for the summer rolls, and everyone is chatting away.

As the kitchen is filling up with summer rolls, Sarah starts setting up all the lunch boxes we need to fill. There are loads! The women keep completely calm and work thoroughly and quickly so that they have a couple of minutes left to eat their own lunch before we get in the taxi. We stuff everything and everyone in – a big cooler box in the back and the hot boxes on our laps. We’re lucky Kye is already at the festival and can help us out when we arrive.

Once we get to the venue, a church on Shaftesbury Avenue, we need to get to the kitchen, write our menu boards, and decorate our serving table. Sarah has prepared pictures showing Mamas to Market in action in the kitchen and step-by-step preparation of today’s menu. While the group is busy setting up, one of the organisers come over to ask if the women would like to go on stage just before lunch to introduce themselves and today’s menu. Kye has already presented Social Kitchen and the project while the group has been preparing everything at Fellows Court.

The women ascend the stage, and Thi takes the microphone to present the menu. “We hope you like the food”, she says and everyone applauds. We’re all sure they will. Now is the time the group has been waiting for and working towards over the past couple of months – lunchtime! A long queue of customers snakes through the room, but the women keep their eyes just on the next in line, ask them which of the three options they’d prefer, and serve everyone with big smiles and “enjoy your lunch”. After a quick and very successful service it’s time to sit down and relax for a bit. The group looks absolutely chuffed with themselves, as they realise they’ve passed this hurdle that seemed so tough. It’s a massive confidence boost, which makes everyone smile, giggle, and joke in the back kitchen while waiting for the taxi.

It’s so great to see the women being happy and proud of their achievement. Now they just have to do this again tomorrow – this time with even less time for preparation at Fellows Court! I personally miss the Saturday event, but am told it goes absolutely smoothly, with the group working on the confidence boost and momentum from the first day. They bring in cake and breakfast to the kitchen, work at an impressive pace, and even take time to joke around and create a bit of mischief before lunchtime. And after a long, hard weekend they all celebrate with a bit of karaoke sing-along on the way home.

Next up is Roman Road Christmas Market on 7 December, and I have a feeling that Mamas to Market are going to wow us all once again!

Week 8 - Veggie Week

This week we are starting to prepare for the group’s first cooking gig, which will take place at the end of week 9. Mamas to Market have been hired by a Community Psychology Festival to take care of lunch for the two days their festival is running. It’s very exciting for all of us!


As the group will be serving their first paying customers then, it’s important that we spend some time thinking about the various special needs that customers may have. This ranges from allergies, ethical and religious values to plain simple personal taste. If all of these aspects can be taken into consideration when planning a menu, we’ll be able to make a diverse group of customers happy. And this means that our menu will have a chance of being chosen by more customers in total. We don’t want to rule out all vegetarians for example!


In previous sessions, we’ve already covered the topic of allergens and the women know they have to be able to tell if their dishes contain any of the 14 most common ones. The festival has asked for both vegetarian options and halal food, so we need to think about what options there are that can cover both of these requests. Therefore, this week of preparation will be strictly vegetarian. No meat, and perhaps more difficult, no fish sauce! Sarah has bought lots of ingredients and asks the group to make up a vegetarian menu based on what's there. This week's challenge is the invention test!


As usual, however, the group has quite a few tricks up their sleeves and start preparing vegetarian spring rolls with both fresh and dry tofu, which will be served on top of noodles and with a crunchy salad, also with tofu, as the second dish. To my personal delight they’ll be serving chè trôi nước, the sweet sticky rice dumplings in ginger broth, as today’s dessert. It’s my new favourite, I love the warming broth which I’m sure is good for fending off colds at this time of year, and I love the gelatinous texture and nutty flavour of the dumplings.


As the group gets on with their cooking today, I take my chance to ask them a few questions to find out how they are finding the project at this stage so close to the end.


What do you think of the project?

It’s very good, we wish it would last longer.


What do you want to do in the future? How would you like to use the training in food business – market stall, catering, events etc.?

Not sure. We’d like to see how it goes at the festival because we don’t have much experience. Not so sure about the market stall because we haven’t done something like that before, so we’re not feeling that confident with serving customers...

We like Sarah's support. If she says we have a job, we come in and we do it. It’s better. We are not so sure about everything and for example what to do if something happens. It is much less confusing if we just come in, see the ingredients, and start cooking.


How do you feel about being part of the project?

