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.