Sunday 30th November, 2014
My roommate and co-pilot on the Vietnam Culinary Discovery tour arrived late last night from Sydney, but we are both looking forward to our first cooking class together at the Hanoi Cooking Centre.
We arrive early at the kitchen and meet four other fellow travellers who will be joining us for the morning over a welcome drink.
Our first activity is to visit a nearby local market where we start learning about the key ingredients used in Vietnamese cooking and to purchase what is required for our culinary session. We began by looking at the different types of rice at a small stall that looks as though it is also the neighbourhood general store, selling all manner of oils, sauces, condiments and eggs. I’ve been in lots of markets both at home and abroad but as we moved into the meat section, I was struck by the way the ladies were sitting bare-footed and cross-legged on top of the bench, patiently waiting for customers with their sharp cleavers casually lying right beside them.
Moving slowly through the market, our guide explains differing techniques for curing and processing pork meat and encourages us to try samples from a range of vendors. As we head towards the fresh seafood section, we rounded a corner and saw numerous frogs being skinned alive and gutted for sale. Frogs, also called “Paddyfield Chicken” by our local Travel Indochina guide, are plentiful in Vietnam and are considered to be a staple supplement in the Vietnamese diet but that was one protein that I was extremely eager to avoid.
Being a local market, there were people riding through the narrow pathways between stalls still seated on their motorcycles, almost like a drive-through arrangement! As we progressed through the market, we needed to be mindful of where we were walking, where we were going and who was coming up behind us.
Our education in herbs, fruits and vegetables continued as we toured through the rest of the market and bought all the ingredients we needed for the day’s lesson. So did we try any local specialities? Our host came across a stall selling silk worms for eating and explained how it was prepared, then asked if we wanted to try it back at the kitchen. To my surprise the group consensus was affirmative!
Back in the kitchen, we said goodbye to our first host and hello to our chef who would be guiding us through an exotic menu of Caramel Fish with Galangal, Lacy Spring Rolls with Crab, Prawn and Taro, Squid and Pomelo Salad and Rice Dumpling Steamed in Banana Leaf.
The first order of business was to watch our chef demonstrate the preparation of the marinade for the fish dish and then head back to our allotted stations and replicate the same procedure.
Our hosts obviously knew how Australians like to cook because as soon as we started preparing our food, orders for local Vietnamese wine and beer were being taken. I initially ordered a red wine after being told that it was quite good but unfortunately it was just the opposite. Thankfully for us, the beer and wine were free-flowing so I switched to white wine and was pleasantly surprised how good it was. Vang Dalat wine is produced in the south of Vietnam and has hints of lime and banana on the nose, and a dry, mineral, tropical fruit taste on the palate. A great tasting and refreshing wine, although I was also surprised to learn that it was actually made from common Red Flame seedless table grapes that we typically purchase from our supermarkets.
Once the fish was marinating in a mixture of fish sauce, finely sliced shallots and galangal, it was time to head back to the front bench and watch how to prepare the filling and rolling technique for the spring rolls.
With the spring rolls finished and set aside, our chef took a detour from the menu and began to fry the silk worms that had been purchased at the market. I don’t know whether it was the wine or safety in numbers, but I grabbed a set of chopsticks and tried one and … it didn’t taste like chicken but something akin to a mixture of crunchy peanut butter and seafood. I even went back and tried another one or three.
We finished off the preparation of the main course by browning the fish in a frying pan and adding the caramel sauce and chilli, before transferring everything into small claypots and baking in the oven for an additional ten minutes. While the fish was cooking, we started preparing the ingredients for next dish. Kylie, my tour companion and I made a fabulous team chopping, peeling and shredding all the components required to assemble our Squid and Pomelo salad.
With a glass of wine in hand, we were summoned back to the front bench where our chef explained how the preparation of traditional dishes such as Bun Rieu Cua or Vietnamese Crab and Tomato Noodle Soup were often used as a test by future mother-in-laws for their son’s prospective brides. After learning the secrets to making the best broth, we were each given a bowl to try and needless to say, it was absolutely delicious.
While consuming our soup, our chef gave us a bit of a break by demonstrating and preparing the Rice Dumpling dessert on behalf of the group, so that all that remained was to thank our hosts for a fabulous morning and head upstairs to the dining room and enjoy all the dishes that we had prepared for lunch… and a little bit more wine.
Disclaimer: All entries regarding the Vietnam Culinary Discovery tour within this blog reflect my own personal insights and experiences throughout my holiday and I was solely responsible for meeting all travel expenses incurred.