Diep: It’s been very helpful, it encourages us to try and find a job or something like that. It’s more fun than other jobs. If we continue to do this in the future, I think we can be involved in catering and cooking in the community.

Before, if people would ask me what kind of job I could do it was hard to answer. There would be lots of questions and they would be hard. When this project started I saw that it was something good to do, and it made me realise what skills I do have, such as cooking. And I learn new skills. I would really like the project to continue, but if it stops I’m thinking maybe Sarah or someone else could introduce me to somewhere else where I could do this kind of job.


How does food in London compare to Vietnamese food?

Hoa: I eat Vietnamese food every day. My daughter gets bored and doesn’t want it. If you eat this [crunchy salad] every day it gets boring. My daughter likes English food and English flavours. I had a friend coming to visit me who lives in America. We went to a Vietnamese restaurant in London and had bún thịt nướng and bánh mì It was very different to what we cook here [in the sessions] or how I cook it at home. What you get in restaurants is not the same, they don’t make everything fresh.



It sounds as if I’ve been spoiled rotten by these women, having had a weekly Vietnamese lunch for the past two months, always extremely tasty and fresh. It is also great to hear that they are enjoying the project and that it makes them feel more confident about their skills. For me, having observed the sessions for two months now, I can definitely tell as well that the women are gaining skills and confidence while they get to show off their already amazing cooking skills. It would be so great to see them continue with this once the ten weeks of Mamas to Market have passed.

The first market stall has now been confirmed! Mamas to Market are setting up shop at Roman Road Christmas Market on 7 December – please do join us there for some hearty Vietnamese dishes that are bound to get you warm on a cold December Sunday!

Week 7 - Presentation

As I ended up spending all of last week’s post talking about the details in preparing ingredients, this week I’m going to cover the details of presenting and serving the finished dishes. We have spent quite some time discussing this subject with the group already, as it covers not only the food, but also how it’s served, what the market stall looks like, and finally customer service. We start off week 7 with the latter point and a discussion about how good or bad customer service makes us feel.


The group has expressed a wish for more practice in serving customers and speaking English to them, and Sarah runs through all the different aspects of good customer service, from looking presentable and friendly to communicating with customers in an appropriate way. For example, she says to never tell a customer ‘I don’t know’ when asked a question, because it makes them think you don’t belong in the stall. Saying ‘one moment, I’ll find out for you’ is much better. The group nods and then spends some time practising a variety of different phrases with each other before heading into the kitchen. Hopefully they’ll feel a bit more confident with serving their customers this time.


Another aspect we spend quite some time talking about is what kinds of plates and bowls to use when selling food at the market stall. So far Sarah has brought in quite a lot of different types for the group to look at and assess. I think it’s a subject you wouldn’t tend to spend much time on, but it actually makes quite a big difference. First of all, we need to think about how and where the customer is going to eat the dish. The market stall will most likely be placed in a market alongside other street food stalls where customers will want to pick up something that’s easy and convenient to eat on the spot. But there is also the possibility that some will want to take it home with them. These situations demand different types of plates, bowls, or boxes.


A second thing to consider is how the dish is going to look served in the particular bowl. For example, certain bowls would make the dish look larger, which appeals to customers who are after value for money. And other bowls might be too large and make the dish look too small for the customer. It’s a fine balance. Finally, there is the question of sustainability. Sarah argues that if a customer is willing to pay around £5 for a lunch dish, in many cases it means something to him or her if the bowl is biodegradable or can be recycled. Those kinds of materials send a certain signal that customers like and are willing to pay for - about taking care of the environment and only using the finest ingredients. Serving the same dish in an aluminium box instead might make the dish itself look cheaper and make the customer think it’s not had as much care and attention put into it. Again, it’s a fine balance to strike to get the pricing of the dishes right, because the more sustainable materials always cost more.


So it might be the case that the group will have to serve a slightly smaller portion but in a much nicer container. I think there is probably a psychological aspect to it though, because I definitely feel it makes a difference to drink from a nice glass rather than a plastic cup!


Finally, there is the question of how to decorate the market stall. In the first couple of weeks, the tablecloth and bunting in our little market stall in the community centre had a variety of African prints. Sarah has asked the group how they like it, and they expressed a wish to have something more authentically Vietnamese instead, such as heavily embroidered fabric. Unfortunately that is very expensive and also quite difficult to find. Instead, Sarah has found some fabric with bamboo print in a neutral colour, and the women seem to prefer this compromise even though it’s probably not more Vietnamese, strictly speaking. Sarah’s also bought some metal containers to keep the different dishes in at the stall, making it look very nice and neat. There are smaller ones for dipping sauce and garnish and larger ones for noodles and salad, all with lids and hanging on a construction that makes it easier to reach into the containers and serving the food quickly.


We are now coming to the end of session 7. The women are running a little behind, carefully rolling the sticky rice dumplings that form today’s dessert and setting up the service area of the market stall. The ESOL participants are getting hungry and have formed a queue in front of the stall. It’s very pleasing to see that the women deal with the pressure in a calm manner. Instead of making service hectic, they remember their customer service phrases, take their time to serve up each dish so they’re presented equally well, and give every customer a friendly smile and a ‘see you again’. It’s just great, the women themselves seem very pleased too and more confident for it. I think they’re seeing that they definitely can gain all the skills and practice needed to run this stall in only a few weeks’ time.

Getting the Details Just Right - Week 6

This week I’m taking up the subject of presentation, or rather, detail, as this group has shown me that details are as important in the preparation of dishes as when presenting and serving them. I’ve described several times how neatly prepared everything is in these sessions, there is a high level of precision involved which I’ve now come to associate with this particular style of cooking. I find it interesting because I can relate it directly to my own cooking at home. It’s not something I think about very much at all. Are the peppers cut into neat little squares or longer strings? Not something I’ve previously felt makes much of a difference. Through Mamas to Market I’ve learnt that it definitely does. 

The pictures from today’s session are therefore very much focused on the details. What does the different ingredients need to look like? A few of these kinds of images have made it onto the blog or the Facebook album if you want to have a look at previous weeks’ ingredients prep in more detail. I like taking these pictures as part of documenting the process, and they work well for reference too, making it easier (for anyone!) to recreate the recipes point by point down to the finest and final sprinkle of chilli.


Something that’s been a staple throughout the project so far is fresh herbs and salad, which are the first ingredients that the group start preparing in every session. The kohlrabi and carrots are washed and peeled, then julienned using either precision and a very sharp knife or a special grating device, and finally mixed together. Like this, the vegetables are ready to be stir-fried and go into a dish like spring rolls or bò bía. Or they can become a side salad in their own right by firstly salting them and draining the juice out, then seasoning with sugar, vinegar, and sometimes lime juice, chilli, and garlic. By now though, it would be very odd to see the group cut carrots and kohlrabi into slices or big chunks.


Similarly, chilli and garlic mostly are chopped to tiny little bits for use in marinades or the obligatory dipping sauce. Limes are juiced, lemongrass is minced with pestle and mortar, shallots are finely sliced for deep-frying, meat is sliced thinly for chargrilling. When I see how the dishes turn out, I can see that it makes perfect sense to prepare the ingredients like this. It makes the food look very beautiful, colourful, and fresh. With lots of ingredients finely chopped and mixed together there is a wealth of flavours and textures in every single bite, and the thinly sliced meat ensures the maximum surface area for marinades to do their magic. Of course it also makes it easier (at the very least for me!) to eat with chopsticks, simply because it’s much easier to catch and hold onto smaller bits.

But what I find really interesting is the sense I get that the women are doing this very much intuitively – they are not preparing the ingredients like this because a recipe says they have to, they are doing it because they know that it’s the right way. It’s something that also came up in the first weeks of the course when we were talking about sequencing, about thinking the recipes through and doing a breakdown of all the equipment and ingredients needed, noting every single thing down. Most of the time the women know the recipes by heart, and they would say, “I know in my heart that this is how it goes” without perhaps being able to explain exactly why. It makes me think it’s a cultural thing; that the reason they know intuitively is because they’ve been taught to cook by their mothers, who were taught by their mothers – and so it would have gone through the generations. 


It also makes me think that there must be a sense of collective cultural understanding in it, a sense of ‘this is how we do it in Vietnam’ which perhaps is also tied to the women’s own understanding of themselves. It’s part of their culture, it’s part of being Vietnamese, even if you are thousands of miles away from Vietnam and have been for more than 20 years. In that way I’m also wondering if it’s a way to try to keep their memories fresh, to remember the homeland and the values and traditions they’ve grown up with.

With the UK being a foreign country for me as well, this perspective hits quite close to home – and I can only imagine it will manifest itself more markedly over time.


