In determining our itinerary for Vietnam, one of the first things Ricky and I agreed hands down we had to do was a cooking class. Both of us are major foodies and as enthusiastic chef-ing it up in the kitchen as we are unenthusiastic about cleaning up after.
Being lower in cash than we’d anticipated, however, we weren’t sure if we’d be able to justify spending $40-50 a head for such a luxury – especially since everyone we knew had recommended we also do the Cu Chi Tunnels and tours for that were all around $30 (except for a suspiciously cheap ghetto looking one for $15).
And yet suddenly out of the plethora of Google results, there popped up HCM Cooking Class. A highbred combo of cooking class and Cu Chi Tunnel tour with an added visit to a local village and rubber tree forest and we were hooked. Although it was $69, the rave reviews on Trip Advisor swayed us and we bit the bullet. We figured if nothing else, then the cooking class would cover both breakfast and lunch and that alone would give us our money’s worth.
We slept through our alarms, though thankfully our apologetic tour guide arrived a bit too early to pick us up so we had ten minute’s notice to throw on underwear and shorts in the proper order before running out.
Once in the van, our guide was extremely talkative and amiable, asking all manner of questions about us and what we thought of Vietnam and enlightening us with different traditions in Vietnam (such as the yellow flowers for Lunar New Year symbolizing happiness). At first the introvert in me shied away from such early morning interaction, but her earnest and genuine demeanour made it impossible to feel uncomfortable for long.
Before we knew it we arrived at the cooking class – which also happened to be in the middle of an organic farm. Set beneath a high-ceilinged, open-air, thatched A-frame hut, we were greeted by the chef who would be guiding us through the menu.
He bid us sit down and chatted with us casually with an arm slung over the back of his chair. This farm and these classes were his pride and joy, his greatest pleasure, his heaven on Earth, he told us, and even though he owned two restaurants in Melbourne, Australia, it was this land in Vietnam that he used as his personal retreat.
“We don’t make any money here,” he confided. “All the money we make is just enough to get by.”
The locals apparently laughed at him for setting up an organic farm where tourists come to pick their own food from the ground. He chuckled and shook his head.
“I lived in Australia for thirteen years. I know what you want out of a cooking class like this.”
We vehemently agreed that he had hit the nail on the head. All around us was Eden. The morning was cool; birds swept through the rising humidity; sleepy palms draped their fronds along the edges of tilled plots sprouting all manner of low-lying greens or bright orange flowers or spiky herbs. Paddy hats hanging along rafters rasped against each other in the gentle breeze. The smell of turned earth mingled tantalizingly with mint and Thai basil. I can honestly say I’d not felt so content in as long as I could remember.
After a middle aged couple from Germany joined us, the chef began his tour of the garden.
First he demonstrated to us how to cultivate oyster mushrooms, which is done by filling plastic pouches full of rubber tree mulch and obscuring the sun so they can grow in the darkness. It was fascinating and though he made it sound simple, it was clear how much work is put into it.
After that we clipped, cut, and snipped various varieties of mint, basil, lemongrass, and some cucumbers for our dishes.
I got the honours of harvesting the green papaya from the tree which proceeded to bleed milky sap all over my other herbs and scissors.
We also saw a small pig pen where dozens of tiny grunting piglets. Thankfully for them, we didn’t have pork on the menu that day.
One of the awesome features of this class was the fact that we could choose our own menu. With much consideration, we deciding on the following:
Entrée: Special Vietnamese bread with BBQ chicken with chilli, lemongrass in special sauce (bánh mì thịt nướng)
Salad: Papaya salad with prawn (Goi Du Du)
Main course (soup): Famous beef noodle soup (Phở bò)
Dessert: BBQ banana with honey served with coconut milk (chuối nướng mật ong nước cốt dừa).
Despite our late sign-up, we must have still done it before the other couple because all our requests were the ones granted. We were quite lucky in that we were only four people – it was a comfortable and intimate feeling while still having the camaraderie of interacting with strangers. It was also lucky that they were open at all this day as it was their Lunar New Year’s Day – the equivalent in the Western world to be working Christmas Day. As such we were very grateful (especially since nothing else anywhere across Vietnam is open on this day and it filled out potentially otherwise wasted time nicely).
Perhaps the only downside of being both a small group and it being Lunar New Year’s Day meant that we couldn’t have beef pho as we’d originally wanted as they don’t needlessly slaughter animals. We had chicken pho and chicken banh mi instead, but no regrets were had.
After harvesting the ingredients, we gathered along the table already prepared with all the pots, knives, spoons, and sauces we’d need for cooking.
