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VIETNAM: Women Get Equality – And Cooking Courses

Tran Dinh Thanh Lam

HO CHI MINH CITY, Jun 2 2005 (IPS) - Vietnamese men and women are now said to be equal in the workplace and society in general. But rising sales of cookbooks and female enrolment in cooking courses signal that feeding the family is still seen as women’s work.

“Cooking courses are the most favourite among the dozens offered by our centre,” says Nguyen Thi Be, director of a women’s club set up by the Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) Women’s Association.

Many unmarried girls believe “the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach” and thus put a lot of effort into mastering the culinary arts, Nguyen added.

My Hanh is one woman who believes in the saying. Her husband is proud of her abilities in the kitchen, and she has made a great effort over the years to gain that admiration.

She started learning to cook once she had decided to tie the knot with the man she loves. Now, two intensive courses – one for basic cooking and another for Vietnamese specialties – and hours over the hot stove have left her with a very contented husband and two children, which is the way it should be, according to Hanh.

“I still hold that a happy family has a clear division between the roles of the woman and the man”, she said. “I think cooking is like a job, but it’s also one of the ways a woman can show her affection for her family.”

But some demanding jobs leave women little time for cooking. Hoang Thi Minh, 29, who works at a foreign insurance company – a stable job that earns a decent income -always buy ready-made foods for her family in the hope of reducing the time she must spend on housework.

In today’s modern world, plenty of women are making their way in business and other careers; and their mirror images are those women who still count their happy family as their most prized achievement.

“Cooking is an art, so a successful housewife must be a great artist,” Hanh said.

It is certainly not as simple as buying a few goods at the market, taking them home and dropping them in the pot.

Twenty-year-old Minh Thu had a bad experience after not seeing cooking as an indispensable prerequisite.

Thu has just graduated from a university in the capital and now plans to get an advanced degree. She is from a one-child family, so her parents indulged her a fair bit: her mother figured she could manage the housework alone, allowing Thu to study, relax and go out.

On the first day that Thu visited her sweetheart’s family in the hope of showing off her culinary talents, her prospective mother-in-law asked her to prepare boiled meat for dinner.

The trick is to boil the meat whole, then cut it up afterwards. But the innocent girl cut the slab of meat into slices first and then boiled them. Instead of tasty, tender meat, the family was presented with a bland, leathery dish.

Everyone at the table collapsed with laughter, and Thu says she realised it was time to enrol in a cooking course.

Today young women from all lifestyles – workers, students, doctors, lawyers – frequent the cooking courses that have mushroomed all over HCMC. Those who cannot spare the time, work to improve their kitchen skills by reading cookbooks, watching cooking shows on TV or by viewing videotapes.

Tapes and books offering the secrets to tasty meals have invaded library shelves, while TV stations nationwide are offering cooking programs with famous chefs.

Talented chefs are so highly appreciated that Trieu Thi Trinh, author of dozens of cookbooks, has founded a secondary school, while Dzoan Man, who teaches cooking on TV, established a restaurant specialising in Vietnamese dishes.

The women’s club run by Nguyen Thi Be counts nearly 600 hundred young women taking part in cooking courses.

The three-per-week classes last three months and cost nearly 100 U.S. dollars. Each class has an average of 30 students, who learn to cook one or two dishes each session.

“I have started classes as part of my preparation for becoming a wife,” says Nguyen Thi Thuy, 20, who plans to marry next summer. “My mum tells me that cooking skills will keep my family healthy and happy.”

But there is more to cooking than just making food. The teachers also impart the tricks to creating an orderly and well-run kitchen. “Becoming a good cook could give me more confidence in other areas of life,” Thuy suggests.

She might be right, for oriental philosophy still considers diligence, beauty, courtesy and morality the principal female qualities, with enthusiastic housework and tasty cooking translating into diligence.

These may be modern times in Vietnam, but many men also still like their wives to exhibit some culinary dexterity. “I want to end up a day of work with a nice dinner taken with my family,” says Nguyen Quan, director of a private enterprise.

Like many businesspeople in Vietnam, Quan often combines work with eating, so a meal prepared by his wife is for him the most delicious.

For many young women, he represents the one person they have in mind when they start acquiring kitchen skills. “I want my husband to enjoy fresh and tasty dishes after a wording day,” says Hanh.

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