Now back to those details! Sarah and I are taught their importance the hard way, when Diep tells us the grated coconut for the taro dessert cannot contain any brown bits, because they’ll look dirty. This comes after grating almost a full bowl, and so I start picking out the worst bits of brown coconut while Sarah peels the rest of them completely before grating. Another lovely detail we’ve become accustomed to is the small and intricate carrot and kohlrabi flowers that go into the dipping sauce. It’s a beautiful touch for presenting the dishes at the market stall – a subject I will cover in more depth next week.

The comments are open again – let me know which little details you like to add to your homemade dishes, or maybe your opinion on small or big pieces of pepper for my next chilli. Or any questions you may have about Mamas to Market.

Week 5 - Turning Points

At the end of today’s session Mamas to Market will be halfway through its course, so it makes perfect sense to spend some time reflecting on the project in this blog post. Where did the group start off and where are they now? What’s changed, and what have they learnt so far? What is still to come in the next five weeks before they set up the market stall? I also want to reflect a bit on what I’ve learnt from being part of the project, as this has been a completely new experience for me.

Today is also a turning point in the respect that the group will now start repeating their recipes from previous weeks in order to perfect them for selling at the market stall. This week the women will cook spring rolls again, and they’ll repeat the marinated, chargrilled pork from week 1. They will serve both dishes with a noodle salad, so there is a twist to the repetition. The noodle salad with pork is called bún thịt nướng, and the noodle salad with spring rolls is called bún chả nem - but there will also be the option of having both pork and spring rolls on top of the salad!

We have a learning session to start before the women head into the kitchen. This week we’re talking about the most common food allergens and how important it is to know which of those are in the different dishes when it comes to selling to the public. The group is eager as always to get started, which brings us to the first turning point. They get going on the spring rolls, but in their eagerness forget that there was meant to be an option for vegetarian rolls on today’s menu. It is not a big problem as such, but by the time Sarah reminds the group it’s too late to start working on the tofu, and so the vegetarian option will have to be left out.

Another twist to today’s session is that a group from the nearby St Mary’s Secret Garden have been invited to lunch. They will not have knowledge of the Vietnamese dishes beforehand, so it’s a great chance for the group to practise their customer service in English. This brings us to the next turning point of today. We are running a little behind, so even though Sarah has told the group that they need to eat before they start serving customers, the group doesn’t want to keep the building queue of ESOL participants - or today’s new guests - waiting.

The group has worked really hard on getting all the food ready, and they are really in need of a break, but the women want to push through it. Service goes well, everyone seems happy with their lunch and is chatting across the big table. The atmosphere was slightly chaotic, however, with the women tired and hungry. And at the end only very little food is left for the women to have for themselves. In the subsequent discussion, the group acknowledges the difficulties they’ve felt in today’s session. Although it’s been a hard day it’s a good starting point, as it’s become more clear to them where their strengths lie and what they need to work on a bit more.

For example, the women ask for more practice in serving customers in English. They are very confident as a group in terms of their cooking skills, but more unsure about the customer service aspect. It’s specifically about speaking to customers in English, which will be essential when it comes to running the market stall. It’s a big step the group has to take together, but they definitely have the drive and enthusiasm to work for it - and we need to ensure they get practice and start building their confidence.

So those are a couple of points for the women to reflect on as today’s session ends - and when they start thinking about next week.

For me personally so far it’s been extremely interesting to immerse myself in the group as part of my role. It’s been a lot harder than I had expected, even though I can take breaks in the sessions and don’t have anything hanging on me in terms of making the day run smoothly - or feeding everyone! But it still takes a lot of energy to be there, to go into the kitchen, observe and learn, and at the same time make sure I get good shots of everything that’s going on. The women are pro and know what they’re doing, keeping them always one step ahead and me always on my toes.

Somehow, I feel like we’re learning together as well, and that hopefully when the time comes to set up the market stall I will have had enough practice to be able to move about as swiftly as the group to capture the buzz and atmosphere at the end of a successful project.

But I’m yet to roll a perfectly neat spring roll.

New this week! Send me comments, questions, tips for getting those spring rolls perfect. Which of the past dishes would you like to pick up at the market stall?

Week 4

On the menu today is bò bía and bò kho, which are both South Vietnamese dishes. Interestingly – and quite unusual for this group – only Thi knows the recipes and has cooked them before. Quite a few of the women have gone online to look at pictures of the finished dishes and have found variations of recipes in preparation for today’s session. The group will be cooking from Thi’s recipe though, which gives us a great opportunity to have a dedicated group leader and see how that works. Up until now, none of the women have felt comfortable enough to volunteer as team leader, but having someone in that role will be really helpful for when it comes to organising and running the market stall.