Although it was only to be eaten third out of our four course meal, we began with the pho ga so as to give the chicken bones and spices enough time to simmer. He taught us that restaurants in Vietnam always keep their broth recipes a secret and will tie the spices in an opaque cloth so as to preserve the mystery.
Next up was the banh mi. At the end of the day, it was hard to decide what was my favourite out of all the dishes, but I have to say this is the one that I still drool about at night whilst reminiscing.
We were absolutely starving by the time we finished making it so it was already digesting before I though to take pictures, but I can say it had a sultry combination of cucumber, carrot, mint, and the most succulent barbecued chicken in the world all he while drizzled in a salty sweet sauce. I put way too much of the latter on mine and it ended up making a huge mess, but I wouldn’t have had it any other way.
As our soup still was boiling merrily away, we next went to out green papaya salad with prawn. To cut its carrots and cucumbers, the Vietnamese tradition is to use a peeler to shave fine slices and then use a “fancy knife” as our chef referred to it which gives a scalloped edge.
The vinaigrette was extremely simple with the surprising yet ingenious addition of fresh squeezed cumquat (I don’t know about you but I always used to see mounds of cumquats at the grocery stores back in Montreal and wonder who the hell bought those and what they used them for). As such, the salad had a beautifully fresh zest and once piled high with delicately placed prawns and a sparing sprinkle of sesame seeds, it looked as good as it tasted.
After we finished eating our creations (nervously noting how full we were beginning to feel only halfway through our courses), we finally went back to the pho.
Removing the spices and bones, we added some more water, fish sauce, and sugar so as to get a perfect balance of taste. Mine was a little on the sweet side, but I was surprised when he announced that it was the best of the bunch. It just goes to show that taste is on the tongue of the beholder. No wonder there are a million different ways to make this soup: there are a million different palates to cater to!
Although my belly was telling me “no more food!!”, the seductive wafts of steam that billowed up as I poured broth over the fresh rice noodles made me powerless against the call of the pho.
We were all feeling the bloat of fullness, but sat down at the table laid out for us regardless. With every mouthful, moans of pain and pleasure were expelled. It was like an S&M food session, a war between our taste buds and our increasingly stretched stomachs.
But it was just so divine. The rice noodles were extraordinarily fresh and have ruined me for rice noodles since (I came back and had pho at my previously favourite Vietnamese restaurant in Cheongju and they tasted awful in comparison). Surprisingly the chicken was excellent as well – I was a tad disappointed because I love beef pho so much, but I’m swayed completely. Piling on the hoisin sauce, fish saucing it up, and adding a jungle of thai basil, I devoured all I possibly could before succumbing to reason and calling it quits.
The chef chuckled appreciatively at our faces which were flushed and drenched in sweat more like we’d raced a marathon than fought our way through a bowl of soup.
“Shall I wait before dessert?” he asked, and we nodded in exhaustion.
A decent wait later, we were beckoned once more to the cooking table where our barbecued banana ingredients were all lined up. A note on the bananas in Southeast Asia: they aren’t like the kind you buy back home which often are so long and girthy that they look like obscene sex toys. These are small and squat, maybe the length of a middle finger. More bitter on the outside than the bananas back home, the inside is contrarily sweet and the texture is more starchy like a plantain.
So as we made this recipe in Vietnam, it’ll be hard to replicate in an environment that doesn’t have this specific variation of banana. Which is a shame, because it challenged the bahn mi for my favourite dish.
Using a wok, we “barbecued” the banana (“It’s the same taste,” our chef assured us) and then caramelized it in honey letting that sizzle for a bit before taking it out. After that we stirred in some vanilla powder, coconut milk, and salt into the pan with the leftover honey (that sweet and salty combo was mouthwatering). While that thickened up a little, we cut out banana into segments so that the sauce could be poured over.
Last, a sprinkle of sesame seeds and peanuts and presto, picture perfect!
Now, absolutely rotund, we fell against the backs of our chairs and rubbed our bellies in contentment. But our chef had one more surprise for us.
“Come up here when I call your name,” he said. “I have certificates for you!”
After we went up and received the certificates, he also told us that he was going to give us the recipe booklet from everything we’d made today and many other things we hadn’t learned that were on the menu.
“I don’t know why other chefs want to keep these things so secret,” he laughed. “It’s not like you are going to open a restaurant next door.”
Then he assured us that it would be his pleasure if we ever emailed him with a recipe request that wasn’t in the booklet to send one immediately.
With that, it was over. We paid (and gave a generous tip, which I encourage should you also participate in this) and I ran around like a madwoman taking some quick shots of the garden. Waving farewell to our German couple companions, we were whisked off to the next leg of our trip: the rubber tree forest, local rice paper village, and the Cu Chi Tunnels.
But alas, you shall have to wait until Friday to hear about those adventures. Stay posted!