In my opinion, the best thing you can do in Vietnam is eat: I could live forever on prawn spring rolls, steaming bowls of pho and fresh-cut mango dipped in chili salt. After an awesome cooking class in Indonesia and learning how to make papaya salad on the street in Thailand, I was eager to find out how to replicate my absolute favorite Asian cuisine at home.
Hoi An is one of the best places to learn how to cook in Vietnam: the UNESCO-heritage town is popular with tourists, spawning dozens of choices when it comes to cooking classes. I opted for Morning Glory: it’s a bit pricier, but it has an excellent reputation for professionalism. The owner and founder, Ms Vy, is a bit of a legend in Hoi An: a third-generation chef, she’s considered an authority on Vietnamese street food around the world.
The day starts with a comprehensive tour of Hoi An’s markets, separated into sections for meat, produce, fish, rice and knick-knacks. I’ve been on a few market tours, but this is one of the best: our guide takes the time to have us touch, taste and smell all the various herbs we’ll be using. We also taste-test some exotic fruits that many of us have never even seen before, let alone taste. She also tells us about what types of herbs are best as cures: garlic or chives for colds, tumeric and honey every morning for good skin.
Mercifully, the classroom is air-conditioned (Hoi An is a blazing, sticky kind of hot). It’s a professional set-up, with rows of seats and individual cooking stations: the smaller market tours have now merged into one large class. Each dish is demonstrated by our bubbly and talented teacher, with other workers bringing us our ingredients and filling up our ice water. Then we make each dish ourselves, with someone always available to help if we have questions or to perfect our timing.
Cabbage leaf parcels with shrimp mousse in broth: tying those little parcels is an art in itself. Our teacher mentioned that cabbage soup is one of the best cures for stomach problems: might be worth keeping in mind if you get struck by Bali belly in Southeast Asia!
Rice paper rolls with sweet and sour sauce: I love filling up and then rolling up spring rolls–it feels just like taco and burrito bar nights at home! My favorite part was when they asked if we wanted local or foreigner pork: local meat keeps all the fat on for extra flavor, while they cut the extra fat off to appease foreigners.
Banh xeo (crispy Hoi An pancakes): This quickly became my favorite dish in Vietnam: the Vietnamese-style crepe is similar to the rice paper rolls in that it’s a very social make-it-yourself process. I loved the juxtaposition of the crispy crepe with the cool herbs, complemented by the spicy dipping sauce.
BBQ chicken and lime leaf: The marinade we created for the chicken was spiced with turmeric, lemongrass, five-spice blend, garlic, shallots and chili flakes, and it smelled incredible. They whisked it away to sit and then to barbecue, and when it returned, it was perfectly cooked and full of flavor. Can’t wait to try this one out on hot summer nights by the pool!
Mango salad: I rarely think of throwing mango in a salad, but this savory dish with just the right amount of tang might change that. It would have been lovely on its own for a light lunch, but the chicken complemented it really well.
Morning glory: Confession: we didn’t make this ourselves, but we couldn’t leave without trying the restaurant’s signature dish! With a hearty dose of white rise, morning glory was one of my favorite vegetarian dishes: it’s essentially just stir-fried greens with a bit of garlic.
The only thing that disappointed me about the class? No dessert! They suggested heading across the way to Cargo Club (conveniently owned by the same company) for some lemongrass ice cream–which, granted, was delicious–but we didn’t learn how to make any Vietnamese desserts. A bit of a shame, considering how many delicious sticky and sweet treats there are in the country.
Overall, it was an awesome way to learn a bit more about how to use Vietnamese ingredients in some simple recipes. At the very least, I ate extremely well that day!