The most interesting question – I guess for children as for adults – is: Where does … come from?
Well, in Europe we get fruits and vegetables from all over the world – but there’s – if you compare the whole amount we can grow just a small part of those things in our countries. The winter is too long and too cold and the summer is sometimes even hotter than in Vietnam.
When I was a child I read a lot of books about how the world works. The more I learned the more I had to recognize how much more is still “outside”.
Now, I’m adult and anywhen it’s the time for every discoverer to put the books by side and discover on your own.
I remembered pretty well when I saw my first picture of a rubber plantation. Trees in rows and every tree had a small bowl, filled with a white liquid. The book could answer my questions like what kind of tree that was or where it grew but not how the bark and the leaves felt, how this white liquid felt on the skin or how it tasted. Then I went by bus to the Cu Chi Tunnels – on both sides of the road were those plantations. And I knew: My time had come.
I reached one during dawn. It was a quite desolate place. Not much plants were growing here besides the rubber trees. But it had its atmosphere as well. So I started to do, what I wanted to do. I touched the bark and it felt like an ordinary bark. The leaves were the same as on every evergreen trees.
I got a bit disappointed, I hoped they would feel more like rubber. The natural rubber itself didn’t feel like the resin of the trees. It felt like… nothing I’ve touched before. It stuck on my fingers but didn’t pour strings like glue. I could remove it easily. And now it was time for the master-question: How does it taste?
Awful. Like old chewing gum and old rubber bands. The only difference was that this taste spread immediately in the whole mouth. Not very tasty but I had my answer.
In the area of Buon Ma Thout I’ve been on another rubber plantation which provided more floral life and appeared much more beautiful to me.
The rubber here was also fresher than the rubber from the last plantation and tasted different. Like a non-aromatic resin and soap. Not tasty but it spread in the same time in the mouth.
Austria, where I’m from is famous for its long coffee-house tradition. In every ordinary coffee-house it’s possible to order more than 10 difference variants of coffee. In upper-class coffee-houses you can imagine there might be even quite a few more. But despite that fact there’s no coffee growing at all neither in Austria, nor in Europe. It came to my country (like several other “typical” Austrian things) when we had battles with the Turks in the 15th century. I grew up in a place where everyone was drinking coffee, but no one ever saw a coffee bushes.
In Buon Ma Thout I saw my first ones. I was fascinated by the white flower and its intense scent. I expected the flower would smell like coffee, but it didn’t. The fruit itself had a quite good taste. Like a non-sour apple with a blueberry. I guess, I wouldn’t buy them at the market. Too less intense taste and too big seed. While chewing the seed I just asked myself who would come to the idea to roast the seed and brew a beverage out of it…
Cinnamon is one of my favourite spices. The Mehlspeisen (no proper translation… „confection of pastry“ maybe) of Europe provide a huge bunch of possibilities to use cinnamon. Also in the Middle East it is popular- but unlike in Europe not for sweet dishes only. Sometimes I enjoy it to put a cinnamon sticks in my tea and I wanted to do the same here in Vietnam. I got a bit confused as I saw my first cinnamon here. At home we have just thin, rolled slices of cinnamon, which has a high price – and here? Instead of those slices or powder the vendor at the market gave me a thick bark of a tree.
For me this was a sign that cinnamon grows in that region and I started to ask at the market where I could find it. I got a vague address and drove to there.
There was a plantation, but I couldn’t see any cinnamon-trees. Just an unknown one which didn’t appear to be harvested at all.
Suddenly, as I took a short stop I recognized there were some trees without bark and I went to them to climb up until I reached the remaining bark to smell it. Indeed. This was cinnamon.
I started to have my questions answered. First: How do the leaves taste. The leaves tasted like cinnamon. That made me happy. In the evening, when I made myself a cinnamon-leave-tee I had to admit, it tasted awful. Too weak was the taste of the cinnamon and too strong was the “leavy” taste. Undrinkable.
