One of my favourite experiences during my trip to Vietnam in November was a cooking class Marco and I took in Hoi An. I had planned to take one before we even left, and after I had actually fallen in love with Vietnamese food on first bite, I was even more eager to learn more about it.
There are lots on offer, but I decided to book us a place with Green Bamboo Cooking School, which is run by the lovely Van. Best decision ever. We were lucky to get the last two places on the day we had set aside for doing it on short notice. Before you read on and look at the pictures, just let me say that there are some of raw meat, animal parts and dead fish, just in case you'd rather not look at that, okay?
Van and her driver picked up us and the other 6 members of the class up at our respective hotels early in the morning The first thing we did was drive to the local market to shop for our food. Van kindly kitted us out with Vietnamese hats and shopping baskets for this.
Marco and I had strolled through the market before, but this was a completely different experience. Van knew many of the stall holders and chatted to us about all the different ingredients and got us to try some of the exotic fruit and veg that were on display. She also really took her time answering everybody's questions. This was great, as I am always curious about food, but with my
limited non-existent grasp of Vietnamese, I wouldn't have been able to find out so much about it.
These are mangosteens, which have a kind of fabled glory amongst foodies. Mangosteens are not available to buy in Europe. I once tried one at Granville Island Market in Vancouver and was so disappointed, but here in Vietnam, the mangosteen redeemed itself. It was the most luscious, sweet, refreshing taste. It just tasted so - fruity. A bit like a lychee, just better. I cannot really describe it.
Here's Van telling us about bitter melon. I had just ordered this for dinner the night before and had no idea what the veggie I was eating actually looked like, so I asked her to point one out to me. It is quite a delicacy to the Vietnamese palate, but tastes exactly like its name suggests.
One of the many reasons why I liked it so much in Vietnam was the fact that pajamas (or pajama-like outfits) seemed to be acceptable street wear!
All the butchers in the meat section where women. In fact, all the market stalls were female-run. They let you pick your cut and then prepared it for you with big cleavers on time-worn chopping boards. All the meat was displayed on table tops without cooling, but you could tell that it was really fresh. There were no smells and not one fly around. The vendors only bring what they know will sell in a day, so if you are late, you may not get what you're looking for.
One of the things Van got us to try were these glutinous rice sweets wrapped in palm leaves. They came in different colours and flavours. How's that for environmentally-friendly packaging?!
Waffles and all kinds of fish sauce.
The fish market was located right next to the Thu Bon river, with Hoi An not being very far from the river's mouth. So everything here was also really fresh, sometimes still breathing. If you want to buy a live crab, for example, somebody will wrangle it out of a bucket and tie it up for you, and it will be alive until you kill and eat it, if you want.
After we spent a few hours at the market, we went for a quick sit down and a Vietnamese coffee before Van bundled us all up ion the car again to drive us back to her house, were we'd be cooking in her own kitchen.
Before the class, Van emailed everybody and asked to pick the dish we wanted to learn from her extensive list of recipes. I chose to make cao lầu, which is a regional noodle dish and which I had eaten about 3 times during our time in Hoi An already, because it was so delicious. The noodles are only authentic when they are made in Hoi An water from a certain well in town apparently, that is how local this dish is. Marco chose stir-fried spicy squid.
We cooked away in Van's great kitchen, and the format she chose for her class means that you pick up a lot of tips and tricks about the other people's dishes, too. In addition to this, Van showed us how to make Vietnamese savoury pancakes and two different types of spring rolls. And we had unlimited access to her fridge for drinks, which helped, because it was a hot day and literally steaming in the kitchen.
When it was done, all the food was lovingly dished up by two helpers, who also kindly saw to it that all the dishes we used magically disappeared back into the cupboards clean.
While we were cooking, they had also set up a big banquet, where we then sat down to eat our efforts. It was such a nice atmosphere, and the small group really encouraged us to get to know each other.
My cao lầu.
If you are ever in Hoi An and want to learn how to cook Vietnamese food, I can thoroughly recommend Van's class. At $30.00 per person it was amazing value, and that was just when I thought that it included groceries and tuition. But Van also gave everybody a recipe folder, some industrial size cooking chopsticks and a julienne tool. And she is so knowledgeable and has just the right personality for teaching, patient and kind. Her enthusiasm about the food she was introducing us too was absolutely infectious.