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.