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.