The bò bía is similar to the summer rolls of week 2 in that it’s fresh rolls in rice paper. The content, however, is very different. The group needs to prepare a particular Chinese sausage, eggs, dried shrimp, and the obligatory finely chopped vegetables to go in the neat little rolls. Bò kho is a beef stew with star anise served with baguette. On this grey October morning it sounds like the perfect lunch dish – hearty, warming, and full of flavour. Yes, you can tell, I’m hungry already!

A huge stockpot is already boiling with beef stock for the stew, and the group gather round the table in the centre of the kitchen to measure out the spices for marinating the beef. Part of the meat has already been prepared overnight, but it needs a little boost before it’s ready to cook. Sarah has printed out Thi’s recipe and she’s checking that everything has been noted down correctly. As the rest of the group start preparing all the ingredients for bò bía, Thi fries beef with lots of garlic, before adding the stock, and lots of lemongrass, onions, and carrots to stew.

The group is making a special sauce to go with bò bía, and they are getting help from Tan who works for the Vietnamese Mental Health Service. They reduce hoisin sauce with coconut milk, then add salt, fish sauce, lemon juice, chillies, and a couple of other bits from his secret recipe. Tan is the only other person who knows these dishes from home, and they bring back lots of memories for him. He tells us that when he went to university there’d be stalls just outside selling bò bía for lunch, and he’d go there for the best chance of speaking to girls. It’s such a nice little story to share, and I hope I’ll be hearing more stories from the rest of the group in the next weeks.

The last thing to do while the last rolls are being rolled is decide on pricing. Sarah has brought play money in today, so the women get a chance to practise money-handling, but this also means they need to decide how much they are going to charge for their food this time. There’s a lot of talk back and forth. Is £1 too cheap for one roll? Is £2 too much? There is a group vote and the majority is for £1 per roll. It’s strictly speaking too cheap though, having seen all the different ingredients that go into the rolls and all the care and attention spent on making them, I’d say £1 is incredibly good value from a customer’s perspective.

Sarah is worried that the group is undervaluing their food and the time and effort spent on making it, which would make the market stall unprofitable to run. She shows the women her calculations for all the different dishes they’ve cooked so far, and explains that the base price of the ingredients has to be multiplied by three to cover their time and the cost renting a kitchen. The group finally agrees to increase the price, to £2.50 for two rolls.

After all the delicious food has been served and eaten, the group has a short sit-down learning session, and they discuss that it might be a good idea to spend one session going to a local street food market. That way the women can see how stalls are run, how food is prepared outside (or whether it’s mostly prepared off-site), how the stallholders go about organising themselves in different roles, and of course how the various dishes are priced. Pricing is a fine balance to strike, and Mamas to Market will need to think a lot about how to get it right before they set up their own stall.

Concluding week 4, the group has a quick evaluation of the course so far and of the dishes they’ve cooked. This is meant to be the last ‘test’ week, meaning the women now have to choose which recipes should go forward – and so the next weeks will be spent repeating and perfecting dishes in preparation for selling them at the market stall. There is only more to look forward to.

Exploring New Culinary Territory - Week 3

Much contrary to last week’s spring and summer rolls, which I believe pretty much everyone knows, this week’s recipe is something I have never heard of. Granted, I’m certainly no aficionado of Vietnamese or even Asian food, but I do like to think that my knowledge spans further than spring rolls, special fried rice, and Singapore noodles. I might have to admit that it actually doesn’t, at least not very much, but hey – I’m here to learn as well!


Today’s dishes are sticky rice with corn and steamed rice cake with pork and vegetables, or, in other words, xôi bắp and bánh đúc tàu. Sarah has prepared some of the ingredients beforehand, and it turns out that there is enough rice for another dish, sticky rice with pandan leaf, or xôi lá dứa. Because the dishes are fairly complicated and take a lot of time to prepare, the women go straight to the kitchen and get going with their recipes.


Even after Sarah's explanation I have very little idea of how the dishes are meant to turn out, so I try my best to pay close attention to what everyone is doing. It is difficult though, as I have no idea what the most important stages are or what’s going to happen next. These recipes are the women's own, so I can’t just sit down and read through i. I find it very interesting how the recipes have become increasingly complex over just these first three weeks. The group is really showing off their skills and knowledge of their home cuisine.