The trunk itself didn’t seem to have any aroma. Even though I licked it I couldn’t figure out any remarkable taste. I wish I would have landed in a cinnamon-tree-forest. My last question remained unanswered: In a cinnamon-forest: Can you smell the aroma of cinnamon?
Ginger and Turmeric
At almost every market in the area I could buy ginger and a ginger-looking root. It doesn’t seem to be very unusual to those people. I even got the information it would grow in every garden.
So I tried my luck. I drove along a street until I hit the dead end and went to the first house. There I asked whether they might have any ginger.
They had. The son of this family went with me to the garden and started to remove old branches and leaves from the ground. Suddenly he saw something and started to dig. Some seconds later he held a big root of ginger in his hands. He liked me, so he gave it to me as a present. I almost went crazy! In Europe this would have been worth a nice bunch of money. Fresh ginger! I couldn’t believe it.
Honestly: I guess I’ve never seen a turmeric-root in my life before. The powder which is made out of it is one of the most expensive spices. Here… it just grows in the garden…
Like all the Central-European states also we have a long history in the creation of chocolate. As a child I didn’t like the taste of it too much, but the older I became the more I enjoyed chocolate. Especially those with a very high percentage of cacao. Sometimes it had over 90%.
I think some Europeans and Americans might think you can make chocolate and coffee from the same plant and also I wasn’t very sure how a cacao-fruit looked like before I arrived in a village in the surroundings of Buon Ma Thout.
The farmer grew coffee-plants and cocoa-plants together in one field, so I was even more unsure about the origin of my meanwhile favourite candy. And then I saw my first cocoa-fruit and felt a bit stupid. I had no idea how to open it.
Fortunately the lady who showed me the way to this farmer was still there and took a machete to cut the fruit-shell into two halfs. Inside was a white “sausage” which consisted of several blocks.
I ate one. It was sweet like honey. If there weren’t this big seed and the small flesh of the fruit I guess I would have wanted it for eat every day. The seed was bitter and remembered far of the taste of dark chocolate. Even though, it was violet inside.
Also here I had no clue how someone could come to the idea to roast it and make a beverage out of it. I’ve heard the ancient Aztec people brewed a bitter energy-drink out of it. Today’s European youth likes it more sweet with milk in the morning or during cold winter days…
I remember a scene from this series „That ’70s Show“, Kitty and her husband Red are arriving in a hotel room and as she sees some cashews she’s shouting in an ecstasy:“Oh, my gosh. This must have been his surprise. Oh! Flowers, champagne. Cashews. The most expensive nut, you know“.
Well… Now I always have to think of that scene while I am eating some of those nuts. (Even though they don’t taste so expensive).
Anyway… I used to be in Buon Ma Thout and found one of my dearest friends in Vietnam: Sabet. A wonderful girl, studying English. One evening she told me there are some Cashew-trees around her boarding house and invited me for the next day to see them.
Unfortunately she just brought me to there and delegated the job of showing me everything to a friend of her… But then I saw a big yellow fruit. Wait. Fruit? Since when do Cashews have fruits?
This is what I learned that day: Cashews first have some big, aromatic fruits grown. I picked a ripe one and bit into it. I was tendentious juicy. After the first bite my whole T-Shirt was wet. The taste was identical to a jackfruit’s, so not too special.
There were some cashew-nuts around but most of them were not ripe. They tasted more like too young walnuts. Then my new friend showed me a good one finally. First I bit into it for opening, as soon as he started to waving with his hands in the air like crazy – „No, no, noo!“ – never bite into a Cashew. Their paring contains a „very strong“ acid. (Well, most Vietnamese people use the word „very“ in a very inflatious way…), so I just stopped to be polite and he doesn’t have to wave his arms in the air any more…
He opened it with his hands always telling me how dangerous this would be and finally I could eat one. I liked it.
In one of my next articles I want to write about another adventure here, but till then I just have to tell you that the same evening my lips started spalling and my hands became yellow. Some afterglow of the acid…