Posted by: sharemore1 | October 12, 2012

Top Chef: A Reality Show in Our Apartment

Moshe’s students set themselves a new challenge:  cooking lunch for 21 in three hours on a two-burner stove in our small apartment in Hanoi.  To appreciate the level of difficulty, remember that the students are aspiring mathematicians, not chefs.

It’s hard enough just to squeeze so many bodies into the 13 x 30 foot combined kitchen/living area of our apartment, much less try to cook there.  There is no counter, so the food prep was done on the small dining table, a desk and the floor.  The 16 cooks had to share our limited supply of cutting boards, knives and other utensils.

Working on the Floor

Divided into teams of four, the students chopped, sliced, diced and rolled.   They boiled and blanched and fried.  The apartment was soon filled with the smell of garlic, ginger, coconut, fish oil and frying chicken and beef.

Cooking Team

My team made a spicy, crisp green mango salad, slicing the fruit into impossibly thin strips (I know, I tried before they politely found me another job.)  The strips were mixed with coconut, ginger, bean sprouts, chilies, lemon, sugar and fish oil.  Our team also peeled and sliced young green bananas and cooked them with tofu, pork and four kinds of vegetables.  It is a cheap and tasty dish often eaten by poor people.

Work of Art

Another  team made banana cakes by mixing ripe bananas, coconut, sugar and condensed milk, patting them flat and frying them to a crisp, golden brown.   One group made fresh spring rolls by wrapping greens, tomatoes, and thinly sliced beef in moistened rice paper.  For the meat lovers, there was fried chicken wings and beef noodle soup.

The dessert was a shimmering gelatin dish, milky on top with a clear layer on the bottom, filled with juicy chunks of mango and pear.   Instead of starting with a box of prepared Jello, the students used agar agar powder to make a vegan jelling agent.   Since it had to set for a few hours, this dish was made in advance.

There were no crabby cooks.  Everyone worked with patience and good humor, even when we ran out of gas before the last team was finished cooking.   The concierge found a man to deliver a new bottle on his motorbike on a Sunday afternoon.

The dishes weren’t finished until they were properly adorned.  It was a joy to watch the artistry as the young cooks carved roses out of tomato peel, lilies out of hot red peppers, leaves out of cucumbers and stars out of carrots.

Ready for the Judges

Finally the dishes were displayed on the coffee table, each one competing for the judges’ eyes and taste buds.    There were four judges:  Moshe, a fellow faculty member Dung, and a Dutch mathematician and his wife who were visiting from Singapore.   The students watched carefully as the judges sampled the food.  If cooking the meal had been a challenge, choosing a winner was equally difficult.

All Eyes on the Judge

Unable to reach a consensus, the judges threw up their hands and suggested choosing the winner by pulling a number out of a hat.   The chefs rebelled.  They  wanted to be judged on merit.  Finally, and most reluctantly, the judges awarded first prize to the group that made the fried chicken, fresh vegetables, diced Asian pear and the dessert, in part because they had come up with the largest variety of excellent dishes.

Then we faced our next challenge.  Where would everybody sit?  We spread a tablecloth and plastic sheet on the floor, arranged the food in the middle and all squeezed in.  For the first time the room grew quiet as we reached out with our chopsticks and sampled one excellent dish after another.

Dining on the Floor

Once the food was gone, the students tidied up, washed the dishes and did what they always do at our house, played Qwirkle and cards.    They had begun arriving at 9:00 in the morning and the last ones left about 5:00, after a full day of food and fun.  If any of these students get bored with mathematics, they should seriously consider culinary school.

Time to Play


  1. Sharon, you sound like you’re having so much fun there and the best part is you are sharing that fun with others. What amazing mathematicians!

  2. Wish I was there.

  3. Being there was the greatest fun and one wonders, why do we hesitate to return next year?

  4. Sherry. you bring us into the action with your crisp and spicy writing. The photos are wonderful and also draw us readers in.

  5. So delicious to read about…I can hardly imagine how wonderful the tasting was! What a great activity! Laura

  6. what a great adventure – well told, and my taste buds were hyper-salivating (if taste buds do salivate)!!

  7. I am feeling like I was there, Sharon. it’s like you are giving us a live show from home

  8. Dear Sharon, it is always a delight t0 read your postings. How long will you be in Hanoi this time. I am going to Vietnam in early March for a wedding in or near Ho Chi Minh city. Though my mobility is less than the last time we were together, I would like to do some touting and visit you in Hanoi if you are there. If you are returning to Seattle before then, I would like to talk to you about my visit. with warmest regards, June

    Sent from my iPad

  9. My mouth is watering! Thanks for sharing – the pictures are wonderful. What rich experiences you are having.
    Shalom, Carol

  10. This is one of the most happiest moment in my life. I love you so much, Miss Sharon and Professor Moshe !

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: