From around 11 o’clock onwards plates of rice started appearing in front of vendors all over the market. Every other seller, no matter what they were hawking – soap, shampoo, shrimp paste – had a plate of rice topped variously with vegetables or tofu, often with the characteristic Huế dollop of dried chilli oil. Sometimes the rice was wild and dark red. Some had a bowl of clear soup perched on top of their wares, with tomato and water morning glory floating within. J and I walked up to them and they looked up to see if we were going to buy a bunch of garlic. We peered at their plates instead.
“Cơm?” we asked, and they pointed us inwards. Deeper and deeper into the labyrinthian market until we found a canteen just beside the meat market which had just come to life, three or four stalls with trays of vegetables and tofu, set out on the tables. No meat to be seen. The occasional worker pushed past us balancing a tray of mixed rice plates and soup, no doubt to deliver lunch to the women at their stalls. I always find it amazing that they seem to know where each vendor is and who ordered what in this maze of stalls selling the same things.
A girl in pink clutched at our arms, pulling us insistently to the mixed rice stall she worked at. We demurred, walking around the stalls several times to decide where we should spend our limited stomach space, ducking from her advances several times.
First plate for two: an assortment of various fried tofu, gourds, noodles and stir-fried vegetables over rice. Soy sauce with chilli on the side. Not bad, but not especially memorable.
“God, I love choi,” said Jess. “Any kind. Doesn’t matter. I love it all.” We’d been missing leafy vegetables and we got our fix with the second plate at the next stall serving up vegetarian dishes – stir-fried water morning glory, green beans and tofu strips, sweet-sour Chinese mustard braised with tamarind. Everything tasted delicious and wholesome, not at all oily, rather like my mother’s cooking. We squeezed ourselves onto the narrow benches and scarfed down our vegetables. I watched the ladies next to us heap rice and vegetables onto plates, sending them out to the market, and not for the first time wished I could eat more.
The light thunk of a plastic bowl next to me caught my attention. I pointed at the soft white dollop in the rice bowl and tilted my head, looking at the woman standing next to me. A good deal of how we procured food in Vietnam consisted of pointing and tilting our heads quizzically, a strategy which worked well. Her response was to take the spoon from the bowl, still smeared with the white stuff, and jam it straight into my mouth.
It was soft and melting like ricotta, with the faintest suggestion of funk and all of the salt-savoury umami you want on top of white rice. I shut my eyes in pleasure. The taste still haunts my tongue two weeks later. This was fermented tofu like I hadn’t tasted before, not at all spicy like the Chinese ones I grew up with. She took another spoon and scooped out a little rice and fermented tofu, passing it over the table to Jess, who seemed similarly impressed.
“Gau?” The woman just smiled and nodded when I tried to repeat what I thought she’d said. I wrote in my notebook, and showed her and she nodded and went back to work. I later looked it up and learned instead the word chao for fermented tofu, which can be found in various cuisines all over Asia. Looking back at the photo, perhaps there were two kinds of chao there – one spicy, one not.
She replaced the spoon – which had just exited my mouth, mind you – in the bowl of rice, which was then carried away to some corner of the market. Perhaps someone had this for lunch – no vegetables or soup, just these cheese-like hunks of soft chao, with white rice to bring it all down.