Sinh To, the Smoothie

There was one bright candle in the dark night of the gastronomic Bad Old Days before the mid 1990s. A little beacon of cool relief that you could count on finding at any given street corner or roadside rest any time of day or night. It was the most beguiling combination of Vietnamese artifice and natural goodness: the fruit smoothie, known here as sinh to. Now I’m not talking about the smoothies you get in the States in some coffee-cum-juice bar or amusement park snack shack. I’m talking subtlety and sensuality; sensitivity to the nuances of taste, texture and temperature. I’m talking something that, in my humble opinion, can only be produced by the sinh to meisters of Vietnam.

The process begins with a 20 cm (8 in) block of crystal clear ice that has been cooled to only a few degrees below freezing, unlike industrial strength ice that is brought to well below freezing and so is harder and lasts longer. This block of ‘warm’ ice is set into the maw of a Rube Goldberg looking machine whose appearance calls to mind a damaged wrought iron sewing machine. A hand-driven crank rotates the virgin ice against evil-looking steel blades that reduce it to the perfect imitation of new fallen snow. Now, into an electric blender, the fruit: the nearly blood red flesh of papaya, or golden chunks of fresh pineapple dripping with its juice, or impossibly sweet bananas, or perfumed mango, or all of them together with maybe a mint leaf. Then a measure of sweet condensed milk from a little can punctured with a knife, and a squeeze of lime juice. Whirl it all together with the freshly made snow until it makes a happy gurgling sound, then stop and no more. Not in the mood for a sweetie? Then what about avocado? Or tomato? Or both together with a dash of salt and a bite of green chilli, garnished with coriander. Or be bold and have durian!

Sinh to stands were everywhere during the rebirth of entrepreneurship in Vietnam. It was an easy and cheap way to get a start. The venerable Kim Cafe, magnet to backpackers, began as a sinh to stand at the corner of De Tham and Pham Ngu Lao, diagonally across the street from its present location. Like any of its innumerable cousins, it was just a Rube Goldberg machine, a blender, and a few low chairs in the shade of the eaves of what was the operator’s home. Neighbourhood kids played hopscotch on the sidewalk as you sipped a cherimoya–pineapple–watermelon–strawberry–and custard apple sinh to in cool defiance of the mad-dog, noon-day sun. If they didn’t have the fruit you wanted you could bring your own and they’d make it for you at half price. Have a bottle of tequila in your bag? Add a nip, and give them a taste, too. Bliss in the Bad Old Days.

But then it almost disappeared! Why? For the most part, it was run out of town by Coke, Pepsi, Heineken, Lipton and Johnny Walker. These might be the Good Old Days, but the new prosperity has left everyone aching for imports. For nouveau riche Vietnam, these are status symbols. It says, ‘I’m making it’ to drink Pepsi and foreign beer and scotch, even if they’re all mixed together in the same glass.

Of course it goes beyond things to drink. The smart set is even eating frozen TV dinners. Colonel Sanders hit the beaches long ago and, unlike the US Marine Corps, he is there to stay. PHD bikes roam the city. Lotteria, Jollie Bee and Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf are everywhere. Micky D and Starbuck’s can’t be far behind.

But don’t despair. The sinh to has been coming back home again. I see it on the side streets as I “walk my beat.” Two or three sellers have taken up station on Bui Vien, though generally I don’t see it in tourist areas. But where Vietnamese office workers and school kids pass by, there you’ll find sinh to. Brillat-Savarin said, ‘Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are.’ It is we of the West that are Coke, Lipton and Mr Walker. The Vietnamese have just been playing dress-ups with their new money. But they are putting their own clothes on again. They cannot shun nor forget the better foreign influences. They’ve kept French bread and wine. They’ve kept Japanese noodles. They’ll keep this and that over time. But the Vietnamese sense of identity will always reassert itself. The people will never forget who they are. They will never forget the taste of Vietnam. So be of good cheer. The sinh to did not die. It was just sleeping.

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