Rice and corn is being steamed in a large tiered pan, and as usual there is a lot of chopping up vegetables into very tiny pieces. The group also decides that they want to make a salad to go with the dishes, which calls for even more neat chopping and slicing. It does look a bit more simple though, carrots and kohlrabi are julienned and mixed together, then salted to drain the water out before adding it to a mixture of vinegar, sugar, and fish sauce.


Kim has drained the rice and is pouring over the pandan extract. It’s green! This rice is going to turn out a lovely minty pastel green colour, which just happens to be my favourite as well. The pandan smells sweetly fragrant, a bit like vanilla. This bodes very well, I think. Meanwhile in the other kitchen, two large pans are being prepared for the steamed rice cake. The pork and vegetable mix has already been fried and is ready to go. The pans have been filled with water, and a little metal ring on legs has been placed on the bottom. The metal dish, almost like a large quiche dish, is oiled and placed inside the pan, balancing on the ring so that it’s not completely submerged in the water. Once the water boils, Hoa pours a ladle of rice flour batter into the dish and places the lid on the pan. Once the batter starts filling with air holes, the large, soft 'pancake' is taken out and placed flat on a tray. Once a couple of these have been layered on the tray, the rice cake is ready for the filling which is spooned on top. With no other reference it’s kind of like a steamed Vietnamese pizza I'd say.


The sticky rice and corn, which has been cooked together, is served with ground mung beans and lovely deep-fried shallots. The women spend quite some time with Sarah, discussing portion sizes and testing the presentation of the rice dishes in little bamboo bowls lined with banana leaves. Thi carves a very nice carrot flower to place on the pandan rice dish along with a sprig of mint. It looks beautiful. The Vietnamese ESOL group, however, are a bit too hungry to wait for this level of presentation. To be honest, we are all hungry now and queue up as usual at the indoor market stall where the dishes are presented side by side.


The buzz of the kitchen quickly subsides as everyone sits down to have their well-earned lunch. This week I’ve learnt some new dishes and techniques and feel satisfied that my knowledge is expanding. I’m absolutely in awe of the skills of the Mamas to Market group, they are doing really well, and it’s only week 3 of 10. Finally, I make a mental note to myself to order the sweet and sticky pandan rice next time I go out for Vietnamese. It’s definitely a new favourite.

Week 2 - Spring and Summer Rolls


Today we’re cooking a variety of Vietnamese spring and summer rolls, which should be a great contender for the market stall – people already know what it is, but what they don’t know yet is how well this group cooks it. I have to say though that the prospect of rolling all these rolls worries me a little. I’m not sure I’ll be neat enough to do the job properly, but am ready to learn and take directions from the experts!


Even though we concluded last week by deciding on today’s recipe, there is quite some discussion at the beginning of this session on what goes into the spring and summer rolls. This is something that varies a lot by the different regions of Vietnam. After much discussion back and forth the group comes to an agreement on the recipes and start working on today’s pre-cooking task.


With a thought to last week’s blender issues, the importance of knowing exactly what is needed for preparing and cooking a dish has been conveniently highlighted. The women work in pairs to break down one recipe each, noting all tools and ingredients needed. This is called sequencing. The aim of this task is that the group enters the kitchen in their pairs and focus on the one recipe they’ve been given, knowing beforehand exactly what they’ll need to make it. It should streamline the process and make it more systematic, which is necessary when cooking in very large batches for a market stall.


With everyone’s tasks allocated there is not too much for me to do, apart from making sure I capture with my camera all the different stages of making spring rolls. I want to tweet the process in pictures to Social Kitchen’s followers so they can see what will be in store if they come to the market stall later in the year. The women are chopping and washing vegetables and then chopping some more. Everything that goes into these rolls needs to be very finely and neatly prepared and the women are truly showcasing their knife skills.


When it comes to rolling the spring rolls, Vui has got a great trick to make them all look neat. She shows Sarah how she cuts off the bottom corners of the triangle so that when she folds them over the filling the edges turn out straight and the rolls end up all the same size. She works relentlessly, adding a blob of filling on the pastry, folding the corners over, then rolling tightly and sticking the end down with the glue-like paste made from flour and water.


