Saturday 6th December, 2014
A week has almost passed since our first cooking class in Hanoi, and this morning Kylie and I are excited to be able to experience our second class at the famed Ms Vy’s cooking school in Hoi An.
Our “Holiday Masterclass” is scheduled to start at 8.30am so we arrive early at the Market Restaurant and Cooking School and are treated to a special welcome drink before our class begins. I’ve been on culinary tours where you get a shopping list or bag to take to the market, however things got a little serious when we were each given a Vietnamese-style straw conical hat to wear as part of the market tour. On the short walk to the dock, a few local residents and fellow tourists were having a few laughs at our expense. When in Hoi An, I guess …
The tour starts with a short boat trip along the Thu Bon River to the Hoi An’s Central Market near the Old Quarter. Once at the market, our guide leads us to a small stall situated on the outskirts of the main building. Here our guide starts to teach us about the key elements of Vietnamese cuisine, as samples of differing spices and herbs are passed around the group for tasting. I’ve always been intrigued as to how chives and spring onions are expertly shredded and used as decoration for a number of Asian dishes, and within a matter of seconds the stall holder “splits” the morning glory herb using a kitchen tool called a “splitter”. She then used a stainless steel conical tool to demonstrate how to peel a carrot which is then fashioned into a decorative flower. As soon as I saw these utensils, I knew I just had to have them for my own kitchen, all for the bargain price of 90,000 VND ($5 AUD).
After the demonstration, we then head into the meat section of the market to look at the fresh produce, then past the noodles, towards the fish market and through more fresh fruit and vegetable stalls. The market was relatively quiet for a Saturday as it is a full moon day, which requires practising Buddhists to fast and make particular food offerings. On the way back towards the boat, our last stop is at a fruit stall to try fresh rambutan and other tropical fruit native to the area.
We arrive back to the Market Restaurant via the same route, return our conical hats and freshen up with a another cold drink. At this point, I thought we would be heading upstairs to commence our cooking lesson however our hostess asks us to follow her towards a stall inside the restaurant hall where we commence a special informative food tour which takes us on a unique tasting journey right around the entire perimeter of the ground floor, coupled with live cooking demonstrations. The Market Restaurant is quite a unique dining experience where popular street food and traditional Vietnamese cuisine is offered at different stations under one roof, resembling an upscale hawker style market or something akin to Sizzler, Hoi An style. The first stop is to watch rice paper being transformed into large crackers, where we take a sample and try some chilli paste that has just been prepared.
The next stage of our tasting journey takes us to the dumpling station where the group is shown how rice paper is made on a drum before someone is asked to volunteer and have a go themselves. Throughout the demonstration, a team of chefs are busily preparing a variety of different dumplings for the day’s trade and our group is invited to try the famous White Rose dumpling with a special fish sauce and other freshly cooked varieties of dumplings.
We continue onto the next station where chefs are making thick noodles from wet sheets of rice flour, effortlessly cutting the sticky dough into perfectly formed pieces. From the next stall, beef and betel leaves are being grilled over hot coals with the smoky aroma wafting towards us. Thankfully there are hot samples waiting for us to try when we arrive at the station. The next station is cooking baby crispy pancakes (Bánh căn) in hot oil where we are offered another sample in small dishes for tasting.
Continuing around the market we learn about how rice was traditionally ground in a stone mill to create rice flour before watching rice vermicelli being created through an industrial looking machine. At the next station, a woman is finely shredding green mango on a homemade wooden mandoline slicer before progressing across the stall to use a special kitchen tool to slice banana flower into edible pieces. With two-thirds of the market covered, we arrive at the dessert station to try candied coconut and ginger pieces as well as a delicious sample of steamed coconut pudding.
But wait … there’s more. We then sampled cooked pieces of root vegetables used in Vietnamese cooking before moving towards the next station, which resembled both a small delicatessen and bakery, housing baskets of fresh baguettes which could only mean that we were about to learn about Banh Mi. With slices of cured pork meat, fresh herbs, pickled vegetables shown around the group, the attendant at the stall made fresh Banh Mi for everyone to sample and enjoy.
The last station of the food tour was a selection of traditional fare or Vietnamese worker’s cuisine. From steamed pots of pig’s brain to stir fried frogs, we were all encouraged to taste samples but unfortunately I seemed to be quite full from all the other tastings.
Now it was time to head upstairs, freshen up and prepare ourselves for the day’s cooking class. Kylie and I found a seat towards the front of the room and met our instructor, Lulu, who would be teaching us four Vietnamese dishes over the next couple of hours. Our individual cooking stations were rather unique with a large banana leaf doubling as a chopping board and all the condiments and utensils prepared and ready for our first dish which was a soup, Cabbage leaf parcels with shrimp mousse in broth.
We sat and watched Lulu demonstrate the preparation of the shrimp mousse, all the while listening to her funny insights on cooking for her in-laws and anecdotes from married life. It seems like most soups in Vietnamese cuisine are used as some sort of marriage-suitability test.
