My favourite thing about travelling, other than escaping the bitter cold and torrential rain that constitutes a ‘British Summer’, is experiencing a new culture’s customs and traditions. And, of course, this means every culinary delight they have to offer. During my recent trip to Vietnam I felt consuming copious amounts of traditional fare wasn’t quite enough, so my sister and I headed to The Vietnam Cookery Centre to learn how to make some of the dishes ourselves.
Our morning started early with a trip to Ben Thanh Market where our extremely cute translator and chef met us and introduced us to a multitude of asian produce, some delicious and some, well lets just say they can stay in Asia. What surprised me the most was the sheer amount of fruit and vegetables I had never heard of.
From delicious Mangosteens, Rambutans, Longans and Custard Apples to possible the most disgusting thing I have ever eaten- the Durian. The Durian is known in Vietnam as ‘the king of fruits’, it resembles a GIANT green conker, it both tastes and smells revolting. The smell is indescribable, I even googled around to see other people’s reactions, and found the following sign in singapore. The Durian is definitely an acquired taste, and smell, one I hope never to acquire myself.
Whilst exploring the market we came across many ingredients which would later use in our meal. We were taken down the meat and fish aisles of the market by Miss Chi (our guide/translator) and the chef. The Vietnamese have no qualms over health, safety and sometimes hygiene (to the western standard at least) so we were treated to sights of buckets full of fish heads and old ladies wielding machetes to chop just about any part of an animal into small chunks.
A short taxi ride (all included in the price of the day, a very reasonable $50) brought us to The Vietnamese Cookery Centre, a third floor building with a beautiful view of the gardens outside of the VinCom Building. We began to prepare our first course, with the guidance of Miss Chi the translator and the Chef who spoke very little English and seemed very bemused with our birmingham accents. The first course was a Banana Flower Salad with Pork and Shrimp served with Shrimp Crackers and a dipping sauce. My first experience of vietnamese cookery was the marinade for the salad, which showed me one thing, VIETNAMESE PEOPLE LOVE SUGAR.There seemed to be sugar in every aspect of the meal, the dipping sauce alone contained 2 tablespoons of the stuff. Along with plenty of fish sauce, a staple in the vietnamese diet. The banana flower was shredded in the salad we made, however it starts off resembling a husk of corn, but inside is layer upon layer which when sliced resembles a pinkish, red onion. The chef also taught us how to make a chilli flower decoration, so simple but looked beautiful on the salad. The salad was easy to assemble due to the excellent preparation and professionalism of The Vietnamese Cookery Centre. Not only were there surroundings beautiful, but their guidance and preparation for classes was exceptional!
Despite being pretty full from the first course, we proceeded with the cooking of the second, which constituted two seperate dishes- a traditional vietnamese pancake and a chicken dish served with deliciously sticky coconut rice. Bahn Xeo is a dish distinctive to the south of Vietnam and was definitely my favourite dish of the entire trip. The pancake is intended to be eaten by ripping off small pieces, wrapping them in various leaves and basil then dipping into an accompanying dipping sauce. The combination of the crispy pancake and the fresh, crunchy leaves offset by the hit of chilli from the dipping sauce is utterly divine. We made our Banh Xeo with pork and shrimp, inside there was also mung beans and bean sprouts. The technique for cooking the pancake was one I have never come across before. To ensure it crisps up sufficiently, oil is placed in the pan as normal, but once the pancake begins to form one side of the pancake is lifted up and more oil is poured down, this bubbles underneath creating an almost deep-fried effect, the excess oil is then drained off to ensure it retains it’s beautiful golden crispness. The pancake is flavoured with turmeric which gives it a deep golden colour and is served with a dipping sauce (sugar and fish sauce contained within, of course). The second part of our second course (which sounds extremely decadent!) was Sautéed Chicken with Chilli and Lemongrass, two fundamental ingredients of the vietnamese tradition. This was served with rice cooked in coconut water, which had such a delicate taste and provided a soothing accompaniment to the reasonable heat of the chilli.
In Vietnam rice is the symbol of life, it is known as the pearl of God and is the basis of most meals. Miss Chi told us that a child who does not finish their bowl of rice will always be hungry in their next life, a great excuse for us to eat as much as we possibly could!
The final course was a sweet green bean soup and seaweed, which sounds pretty horrible if I’m honest, but was quite the opposite. It was a sweet milky soup with green beans and seaweed that were so sweet they tasted almost candied. Overall it was the perfect end to the meal as it wasn’t too heavy, something you definitely don’t need after three courses.
My Vietnamese cooking experience was throughly enjoyable, The Vietnam Cookery Centre were excellent hosts and their course is ridiculously good value, I would recommend it to anyone visiting Ho Chi Minh as a great way to learn more about the food and culture of the country and enjoy an amazing meal.
For recipes and information on the classes see their website at http://www.vietnamese-cooking-class-saigon.com/
Here’s a few miscellaneous snaps from my day…