A week or so ago, I was eating in Hue, Vietnam's ancient capital on the central coast. In a two-day, three-night research (eating!) trip, brandishing lists with addresses and maps with 'dropped pins', the footpaths flashed beneath as the god and I sampled from this different Vietnamese 'table'. To regenerate the palate, travel can be the best antidote, and Hue provides a powerful itinerary of dishes and snacks to give a shot to the tastebuds. So, zig-zagging across the terrain we went.
Between a third breakfast of ốp la (fried eggs done Vietnamese style with herbs, onion, tomato and chili-heavy nước chấm) and an excursion to the city's Đông Ba Market before lunch, we waddled over the Perfume River on the Trường Tiền Bridge. Before long, we were in step with the silken tofu (đậu hủ) vendor walking along the other side of the bridge. Snacking between meals can be done anywhere in Vietnam, so we waved her over and squatted on the footpath at bridge's end.
She carries across her shoulder a smooth flat length of bamboo, each end weighed down by her product and the chattels required to serve it. All over the country, Vietnam's rural poor womenfolk - in similar fashion - are hauling their own body-weight in fresh produce and other wares, trying to supplement the family income from agriculture in the hope of providing a brighter future for their children. Constantly hectored by the police and berated daily by city customers, theirs is a thankless task. This woman is sinewy-strong, tanned and wrinkled from the sun; and, there is a distinct wariness and weariness about her.
Set down to her left is a scrupulously insulated metal pot with a wooden lid which flips open. From inside this, the vendor scoops out glossy discs of silken white tofu with a metal paddle, a lazy steam issuing forth as she does so. It goes into small rice bowls from her wooden cabinet to the right. The two shelves here contain simple ingredients to flavour this custard-consistency dessert; a tablespoon of sugar is sprinkled, a not-so-sweet syrup of young ginger and an optional squeeze of lime juice. I take the lime juice to get some sharpness against the sweet.
The vendor offers it up. Each time the spoon is submerged for another mouthful, the tofu discs break up a bit more so that, toward the end, it is sloppy beads of tofu that I feed myself. Slippery and surprisingly hot at first, they slide right down. Without having ruined our appetite for lunch, two minutes later we are headed to market.
And the vendor endures on her trudge.