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Blog:Mar, 2016

Enjoying a taste of South-East Asia: Vietnamese Bánh Mì Sandwiches and Milo

A food stall presented at the Waseda school festival by participants in the Vietnam/Malaysia study tour
+ a visit from the current Minister of Education




Name: Takato Kitazawa
Nationality
:
Japanese
Enrollment year and status at Waseda University:
1st year, School of Commerce


Our inspiration for setting up this food stall was our participation in a study tour of Vietnam and Malaysia over the golden week holiday. This food stall was created for the 2015 Waseda school festival by participants in the “Introduction to International Education” program offered by the Center for International Education (CIE). I would like write a little bit about the experience of running our food stall as well as all the preparations that led up to it.

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A visit from Minister of Education Hiroshi Hase; author appears on the far right

The “Introduction to International Education” program is a short-term study abroad program held over “golden week” in May which lets 1st year students gain experience overseas in either Vietnam or Malaysia. I was part of the group which went to Vietnam. Students participating in the program are able to join in a wide variety of activities at either Vietnam National University, Hanoi or at the University of Malaya, both of which are partner schools of Waseda University. This new study abroad program was formally launched in 2014.  In terms of activities offered, participants are able to conduct international exchange with local students; give presentations to introduce Waseda University; experience a homestay with a local family; visit world heritage sites and a branch office of a Japanese company; and conduct field research on a special study topic. The topic that all participants were assigned to research was the concept of “Diversity.” Although the actual study tour was held over golden week, classes related to this program were conducted all the way from April until early June, at which time we gave our final presentation on “Diversity”.

Outside of the occasional meetings during class, the Malaysia group and the Vietnam group had very little contact with each other, and we felt that finishing the program without getting to know each other better would be a shame. This was our initial motivation for participating in the school festival as a single group. Thanks to our plan, and by meeting regularly for meals together, participants from both groups were able to overcome initial barriers, create new relationships and even become fast friends in the process.

Even after the decision to participate in the school festival was made, we would have been stopped dead in our tracks had we not passed the lottery selection process for permission to participate in the festival. If luck hadn’t been with us that day, I wouldn’t be here writing this article; so I feel extremely fortunate to have been selected. When the results of the lottery were announced in early August we found out that we would be able to participate in the school festival after all. However, what followed was a difficult period during which people were largely unable to meet; and even when we did gather, specific ideas and suggestions were not forthcoming.  Even after we decided on a menu for our food stand, the details of which ingredients to use and how to prepare and package our food proved to be elusive. It took an enormous amount of effort from all members involved to nail down these details. 

We decided on a menu of Vietnamese “bánh mì” sandwiches and “Milo”, a drink that is very popular in Malaysia. However, even after deciding on our menu, many difficulties still lay in wait for us. For starters, we realized that there were various restrictions on the kinds of ingredients and tools we could use. For example, knives could not be used within the food stall and any cooking of ingredients prior to the festival would not be allowed.  Among the ingredients we wanted to include in our sandwich were many that would not be possible without some kind of prior preparation.  In addition, several of the ingredients that we wanted to use had been included on the official “banned ingredients” list, so for a long time we had no idea how we would be able to make our sandwiches.  However, through the introduction of a CIE staff member, we got some very good advice from Yumiko Adachi, who runs a Vietnamese restaurant called “Yatai shokudo Mãimãi”. Thanks to her, we were able to get some huge hints as to how to prepare authentic bánh mì with a minimum of preparation and without resorting to prior preparation. It is clear now that without her help, we never would have cleared that hurdle toward creating our food stand, so I would like to express my heartfelt thanks to her.
 
We also ran into problems with the making of “Milo”, which was to be the drink portion of our menu. Milo is normally made by dissolving a flavored powder into milk; however milk had also been listed as a “prohibited food.” However, through extensive trial and error we were able to discover a way to prepare Milo without using fresh milk. In the end, thanks to everyone’s help and effort, we were able to sell “Milo” at the school festival after all. Personally, I feel that it was our member’s love of contemporary Malaysian culture that gave us the inspiration and determination to introduce Milo at the school festival. 
 

