Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Banana Blossoms

Taking a break from the kitchen
“Did you buy banana blossoms in the market in Hanoi?” I asked Diep as we worked together at the sink. The banana blossom is sometimes called the banana heart. Heavy for it's size at about a pound, the blossom is tear-drop shaped and heartblood red. Although I’d seen them for sale in Mexican markets, I really had no idea how you got from the exotic looking pendulous fruit to the delicious crispy salads I’d eaten while in Vietnam. 

“Yes”, she replied. “They’re a staple in the market and always available. Banana blossoms are considered the “cleanest” of all vegetables by Vietnamese people because they grow suspended in the air, between the sky and the ground”. Even though the banana blossom is technically a fruit, in India and Southeast Asia it’s treated more like a vegetable and besides being used in salads, it’s cooked in stews and curries.

As Diep peeled back the outer layers of the blossom, the clusters of tiny baby bananas between the petals were exposed. They’re called “stick fruit” and the yellow ones are edible but astringent with a taste similar to banana peel. If the blossom was left on the tree, the sticks would develop into bananas. 

Banana blossom salad is served regularly in Vietnamese homes, partly because the blossom stores well (up to a month in the refrigerator) and partly because the fresh, crisp texture is very satisfying in the tropical climate, when the days are hot and humid. 

Working together on the bean sprouts for this salad, I asked Diep if she spent much time at the Hanoi market. She laughed. “Oh yes, lots of time. I learned how to be a saleswoman at the market”. She explained that when she was 8 years old, her father fell ill and was hospitalized for two years. During that time, her family struggled to keep food on the table and learned to be very resourceful. Although the communist government was still attempting to manage the command economy, there were shortages of everything and people were starving. The authorities had to quickly adjust the rules to allow small businesses to operate; people were permitted to sell things to each other and to cultivate backyard gardens raising produce they sold in the markets.

Diep’s fatherless family began raising bean sprouts in the house. Because Diep’s mother was educated in Checkoslavakia as a chemical engineer, she ran their small agricultural operation like a science experiment. Her “formula” for cultivation was successful and the bean sprouts were consistently superior. 

“I would help my mother carry everything to the market and get it arranged on the tables. People all around us sold their products by appearing to be as pitiful as possible. The attitude of the sales people was ‘buy from me because I’m poor and needy’.” 

Diep's Mom second from left, Dad with mike.
Having lived in eastern Europe as a student her mother had been exposed to more western sales methods little known at the time in Vietnam. It’s sometimes hard to remember that the ambitious and hard-working Vietnamese we know in the U.S. were kept subservient during the French regime and survived by keeping a low profile; during the early Communist years the most desirable status you could have was to be poor and down-trodden. 

Diep’s mother couldn’t help being different. Proud and confident, she sold her bean sprouts on the basis of their clear superiority. Diep remembers, “People bought from her because she offered the best product”. Regardless of the principles of the regime, when it came down to selecting food for the table, people chose products on the basis of quality - not on the basis of which seller was most needy or pitiful.  Diep learned this lesson well and because she was a charismatic child she quickly learned to elicit smiles in the market and to “make small smiles into bigger smiles.” She was a little sprout selling sprouts.  

“Basically everything I know about business, I learned from my mother. Not only did she teach me to smile and please the customer, she also showed me how the dishonest sellers would put a finger on the scale or try to foist off lower quality merchandise on naive buyers.” 

Diep is a shrewd shopper. I enjoyed wandering through the markets with her watching her carefully examine each piece of fruit and each vegetable using her eyes and nose before she made her selection. “What’s the point of putting effort into preparing food that’s inferior in the first place?” she asks as she sorts through the jicama, finally choosing a small but very firm one. “No amount of kitchen skill is going to magically change that fact.” Observing the shoppers around us I note that most Vietnamese take grocery shopping more seriously than we Americans do. Diep declares, “I don’t believe that a smart food shopper would ever buy pre-bagged anything. Unless you can see each piece in the bag, on all sides, forget it!” 

Back in the kitchen, she had peeled the blossom until the core remained. She thinly sliced the inner leaves and offered me a piece to taste. It was bitter and astringent and made my mouth pucker. “That’s why they have to be pre-soaked”  she said as she put them in a bowl and added water, lemon juice and salt. Almost immediately the water turned pink. After 30 minutes or so, we tested a couple of slices again and the bitterness had leached away. 

1 comment:

  1. Loved "the little sprout selling sprouts". In the photo is that Diep and her husband at their wedding?
    Where is he from and what's their story? (Inquiring minds want to know!)