Cooking for a Cause in Vietnam

A lot of people say that Vietnamese food, which can be very meat-heavy, is difficult to veganize. I say that they obviously haven’t visited Karma Waters, which is a charitable organization and group of restaurants in Vietnam, that make mouth-watering vegan food but also help the needy.

I had the chance to visit Da Nang and Hoi An in Vietnam earlier this year. Since going vegan, I’ve never had the chance to try proper vegan Vietnamese pho (pronounced “fuh?”) and was thrilled at the opportunity to learn how to make it!

I had met Grace N. in Hong Kong with her adorable vegan children at an animal activism event, and even enjoyed a delicious vegan private dinner cooked in her home. So I was excited to visit her twin sister and mother in Da Nang in their restaurant to learn how to cook some of their amazing dishes.

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Enjoying a private Karma Waters dinner cooked by Grace in Hong Kong.

Since I was visiting over the Lunar New Year (Tet, in Vietnamese), almost everything was closed, including Karma Waters. But Grace’s sister, Annie, was happy to open it specifically for me to learn how to cook five of their amazing dishes.

Vietnamese Cooking Class

The electricity in the neighborhood went off twice while I was there, so we ended up cooking in the dark with lanterns for a good portion of it! Annie, her mother, and their dog were all very patient with me while I learned how to correctly grate carrots and painstakingly rolls up the rice paper rolls. After the class was finished, I had the chance to enjoy all of these wonderful dishes.

Summer Rolls

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Fresh summer rolls is always something I’ve enjoyed eating at restaurants, but have never been able to master on my own! The rice paper always breaks or becomes too wet for me to handle. Annie was very patient with me and showed me the correct way to do it. We put different types of lettuce, vegan gluten ham, grated carrots, and wood-ear mushrooms inside our rolls. Karma Waters makes their own brand of fish sauce in-house, so we used this as part of our dipping sauce.

Spicy Beef and Mango Salad

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This salad had vegan “beef”, shredded mango, and Vietnamese mint. I absolutely fell in love with Vietnamese mint on this trip, which is not nearly as strong as peppermint or spearmint, and is often used in large quantities to flavour Vietnamese dishes. This salad was quite spicy, so I only ate part of it and saved the rest for leftovers the next day.

Banana Flower Salad

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Banana flowers have become super trendy lately because of their use in vegan fish and chips. They come from the ends of banana fruit clusters, and are used in a variety of foods in Asia. This salad was super fresh and delicious, with a spicy dressing and seaweed garnish.

Traditional Pho

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The main event — pho! This dish is normally eaten for breakfast in Vietnam, and is usually never vegan-friendly, as it is made with a beef broth. Karma Waters’ version of pho has mushrooms, bean sprouts, rice noodles, tofu, gluten ham, and a variety of flavourful spices which make the delicious broth. I thoroughly enjoyed making and eating this dish.

Banana Pancakes

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These banana pancakes are served as a dessert in Karma Waters’ restaurants, and are made using only 4 ingredients. Annie showed me how to do it in blender, which is something easy I could definitely make at home. We enjoyed these delicious little pancakes with a homemade ginger syrup.

Volunteering

Whilst spending time at their restaurant, I had a chance to learn about all the charitable things that Karma Waters does. They have a giant donation box in the restaurant, where diners can ‘pay it forward’ and purchase a meal for a needy person who stops into the restaurant in the future. I learned that the restaurants gives discounts to students and the needy on a regular basis. Annie told me that they regularly visit homeless shelters throughout the month to cook delicious vegan food for all the people there. In addition, they provide food, clothing, and learning materials for ethnic minority groups as well as pay medical bills for the sick who can’t afford to pay.

Annie suggested that I come along and volunteer at the homeless shelter a few days later, so I happily obliged. What an eye-opening experience it was! I learned quite early on that the government in Da Nang puts every homeless person on the street into one of their centres. Although it sounds like a great idea to help the homelessness problem, the living standard in these centres is not high. The rooms were crammed full of beds; there was very little for the residents to do in terms of leisure; and all of them were forced to wear blue uniforms.

It was clear that the residents came from all walks of life. Some had a disability; some were shunned from their families; some were elderly and had nowhere to go; and some were young single mothers whose husbands left them. It was clear, however, that they were happy we were there, and they were thrilled when we handed them out “red packets” (lucky money for the lunar new year).

We prepared a huge amount of curry soup, which took hours to prepare. I shredded mushrooms and chopped vegetables with the other volunteers and centre employees whilst sitting on the ground in the hot sun. Annie cooked everything over a sweltering hot cauldron. We served the soup with fresh bread in metal prison-style bowls and rang the bell for dinnertime. Some ate their soup really quickly and left. Some had multiple helpings and engaged in conversation. Some had a decent level of English and asked me some questions about myself.

Before we left, we visited the rooms of the elderly who had serious health problems. I was told by Annie that we wouldn’t be giving them any red packets because most of these residents were bedridden, dying, and had no use for the money. Some didn’t notice we were even there, and some held our hands for a long time, just happy to have a bit of warmth and care from another person. Annie revealed that many of these residents are extremely lonely, but really appreciate when Karma Waters comes to visit them.

Other Amazing Vietnamese Dishes You Should Try!

Vietnamese Fried Tofu with Tomato Sauce

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This dish is a Vietnamese staple and can be found in many places around Da Nang. The tofu is crispy and chewy, and the tomatoes are a great pairing. I particularly enjoyed eating this in Goom Cafe.

Cao Lầu

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This is a dish that’s native to the Hoi An area, traditionally made with pork, rice noodles, and local greens. I tried this at Quán Chay Thúy and it cost me only about $1.50 USD!

Bánh Xèo (Crispy Vietnamese Pancake)

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I’m so happy to have tried this at Grace’s place in Hong Kong, because I would have had a difficult time figuring out how to eat this on my own! This pancake is made from rice flour and turmeric, which is traditionally filled with a variety of toppings. You’re meant to roll pieces of the pancake into rice paper with leaves, and dip into the peanut sauce (kind of like a taco). Super crunchy and tasty (if a bit oily). I enjoyed this one at Whatelse Cafe.

Bánh Mì

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This is a popular Vietnamese sandwich traditionally made with meats and vegetables, served in a baguette, and often sold as street food. This is Karma Waters‘ version made with tofu and veggies.

Why You Need to Visit

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Although Da Nang was a city I didn’t really enjoy as a tourist, I’m so happy I got the chance to cook these amazing dishes and help the needy. Annie revealed that it’s really important to her and her family to share quality vegan dishes with needy. I can’t wait to come back to Vietnam and visit their restaurants, volunteer with them again, or book one of their vegan tours. This was really one of these moments that made me proud to be vegan! I would never had met such a wonderful family, had this amazing opportunity, or tried such delicious food if I hadn’t made the plant-based switch.

Check out Karma Waters’ amazing food and charity work at www.karmawaters.org

Click here to view some of their’ amazing recipes!

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