Once the shrimp mousse was prepared for the class, we started to prepare our soup broth by first gently poaching a couple of quenelles of prawn mixture. Once cooked, it was time to prepare the parcels using the steamed cabbage leaves at our station and the blanched spring onion to tie it all together. The parcels and vegetables simmered on the gas stove for a few more minutes and very shortly, we had created a very elegant and tasty dish worthy of any future mother-in-law’s palate. We were able to enjoy the soup immediately as our station was being cleaned and prepared for the next dish by our kitchen fairies.
The next order of business was to prepare the ingredients to create a marinade for our BBQ chicken and lime leaves dish.
It all seemed to be as relatively simple as throwing in the required quantity of ingredients into the bowl, mixing it all together with the plastic gloves provided, threading the chicken onto wooden skewers and watching it being whisked away and cooked for our enjoyment later.
The next dish, the classic Banh xeo, was a little more complicated to prepare with Lulu demonstrating how to prepare the batter mixture at the front of the class room before we lit up the gas burners again to create our crepes and fillings. It was fun to dispense with the traditional kitchen utensils and cook only with a set of wooden chopsticks. The tricky bit was turning the crepe over in the hot oil in order to create the half-moon shape, and then having to roll up the Banh xeo on a sheet of soft rice paper, but somehow all the effort paid off. Like most food, Banh xeo is best consumed when hot so as soon as we finished cooking and taking our obligatory photos, it was time to eat again.
The last dish of the day was to make a Mango and prawn salad, to accompany our BBQ chicken for lunch. Lulu demonstrated how to use the Vietnamese vegetable peeler to first peel the green mango, and then using a knife to make lots of deep cuts into the mango, the peeler was then used again to create the thin julienned shards of mango to be used in the salad. It took a little bit of getting used to actually holding the mango in one hand and being familiar with the odd shaped peeler, but eventually I got there and was quite pleased with the mound of chopped fruit I had created for my salad.
Two hours seemed to fly by and suddenly our class was finished and it was time to head back down stairs to the market dining area and eat our BBQ chicken and salad. But before we left, Lulu gave everyone an envelope containing the recipe sheets and our very own Vietnamese peeler to take home as a gift.
We enjoyed our lunch immensely, accompanied by hot green tea, ice-cream and candied ginger and coconut to finish.
Feeling extremely full, we had to head back to our tailor for our second fitting for the items that we had ordered the previous day. I think I was a little thankful that I was trying on a couple tops and not pants! While my tops were starting to take shape, there was still some more work to be done and another fitting was scheduled later in the evening.
The rest of the day was free for Kylie and I to do some shopping and enjoy the walking around the Old Quarter without our guide, and even to put our feet up and enjoy a Vietnamese coffee break. Ms Vy seems to have a monopoly of culinary enterprises in Hoi An, including a contemporary European-style café and patisserie called the “Cargo Club” which we decided to stop at and watch the world go by.
Much later that evening we regroup with our local guide and have our final fitting before heading out for happy hour and dinner. There are some fabulous restaurants in Hoi An with many of my friends recommending their favourite places to eat. I was hoping to try “Mango Rooms”, however Huy was quite insistent that we should try Mango Room’s sister restaurant, “Mango Mango”. Having experienced many facets of cuisine during our trip, I was looking forward to trying Vietnamese fusion cuisine.
Just as we arrived, owner and chef Duc Tram was just leaving to head towards his Mango Rooms restaurant across the river in the Old Quarter. Kylie and I were hoping that we would get the opportunity to watch Duc in the kitchen and ask about the inspiration for the Vietnam-Latin American-Japanese inspired menu, however he didn’t return to Mango Rooms for the evening.
Instead we went upstairs onto the balcony and were entertained by a few boys street performing outside in the rain over a few cocktails. The restaurant has a distinctive ambience contributed by the dim lighting and red accessories and accents within the main dining areas. After a while we moved inside to order dinner, deciding to share the following: Glorious Morning (morning glory, basil and tomato topped wth marinated anchovy in olive oils and herbs with balsamic dressing); A Geisha Fish (tempura pieces of red snapper in Japanese-Vietnamese style and tossed with green pepper, garlic and sesame seeds); Buddha Boogies (seasonal vegetables sautéed with garlic and fresh herbs, served with grilled eggplant, feta cheese and tamarind sauce) and Daisy’s Farm (mixed green, watermelon, orange wedges and apples topped with grilled duck tenders in balsamic orange dressing).
To my mind, Mango Mango was extremely expensive and some of the dishes presented didn’t quite make the grade. The salad dish looked like it belonged at a family barbeque rather than at a restaurant table. The eggplant on the “Buddha Boogies” was not grilled but heavily smoked and burnt over a gas flame and the resulting flavour overwhelmed the rest of ingredients on the dish. The duck dish hit the mark on taste but failed on temperature and the fish wasn’t that memorable. In hindsight, it probably was a good thing that the chef had left the building.
Ignoring the rain, we walked back home for a good night’s sleep to prepare for our final culinary adventure in Hoi An.
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.