Saigon Cooking Class by Hoa Tuc – Street Food Secrets!
Special OFFER. From 1st June to 30th November 2016, Saigon Cooking Class by Hoa Tuc is offering a substantial discount on both street food tours and cooking classes, to Ho Chi Minh City Highlights readers. You can find out more about this generous offer HERE. Not convinced? Read about my day out on their Street Food Secrets Tour below.
New kid in town…
The latest entry on the Saigon street food tour scene is from one of the best-known cooking schools around town, Saigon Cooking Class by Hoa Tuc. Their new street food tour combines the expertise of their head chef with the colour and vibrancy of local markets and street food eateries. Always looking for new great value entries for my tours page, I went along on one of their trial runs to see what they had on offer and provide some feedback on where the tour could be improved.
The tour includes pick-up and drop-off, and I was lucky enough to have Chef Hung himself as my driver. We had a good chat on the way to meet the rest of the group, and I was suitably impressed with his excellent grasp of English along with his driving skills. The others were gathered at the Vuon Chuoi Market (Cho Vuon Chuoi) on Nguyễn Đình Chiểu in District 3. I was joined by two young Americans living and studying in Ho Chi Minh City and a French, Viet Kieu blogger who was making a film. Ilda, the French owner of the school, and two other staff members, including Quyen, the assistant chef, also came along to lend expert advice and assistance.
Vuon Choi is one of the most exciting local markets around Saigon. The narrow entry belies the size of what lies inside, a maze of tiny laneways chock full of all the colours, sights and sounds of a busy Asian wet market.
Despite the fact that many guides tell you to go to markets first thing in the morning it can work against you regarding the friendliness of the stall owners. First thing in the morning, vendors want buyers, not gawkers. They believe the first interactions of the day set the tone for the day. To have people hanging around not spending money early on is considered unlucky, and you may find yourself shooed away. As we started wandering about at around 8.30, however, everyone was pretty relaxed about having their pictures taken, their goods fondled and people standing in the way of taking care of business.
Having Hung as our guide and Quyen there to assist was a real bonus. Anyone interested in Vietnamese cuisine and the myriad of ingredients involved will gain a tonne of knowledge from this part of the tour. While many are familiar, there’s also quite a few that are not. Subtle differences between what you can buy at home and what is available here can make a real difference to the finished recipe.
By now our tummies were starting to rumble. Our first street food delight was one of my favourites, Banh Khot. Wonderfully flavoursome, crispy little pancakes with shrimp that you wrap in various herbs and leaves and dip in a flavoursome fish sauce. Much to the amusement of the locals, we crowded around the Banh Khot vendor in a tiny lane and watched as she prepared our tasty treats straight off the grill. They were so fresh and piping hot, you couldn’t eat them for a full 5 minutes without taking a layer off the roof of your mouth. We then tucked into the deceptively simple but delicious, Bot Chien. Fried cubes of rice flour “topped with grated papaya” served with soy sauce. It may well become another new favourite.
Around each and every corner was a new experience. One of the local women was busy pounding out bananas, and double frying them in a batter to make them utterly delectable (but probably not that healthy!) banana fritters. The chef was clearly loving all the attention and insisted we all photograph and video her prowess.
After taking our time with the rest of the market, we jumped back on the bikes and headed into District 5 for a taste of Banh Cuon. These are scrummy rice pancakes filled with minced pork and wood ear mushrooms, accompanied by the local version of ham and sausage. I’ve had this delicious speciality several times before, and this one was right up there with the best. As well as the delicious food we were also able to get a good look at the preparation process. It must take years of practice to produce a thin, moist pancakes without holes using only steam, some muslin cloth and a well-worn stick.
Back on the bikes, we headed on a tour through District 5, cruising through the colourful flower market, past a beautiful Cao Dai Temple and briefly stopping at the “pet market”. District 5 is Saigon’s “China Town” and it’s one of the most character-filled parts of the city. I believe future tours will include a brief stop at the temple.
The next stage of the tour, a visit to one of the larger learning institutions in town was probably the highlight for me. As an English teacher, I see my students come in with all manner of strange looking and smelling snacks at break time. They’re obviously cheap as the kids have very little pocket money, and are super popular. You can find snack vendors close by most of the schools in Saigon. Where there’s demand, there’s always supply in this neck of the woods. But honestly, I’ve always been a little intimidated by the variety available and the crowds of youngsters crowded around. That’s a pity because I’m apparently missing out on a big part of Vietnamese eating culture. Anyway…no more. I now have a much better insight into what all those strange looking mixtures are and how to eat even more cheaply on a day to day basis.
Much to the students amusement, we proceeded to work our way through a long line of food vendors. A couple of favourites with the crowd were Banh Trang Tron and Banh Trang Cuon. The first is strips of rice paper mixed with what seemed to be a hundred different bits and pieces and, the second a similar concoction but rolled instead of shredded. Neither of them is going to become my favourite snack, but they’re probably a good bit healthier for the kids than a packet of potato chips or French fries.
It was almost as if the tour knew what my favourite Vietnamese foods were as our last stop was at a famous Bun Bo Hue Restaurant. A little similar to Pho, this rich, hearty beef noodle soup put the perfect finish on the day. We topped it off with Banh khoai mi (cassava cake) and com(Green rice cakes) for dessert. From the conversation around the table, the whole group had enjoyed themselves a lot.
As we ate, I gave Ilda my feedback on the morning. I thought it was an excellent tour. Even after being here six months and going on several food experiences, I still learned quite a bit. For newbies to town, it’s an excellent induction into both market life and street food. The culinary expertise of Hung and Quyen added to the learning experience, and the choice of foods gave a good selection of Vietnamese specialities. I thought the stop at the school was very worthwhile and an essential part of the tour. The pricing at $50 is reasonable for what you get and timing just about perfect as it frees you up for an afternoon’s exploring in other parts of town. I’ll be writing up some suggestions for that in my next few posts
Overall a big thumbs up to the guys at Saigon Cooking Class by Hoa Tuc for introducing another great street food tour experience to Ho Chi Minh City. Take a look at their website to see what else they have on offer. Cooking classes, Team building activities and a half day gourmet tour, are just a few of the great activities on offer.
DON’T FORGET. Saigon Cooking Class by Hoa Tuc is offering a substantial discount on both street food tours and cooking classes. You can find out more about this generous offer HERE.
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