Sunday, March 04, 2007

What’s Cooking In Vietnam

This is the tenth in a special series of food reports from my recent trip to Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam. Return every Sunday and Monday for the latest postings.I may be a bit harsh on Vietnam when I say there is nothing to do there, other than tasting the culinary delights (which, don’t get me wrong, is quite worth traveling 17 hours by plane to do).

In Saigon/HCMC, the country’s largest city, you’d think they’d at least have a first-rate museum or opera house. But during my recent trip, the museums were poorly kept and the opera house had some weird musical group performing. This island is no Manhattan.

So other than hours of strolling the local markets or taking day trips to the countryside, I found very little to kill the time other than to try different restaurants or spend afternoons in a café reading. But a few smart Vietnamese who recognize the international appeal of their country’s cuisine have started up cooking schools that are popular among tourists. There’s probably a cooking program in most major city in Vietnam. And even if they don’t have a formal program, some restaurant chefs might be willing to even let you watch them cook in the kitchen. (Again, that goes back to the people’s reputation for being friendly.)

In Saigon, I signed up for a cooking class at the Vietnam Cookery Center, a quaint, polished school that’s only about 4 years old. This has to be among the highlights of my trip. Run by friendly English-speaking staff, the Cookery Center is located just north of District 1 (the tourist area) in the neighborhood known as Binh Thanh District. You’ll have to catch a taxi to get there, and many cab drivers may not be familiar with the area so it helps to carry directions to the school (available from the Web site).

Half-day classes are available daily. The cost of $33 (U.S.) includes a meal. (If you take a morning class, you learn to make three dishes that you eat for lunch. The afternoon class ends up making dinner.) You can pay ahead via their Web site by wiring funds to their bank account. But I didn’t feel comfortable sending money beforehand, so I just went early one morning and pleaded to sign up for that day’s class. (Luckily that morning’s class only had four people signed up. If I went the next day, I probably would have been turned away because I learned they had a Japanese tour group of 30 people reserved.) If you don’t get in for that day, you can make a reservation for a future date.

The school is also a functioning restaurant, serving lunch and dinner. I didn’t try the restaurant, though, because I was already pegged to making my own lunch for class. I was excited to cook for myself after days of eating out.
My other classmates included a couple from Canada who travels often to Vietnam. (The woman, when finding out I was from the United States, was quick to question why I was so eager to send people off to war without questioning where the WMDs were. I reminded her that I live near Berkeley, Calif., hoping that city’s anti-war sentiment will win me back some favors with her.) The other two students were old buddies traveling together from Australia.

Our instructor was this soft-spoken man called Chef Yun. We were told that he had a French culinary training and had worked at various restaurants in Vietnam. Chef Yun directed us to our work stations and gave a brief descriptions of the ingredients we were about to use. Some of them I was familiar with back here in the states, but I didn’t recognize others. For example, the Vietnamese use something called “chicken powder,” which looked like a powdered form of chicken bouillon. They also use coconut juice in their cooking (the clear liquid, not to be confused with the white coconut milk substance).

At our little cooking stations, we used a small hot plate with a clay pot on top. I thought this looked like cooking in college, but what we eventually made was nothing like what you make in dorm rooms.

We made three dishes: Cha Gio (deep-fried spring rolls), Ca Kho To (caramel fish in clay pot) and Canh Chua Ca Loc (sour snake fish soup).

We started with the spring rolls. What surprised me were all the ingredients inside, including crab meat (which I love). We also used shredded taro and dried ear mushroom. All the ingredients were mixed into a big clump in our bowls and Chef Yun demonstrated the basic way to fold a spring roll before deep-frying. (I’m going to give the complete recipe and demonstration for spring rolls in tomorrow’s post.)

I was also amazed at the rice wrapper Chef Yun gave us to use. Instead of the typical translucent rice wrappers, this was made from shredded rice noodles, creating an almost mesh-like patterned wrapper. Chef Yun said this particular wrapper (which I still have to hunt for here in the states) makes the rolls crispier.

My spring rolls looked overweight after I loosely wrapped them. But after deep-frying them, we all went over to the table to enjoy this snack, eating them the Vietnamese way of placing them with rice noodles inside a lettuce leaf and served with the dipping sauce we made featuring, of course, fish sauce.
Next was caramel fish. I was excited about this too because I ate a fantastic version of this common Vietnamese dish the night before at a restaurant in the Mekong Delta, and now I’ll be learning how to make it myself. We used a steak-cut of a fish called snake fish, which seems to be popular on the menus of Vietnamese restaurants. In the Bay Area, I’m thinking I could substitute with something like catfish or snapper. Chef Yun said it was important to have the fish cut cross-wise into steaks because that was easier to work with in the clay pot.

Chef Yun also pre-made a caramel sauce, which is basically condensed sugar with oil. He drizzled some into each of our clay pot as we let the fish marinate. After about 30 minutes, we started cooking our fish by sautéing it in the claypot on medium high heat. Chef Yun pointed out that the Vietnamese cook mostly using medium high heat and Chinese cuisine often calls for a hot wok. I have to admit, I was so tempted to sear my fish to give it more color, but I didn’t want to start a fire and get on Chef Yun’s bad side.

After just a few minutes of cooking, we set the fish aside and left it to rest covered in the clay pot.

The final dish was a sour fish soup, again made in a clay pot. This was the first time I had this soup, which gets its main sour taste from the fresh pineapples and tamarind sauce. It had the same sour taste of Chinese hot and sour soup, but without the “hot.” We basically added all the ingredients together in a fish broth and thickened our soup with cornstarch. Super easy.
After a couple of hours of cooking, we ate our dishes. Chef Yun served up some steamed rice scented with pandan leaves. It was a real feast with so much to eat. I was pleased that my dishes turned out great and was surprised at how easy it was to make.

After a brief “ceremony” where we all got our certificates, I left inspired to make these simple dishes back home. I’ll be posting these recipes soon once I get find myself a clay pot!

Vietnam Cookery School, M1 Cu Xa Tan Cang, Ward 25, Binh Thanh District, Saigon/HCMC. Tip: When your taxi drops you off, ask him to return when your class is done so that you don’t have to worry about hunting for a taxi in the neighborhood. (I just asked the school’s receptionist to go out and talk to the taxi driver to ensure that he understood what time to pick me up.)


Passionate Eater said...

I just discovered your blog through Kiplog. Wow, your trip to Vietnam seems like a culinary adventure! And I love your photographs and descriptions. I'll be back for more.

Single Guy Ben said...

Welcome passionate eater! I don't know what Kiplog is but I'm glad you've stumbled across my blog. You're the type of people I want reading my blog, those passionate eaters out there who loves food so much that you just want to eat my food photos off your computer screen! Well, not literally. So when is that scratch and sniff computer screen coming out? ;-)

Anonymous said...

HAHA,Im not sure who showed you around but Saigon is one of the most exciting places on earth. I just took my 8th trip this last year to give a tour to culinary writer.(she co authored the French Laundry Cookbook) Maybe next time grab a local and look into the art scene or some jazz/music places.