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Making bánh mì sandwiches

In the run-up to the festival, we conducted many tastings of bánh mì and Milo, but none of these results felt like something we could offer to paying customers. The only time we felt really started to feel satisfied with our product was on the day of the festival itself. The actual running of the food stand during the festival was entrusted to a core group of 15 members. Though we were all 1st year students largely lacking in practical experience, we set to work preparing for our grand opening.
 The first day of the festival, we were honored to welcome the current minister of education who, having only recently returned from France, graciously found a spare moment in his busy schedule in which to pay us a visit, order a bánh mì sandwich and even pose for some photos. It was a wonderful surprise and an honor, and we were very grateful for his patronage.

On Saturday (the first day of the festival), we were quite surprised at the sheer number of customers who came to our shop. In fact, we were able to sell out all of our 300 sandwiches three hours before the official closing time. We may have even been the very first food stand to sell out that day. Because of this overwhelmingly positive response, for the second day we decided to increase the number of sandwiches on hand to 500. However, as the forecast for the second day predicted rain, we knew that such an increase would be risky. The next day, as we headed towards the festival, we saw that it would indeed be a rainy day, and we assumed that there would be a sharp decrease in foot traffic as a result. However, upon arriving, the state of congestion on campus revealed that there were even more visitors than on the previous day! As a result, there was hardly a moment for us to even catch our breath during the second day; but in spite of this we all enjoyed the work and were smiling the whole time. During the initial planning sessions held in the beginning of summer break, it didn’t seem possible that we would be able to coordinate such a large group and successfully pull off such a project in 3 short months. However, during the preparatory phases as well as during the main event itself, I began to feel a real sense of group unity. I think everyone’s sense of determination and desire for success help to cohere us into a single group.
 

バインミー.jpg

A “bánh mì” sandwich. In addition to the baguette, there are many different ingredients that can be included in “bánh mì”, but the version that we sold at the school festival included: pickled radish and carrots, meatballs, cilantro and shiso leaf. The pickled vegetables gave our version of bánh mì a very fresh taste.

As none of our members had previously participated in Waseda’s school festival, inevitably there were a few mistakes and oversights. One of these was that we ran out of ingredients and sauce more quickly than we anticipated and had to scramble to find a solution. Looking back, I realize now how important it is to think ahead and plan for potential emergencies such as this. However, thanks to the resourcefulness and teamwork of our members, as well as the generous support of the same CIE staff who had arranged our study abroad experience in the first place, we were able to deal with these various problems as they arose.

On the other hand, despite our lack of experience, our price structure and anticipation of our customer’s needs proved to be right on the money. During the festival, our customers ranged from senior citizens down to current high school students who were deciding whether or not to apply to Waseda in the future. We assumed that most of the people coming to the festival were planning to visit a number of different food stalls and would not want to fill up their stomachs right away. Accordingly, we decided to decrease both the portion size and the price of our menu to meet this demand: we settled on a price of \200 per sandwich, a cheaper price than that of many other food stalls at the festival. There were some members who argued that we should be charging a higher price for our food, but in the end, we decided that rather than the pursuit of profits, our foremost goal would be to share the food culture of Vietnam and Malaysia in a way that meshed with the particular needs of our customers. I felt that our success in selling out our stock on both days and attracting a large number of customers managed to convince everyone of the correctness of this strategy. While sitting in French class the day after the festival, a classmate told me that our bánh mì had been one of the most popular stalls at the festival. Hearing that, I realized for the first time that we had been able to satisfy all of our customers, current students included. 

The original goal of our food stall had been simply to foster friendships between the students in the Vietnamese group and those in the Malaysian group. However, looking back on the experience, I think that rather than making friends between the two groups, our true objective was to introduce Veitnamese and Malaysian culture (in the form of “bánh mì” sandwiches and the popular Milo chocolate drink) to as many people as possible. For a group of 1st years not even listed as an official student group to have such success at the school festival is an unusual experience to say the least. I think this experience was able to give each of our members a great deal of confidence and will serve as a touchstone in their future endeavors. In closing, I would like to express my thanks to everyone who supported us in the planning and execution of this project, to all the customers who visited and supported us during the festival, and finally to all my fellow participants in the “International Education Program”.
 

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Celebrating our Sold-out Success!



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