The fresh summer rolls take as much neatness. First of all, the rice paper needs to be wet, but not too much as it makes it too sticky and difficult to roll – and not too little as it’s then too crunchy to form a nice roll. I try my best with rolling a prawn summer roll. Noodles on the rice paper first, then leaves of herb, then three prawns on the edge so they’ll be seen from the outside. Folding over, then rolling, and before finishing I add a straw of Chinese chive. My rolls are far from perfect and get put to the side. They don’t look nice enough to sell!


It turns out, however, that Thi is an especially skilled roller of summer rolls. She works very methodically and all her rolls look completely identical. It is clear that she works to some sort of system. Thi tells us that her sister back in Vietnam runs a street food stall in Ho Chi Minh City, and that whenever she visits she helps her out. She is in other words a professional.


Before service starts, Sarah chats to the group about portion sizes – how much are the rolls going to cost, and should they be sold individually or a couple at a time. The women agree on two options, a small portion of two rolls or a large portion of four. They also have to decide if some of the rolls have to go together or whether the customer gets to mix and match freely. The group agrees on mix and match, which I’m very pleased about as it means I get to try all four different options! It’s completely impossible not to get incredibly hungry during these sessions. The options are: pork or vegetarian spring rolls, and summer rolls with prawns or pork and prawns. Of course there is dipping sauce as well, and hoisin with peanuts. It’s all very very delicious, and everyone gets to take a little box home for dinner. Otherwise we’d leave the kitchen teeming with rolls!


Week 1

It’s 9:40 at Fellows Court Community Centre and the first participant has already arrived, 20 minutes early, to this week’s Mamas to Market session, number 1 of 10. Project Leader Sarah and myself are still decorating the market stall in the lunch room with homemade bunting and getting the ingredients ready for this week’s recipe, Bánh mì. Bánh mì is Vietnamese baguette, which the group will be filling with pork cooked in three different ways, fresh salad, and lots of fragrant herbs.


The rest of the group is arriving in quick succession, eager to start preparing the food. Before the cooking begins, however, we’re going through a food safety session so the women can gain the skills needed in a professional kitchen. Today we talk about the basics of wearing clean clothes, washing hands, and tying back hair before starting. The women nod, they already know all of this – now can we start cooking?


The aprons come on and we go into the kitchen. There are lots of different jobs to do – preparing herbs, slicing vegetables very thinly, and seasoning and marinating meat in three different ways – and the women get stuck in immediately, they are the experts here and instruct us as well as each other on the different tasks. I’m given a demonstration in neat cucumber slicing and get to work.


One of the meats is a pork sausage cooked in banana leaf. It’s called chả lụa and it takes a strong blender and special skill to prepare it the right way. The meat needs to be ground to a fine paste, which proves difficult for our blender. After wrapping it tightly and expertly in banana leaf and boiling for about an hour we come to the moment of truth: the taste test. Not perfect is the experts’ verdict. We’ll need to get a better blender.


To an outsider, however, it’s extremely delicious. As is the marinated, chargrilled pork, the pork belly, and all the fresh veg. We form a long queue by the market stall and the group practise their serving skills working as fast as they can. It’s difficult not to get hungry during this session and we’re all eager to have lunch by now.


The bánh mì gets the thumbs up from the Vietnamese group who are attending an ESOL course in the community centre. It’s a winner as takeaway food for a market stall – but we will need that powerful blender to get the chả lụa just right. As our first session concludes with repetition of the food safety rules and discussion of next week’s recipe, I am definitely looking forward to next time, and I think the group is too.

Welcome to Mamas to Market!

Hi and welcome to the Mamas to Market blog. My name is Terese, I’m Social Kitchen’s new photography and social media intern, and I’ll be blogging about the Mamas to Market project – and maybe more – in the coming months.


During the next ten weeks this blog will be following a group of first-generation Vietnamese women and their progress towards running a market stall in one of Hackney’s most popular markets.


Through the Mamas to Market project the women will be given the training needed to sell their delicious, fresh, authentic Vietnamese dishes – and hopefully make a profit that can be fed back into a continuation of the project.


Every week the group will prepare and cook one of their favourite recipes and evaluate its suitability for the market stall. In the later weeks the best recipes will be repeated to perfect the details and presentation, and the group will discuss which dishes they want to sell and how much these should cost.


Join me as I immerse myself in the Vietnamese cooking and follow the women’s progress week by week – and get ready to queue up at their market stall later this year!


Mamas to Market is a project run by Social Kitchen funded by Hackney Council and in collaboration with the Vietnamese Mental Health Service.