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.