It's not every day that I get the opportunity to chow down at a Vietnamese Buddhist Temple. However last weekend I had the pleasure of joining the members of Tu Vien Quan Am Buddhist Temple in Memphis for a food sale and dinner to raise money for the temple. The temple was started in 2002 by the venerable monk Thich Nguyen Tanh. The temple grounds maintain housing for monks, a meeting hall and several gardens where fruit and vegetables are grown. The temple serves members of the East Memphis Buddhist community and conducts services every Sunday.
The sale was held inside a meeting hall directly behind the temple. Outside of the hall, an elderly lady was selling bags of fresh vegetables grown on the temple grounds. Visitors pick up large handfuls of green leafy Chinese cabbage, bok choy and assorted vegetables. Once inside the hall, the smell of wok oil fills the air. The smell of onions sizzling begins to pierce my nose. The sound of English and Vietnamese filled my ears as crowds of men, women and children surrounded vendors tables.
It is then I see her. Sitting barefoot on a wooden stool and surrounded by cooking tools, a short Vietnamese lady begins to pour coconut milk into a heated wok. She then begins to add spoonfuls of bean sprouts, onions, tofu and various vegetables into the mix. Right at this moment, it's just me and her in this room. And I'm captivated by her wok.
As I peruse the various vendors I recognize numerous dishes and then run across some that I cannot identify. Hot pots of steaming soups, rice noodles and mystery vegetables, all for at very affordable prices. I walk up to one vendor who is serving a refreshing looking iced beverage in tall plastic cups. A sweet looking white liquid over cascades of ice cubes. My mind wanders to drinks like a sweet bubble tea or even a Thai style iced tea filled with cream and sugary goodness. I ask the lady behind the counter what is in the drinks. She smiles and tells me that is is made from beans. Suddenly I feel obliged to decline. Not so much a fan of beans, yet alone beans on the rocks.
As I watched two ladies stirring a large pot of a spicy soup broth, my eye would keep being drawn to a box of green colored pyramids called 'Banh Gio'. When I asked one of the vendors what it was, she explained to me that it was filled with bananas. I decided to try one of the interesting looking treats. Wrapped in banana leaf, banh gio is a Vietnamese snack food that is typically made of steamed rice dumpling and minced pork. Some cooks add additional ingredients such as onions, mushrooms, fish sauce and oyster sauce. These particular rice dumplings were slow steamed and filled with a creamy ball of banana which produced a sweet and starchy taste.
My next stop was a table filled with mysterious looking dishes in bright red and orange colors. I inquired with the lady behind the table as to what these mystery dishes were. " It's shrimp, shrimp and chicken dishes." I heard shrimp and that's all I needed to hear. I grabbed up one of the red colored dishes of shrimp. I glanced down at the plate and had to do a double take. Was there really a shrimp the size of a lobster on my plate? I plopped down my meager four dollars for the plate and ran to the closest table to indulge my senses.
I settled on a plate of my favorite Vietnamese dish besides Pho (and I did ask if anyone had any!) known as Ban Xeo. Ban Xeo is a French inspired crepe made from rice flour, coconut milk and green onions. It is typically filled with pork, shrimp and bean sprouts. It is then served with fresh lettuce, fresh mint and fresh cilantro. The finished product is then dipped into fish sauce. Big, messy and delicious. I also grabbed up one of the banh gio rice dumplings and my shrimp. The ban xeo was delicious while the rice dumpling was good but the banana inside was mediocre. The shrimp was this beautiful juicy behemoth of a dish. As I began to cut into the shrimp I noticed that it was actually stuffed. The inside of the shrimp was filled with a cornbread type stuffing. The marinade was a sweet and spicy sauce that tasted of hints of lemongrass, vinegar and tomato. I polished one of the four ginormous shrimp off and was getting full. I would later discover that the inside of the shrimp was filled with seasoned fried tofu. It was great and I am so not a tofu kind of guy!
The temple is beginning to offer the food sales very weekend after their Sunday morning service. Do yourself a favor and drop by for an authentic taste and experience of Vietnamese and Buddhist culture. Tu Vien Quan Am Buddhist Temple is located at 3500 Goodlet, Memphis Tennessee.