Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Crazy for coconut - Tan Phú

Imagine yourself on a riverboat navigating the web of canals which make up the Mekong Delta. All around is the lushest, greenest palms you can imagine, and when the light filters through them at a certain angle, you might think it a corner of heaven. Yes it's quite hot, but somehow, the motion of the barge and the chatter of the guide keeps your mind occupied. My eyes are all over the place, as usual, and my fingers can't write fast enough. So in this water highway, I note a sign which signals we have arrived at destination. This is where coconut candy is made by one family, - the entire operation is done by hand as the pictures below prove. Not so much for domestic consumption, but to feed the Chinese frenzy for coconut to the tune of 2,000 metric tons annually.

This is your stairway to heaven, literally. If you have equilibrium problems, this is not for you. The barge anchors itself to the side, so as not to interfere with incoming traffic, as these water lanes get more narrow as the trip progresses. Whatever your hang ups, the wafts of coconut aroma will make you spring to your feet in an instant. You are in Ben Tre Province, and that is so noted on every package of sweets you purchase here. Have you ever seen Green Coconut? Well I don't think anyone here did, but we got over it as soon as we tasted it.

This was our proverbial welcome mat and I would have gladly thrown myself on it had I not had any reserve. It was piping hot, as it had just made its way from a deep, concave shaped pot where the coconut is mixed by hand. They let the guests help themselves to this glob and must hurry to provide a new batch as it disappears quite quickly.

He is what I call the master of ceremonies. He stirs the coconut over an open flame, and inserts the vegetable dye that will give the color. They also produce plain coconut, coconut with peanut which has a cappuccino sort of color, and there is also chocolate coconut, which again, was a new experience for the palate, but none the less ethereal.

The young woman on the other hand, also stirring, seems to be very far from Ben Tre Province, at least in her thoughts. In these parts, especially the South, women are usually covered, and not because of modesty. They considered tanned body parts ugly, and want their skin to remain as close to white as possible. Even in Sai Gon, in unbearably hot and humid weather, one will see most women on their scooters, or walking with arms completely covered, and only the eyes are visible as a kerchief covers the rest of the face.

On the floor are masses of coconut shells, which will not go to waste. It is astounding how a war economy has instilled in the Viet Namese the need to recycle everything, re-use everything, and make use as well of every part of an item, like the coconut. The shells are used in making some of the most beautiful wooden items for the table. In fact, prior to coming here, I had already been smitten with coconut tea sets, which I never dare to use, but loved the way they looked. In Bali, we had also seen furnishing made of coconut, and in different shades. Thailand also has a penchant for things coconutty.
See what happens at this point, as the "blob" is transformed into long narrow strips which are about 1/4" thick. From this point on, it is only the women that are working on the finishing. Notice that the ribbons are sitting on a cutting board awaiting the axe. You can see how they've got this down to a "science", and are using their senses to cut them into perfect squares.

What happens next is even more fascinating. There are about six women all seated around the table, each having edible rice paper which are cut to size (I don't know who does the cutting here, as we had no chance to observe) and which they fold exactly the same way without even looking at the squares. The boxes which will hold these morsels are also in front of the ladies, so as they fold them, they are also filling up the box which normally holds two layers of candies.
One can continue watching this process or proceed to the counter, where purchases of the boxed items can be made. They do offer other goods, but it's unthinkable to buy anything but coconut here. We decide that we're going to splurge and buy one of each of the three varieties. In hindsight, it was not enough.
It is high time for me to move on and check out the merchandise. I'm trying to be careful, as habitually, when we travel to Asia, we return with more suitcases than when we depart. This trip was no exception. And suitcases are dirt cheap in Sai gon.

You can see the artistic ability of the Viet Namese is not lacking at all: miniature animals, - there are crabs, pigs, turtles (lucky pet here) rabbits, birds as well as functional items such as napkin holders, business card holders, ashtrays, ramekins with covers, sailboats??
And here we have on the floor more raw material, which will be transformed into beautiful art forms. The fiber which is found on the surface of the coconut is called "coir", and I'm not sure that Viet Nam has learned how to use this in papermaking, but in other Southeast Asian countries, it's a favorite ingredient for strengthening the paper. It is also exported to other countries as a mattress filler, and as a fertilizer. And don't forget soap and other beauty products. Frankly, I'd just rather eat it.

One cannot linger too long, as visitors keep on arriving, and the area is too small to handle more than one boat load at a time. As soon as we were seated on the barge, we began to sample our treasures. I don't think they lasted to the end of our trip. But when I returned to the U.S., the invisible hand of coincidence found me a Viet Namese supermarket who imported the heavenly morsels from Ben Tre Province. No, not the green kind, but hey, who cares? I still shop there occasionally, and the shop has greatly expanded. But for some reason, the coconut candy has disappeared.

No comments: