“In food as in death, we feel the essential brotherhood of man.”
I have an affinity for Hanoi…
Especially the Old Quarter.
It becomes clear to the visitor…
Life on the streets is all about the food.
Some must grow it.
While other’s hawk it.
Some must cook it.
While other’s eat it.
Women sit on low stools in front of their shops and sort and cut beans and vegetables. Using a crochet type hook for stripping the long beans, this Asian pod looked exactly like what was in my stir fry the previous evening. Pride is taken in the arrangement of produce in the baskets.
Perhaps everyone is competing for the “Lovely Produce Award?”
As I stopped to get out of the way of a woman shouldering her bamboo carrying pole, which balanced two baskets of produce, she instantly transferred it from her shoulder to mine. I was shocked, and before I knew it she placed her conical hat on my head. Grinning, she motioned to my husband to take my photo then wanted us to pay her by buying freshly cut pineapple. A woman was sitting on the steps of her shop watching this, and a look on her face warned me that the opportunist wanted too much money. After a little haggling and a couple of photos taken, I chose bananas and said thank you to the woman on the steps. I couldn’t believe how quickly I was targeted.
But, I have pictures and a memory.
In the mornings and the evenings the Vietnamese take to the side walks to cook and eat. It’s all about the socialization and intimacy of eating and being with family and friends. They share a common meal. If they are serving Pho (noodle soup) their chop sticks are in one hand while a spoon is in the other. Bean sprouts, cilantro, rice paddy herb, fresh Asian basil, Perilla (related to mint) and other veggies are heaped on a large communal platter to be added to the hot broth ladled into each person’s bowl. There seems to be some degree of order to this cultural tradition of eating together. Some spread mats on the floor of their shops to eat while others use colorful child size tables and chairs that are stackable when finished. Parks are common areas where families bring their mats, cooking paraphernalia and spend a leisurely evening. The aroma that fills the streets from the family meals or street vendors is heavenly… basil, garlic, lime, hot pepper and the ever present fermented fish sauce (nuac mam). Our clothes absorbed this blend of spices and permeated our small hotel room soon after returning for the evening.
My mind was still on the streets…mental pictures of both men and women cooking…together…holding babies…tending to children…pulling up an extra plastic chair for a late comer…all chatting at once…oblivious to the cacophony of street noises.
Each day, it is the same ritual …on the sidewalks of humanity.
All animals eat, but we are the only animal that cooks. So cooking becomes more than a necessity, it is the symbol of our humanity, what marks us off from the rest of nature. And because eating is almost always a group event (as opposed to sex), food becomes a focus of symbolic activity about sociality and our place in society.– Robin Fox, Food and Eating, An Anthropological Perspective
All photographs by Ron Mayhew Photography.