A Taste of Vietnam – Cooking School!
Eating will be one of the highlights of any visit to Vietnam. There is an incredible array of dishes on offer, and the flavours are fresh, healthy and full of taste. What better way to get a taste of Vietnam? Cooking school anyone?
Last week I got off my butt and made arrangements for a half day class with the Vietnamese Cookery Centre. I chose them because they were the first cooking school to open in Ho Chi Minh City in 1999, and I figured they must be doing something right if they’ve stayed in business for over 15 years. Their location is superb, and you can find them smack bang in the middle of the city, on the fourth floor of a lovely historic building. Real Estate is at such a premium this area is called the “Golden Triangle.” Surrounded by bright, new, shiny buildings, the apartment block, built originally for the city’s elite in the 1930’s, is a reminder of Saigon of old.
When we return home from a holiday, we have our pictures and sometimes our diaries to remind us of our time away. Unfortunately, we usually lose the clarity and intensity of those memories over time. For me, a cooking class in a foreign country is a way to engage all your senses, embedding memories of both time and place much more effectively than just reading a recipe book. You see the food as it transforms from raw ingredients to a plated feast. Your sense of touch is stimulated by the feel of the ingredients as you undertake the preparation process. You hear the experts as they instruct on the correct pronunciation of the food you are preparing. You smell the aromas as the ingredients combine and cook, and best of all… your taste buds are fully engaged as you sample the results of all your hard work. I’ve done a few cooking classes over the years, and just a waft of cumin takes me back to India, a hint of fresh coriander transports me to South East Asia, and the smell of BBQ lamb brings visions of Central Asia.Most western cities have Asian Supermarkets, or at least a specialty section in the supermarket so the ingredients are easy to find. But cooking from a recipe book is quite different to hands-on learning the techniques and understanding of why to prepare the food in a particular way.
You smell the aromas as the ingredients combine and cook, and best of all… your taste buds are fully engaged as you sample the results of all your hard work.
Vietnamese food is quite simple and made of fresh ingredients. What makes it so special for me is the combination of herbs, condiments and cooking techniques that add unique flavour and textures to the food.
So what better place to start the day than at the market and see where our ingredients come from? We met up with Ms Linh, our translator for the day and Mr Bao, our chef at Ben Thanh Market in the heart of District 1. It’s not as chaotic as some of the local markets, with wide alleys and well-presented stalls it makes it easy for a group discussion and instruction. I found Linh’s explanation of the various herbs especially informative. Many of the flavours and smells were familiar to me but the actual plants themselves were not. It was a real eye-opener to the mind-boggling diversity of what’s on offer.
After exploring the market for around an hour, we were whisked away to the school. As we entered the old building via an art gallery and stepped into an archaic elevator, I wondered what the school would look like. I was still conjuring up images of charcoal cooking fires and blackened old pots when we stepped out of the lift and into a large, bright, airy space; fully equipped with everything required to prepare our feast.
One thing I really loved about the day was the attention paid to the clients themselves. I had enquired at the market how Pomelos were prepared for eating. They are the largest of the citrus family and resemble avery large pink grapefruit. The pith is as tough as nails and needs to be thoroughly removed before the juicy fruit can be fully enjoyed. It’s one of my favourite snacks here, but even after loads of practice I still manage to reduce it to a million pieces each time I try. It doesn’t lessen the taste any, but it certainly doesn’t look as attractive, nor is it as easy to eat. To my delight, Mr Bao had purchased one at the market and set about showing me how the experts did it. I guess it helps to have a VERY sharp knife.
The attention to details continued throughout the whole day. All those pesky preparation tasks were taken care of to give us the best possible chance to concentrate on learning the cooking techniques themselves. Chilli, garlic, lemongrass and shallots were all carefully prepared beforehand and beautifully presented just like those cooking programs on TV. No need to waste time or risk a severed body part, and the critical ingredients had the perfect consistency for optimum flavour. Condiments were lined up and clearly labelled to ensure there was no confusion.
I was also extremely impressed with the level of hygiene. Clean, Clean, Clean!! We had a whole pot of measuring spoons for adding and tasting. You could use and discard knowing full well you didn’t have to do the dishes later. No sooner had you finished with a plate or utensil and it was whisked away, leaving your working space clean and uncluttered.
Mr Bao and Ms Linh, our translator, picked up very quickly that I wasn’t the most competent cook in the group. It was probably at the moment when I almost destroyed my chilli flower (step one of our cooking process!!). They kept a careful eye on me, and the other guests…appearing exactly at the right moment to assist. Instructions were very clear. Mr Bao is obviously a very talented chef, and Linh’s English was impeccable. Everyone received very personal attention that ensured all our finished products had the look; taste and texture intended.
The other thing I really enjoyed was the timing of the course. The whole morning was unrushed. There was plenty of time to ask questions, enjoy the food and chat with the other participants. The overall experience was a relaxing lunch with friends.
The food itself was an excellent combination of different tastes and textures, and there was plenty of it. For starters we had Banana Flower Salad with Pork and Shrimp; then followed up with Vietnamese Crepes with Pork and Shrimps (Banh xeo tom thit), Sauteed Chicken with chili and Lemongrass (Ga xao sa ot), Steamed Rice with Coconut Juice (com hap muoc dua) and Sweet Green bean Soup and Seaweed (Che dau xanh pho tai). There is a different menu each day so if you want to expand your range, there’s no reason you couldn’t turn up two or three days in a row.
The working space is perfect for up to 37 participants. Fabulous high ceilings make it bright, light and airy. Tropical plants grace the balcony giving a leafy perspective on the surrounding city,while the large glass doors keep the heat and humidity outside and the air-conditioning in.
Totally stuffed full of delicious food and feeling pretty chuffed with our efforts, we still had one pleasant surprise at the end of the day. Each of us was called up and presentated with a certificate of achievement and a small gift. Our bag of goodies included a recipe book and reference materials on common ingredients in Vietnamese cooking. It was a lovely touch.
As a result of the course, I have a new appreciation for the tastes of Vietnam. I’m lucky that I can eat these tasty morsels anytime I like as they are widely available all over Saigon. However, when I finally leave here, I think I’d feel confident enough to source the ingredients and prepare these dishes myself now.
Overall, I would definitely recommend the course. It’s excellent value at $39 USD, considering you get a market visit, cooking instruction and a five-course meal for less than a decent lunch back home. And it’s all done in a safe, clean, comfortable environment under the watchful eye of a friendly, well-trained team. The Vietnamese Cookery Centre also runs courses for professional chefs, team building, VIP’s and extended courses for residents of Ho Chi Minh City.[mapsmarker marker=”40″]
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