05 March 2006

Herbs & Tahina

On the bus back from town today, a man sat behind me. Voice and physical appearance revealed that he was in his late 50’s, from Scotland, and fat. During the short, 20 minute ride, this is what I learned about him, mostly from his cell phone conversations. He had had breakfast in town, and was now returning to relax for the afternoon at the pub with a bottle of wine, followed by lunch. He has a friend and colleague named Chris who went to a big party on Saturday afternoon and got very drunk. He’ll see him at the office tomorrow morning at 8:00. They are to finalize the plans for the project and make sure the others have work to do for the entire week because, after all, they are paying the lads and they want to get their money’s worth. Mike will be at a different meeting tomorrow morning and will cover for this guy who doesn’t want to be there.

His loud voice was still ringing in my ears after he had exited the bus. Lucky for me, I was able to finally return my thoughts to the bag full of special items purchased at a store called Veggies.

I had heard of the place, but had thought it was an over-priced, small produce market that sold to the rich ex-pats; which it is. I had also heard it had imported processed overpriced garbage food; which it does. And these are the reasons that I had never shopped there. But after searching for popping corn for weeks, and asking everyone I ran across if they knew where I could get it, a friend said that Veggies was the place.

As I walked in, the first thing I noticed was the bulk bins of beans and grains. I found the pop corn right away. They had all sorts of beans and rice that you can buy anywhere, so I almost walked past the garbanzo beans. I had never seen them here. My next product search was for oregano and any other spices that I might be needing and had yet to find in HCMC.

I seem to be only foreigner in Vietnam who does not eat out. No inexpensive restaurants in my neighborhood and I don’t like the large amounts one gets in a restaurant are two of the reasons. But even if I wanted to not cook for a day, I can’t because of all the MSG that goes into every dish in any restaurant.

At first I was just cooking bland beans and rich and vegetables. Then I got into experimenting with coconut milk and invented some really tasty meals. But then I started to think about Italian food but I just couldn’t find the herbs and spices. In fact all that I had been using for flavor was garlic, onions, chili sauce, salt and pepper. I did find powered curry, but it has an odd taste. The supermarkets have lots of pre-mixed packages of spices. I have no idea what is in them other than MSG. People kept telling me that spices were available here, but I could never find them.

Veggies had a few shelves of imported, very costly herbs and spices. I would have been willing to pay top dollar for oregano, but just couldn’t seem to find it on the shelf. I was about to give up when I decided to ask one of the sales ladies.
“It’s in the cooler room”, she said. You mean it’s fresh? I asked? I followed her into the walk-in and almost fainted when I saw bags of fresh herbs. I got oregano, sage, rosemary, and thyme. (but no parsley). Some of it is grown here, and some imported. I bought a handful of each, so the cost was very reasonable.

Up at the cashiers, I looked at my items trying to think if I had forgotten anything.
Then I remembered that I was buying garbanzos to make humus, and therefore would need Tahina. I just knew they wouldn’t have it, but asked anyway. And they did! I even had a choice of two different types. The price was more than the total of all the other items and I almost put it back. Fortunately, I came to my senses and bought it. For someone who doesn’t really get excited about food, I was on a buzzing with cooking anticipation when I left the shop.

Once home, I put a small amount of each herb in the refrigerator, and laid the rest out on the counter to dry. Tonight I cooked up my first pot of pasta sauce. Mexican food is next on the agenda.

There is pop corn to pop
(the river pictured runs just to the right of the manicured garden walk, and this shot does not do it justice.))