“Food had power. It could inspire, astonish, shock, excite, delight and impress. It had the power to please me.” – Anthony Bourdain.
Having watched many a show by the great man I have come to understand that the best way to discover more about a place’s history, culture and people, is through food. Food of a place is shaped by it’s history, is a part of it’s culture and these finally go on to impact the life of the people. Therefore, I always make it a point to eat only local food when I am travelling to certain place. However, when I was in Hanoi, Vietnam a few months ago I decided to take that one step further. I wanted to venture into a kitchen to know more about the food that I was eating and visit local markets where locals purchased their fresh produce from. And that’s when I found out about Cookly.
I reserved a cooking class clubbed in with a market visit on Cookly’s clean and crisp website. One can assess the quality of a class based on conveniently provided ratings and reviews. Pay using a credit card or even Paypal, easily and hassle free. I picked a class at Hanoi Cooking Centre, which not only was rated highly but was also located relatively close to my accommodation. Since the class started at 09:00 hours I took an Uber Moto and reached the location by 08:40 hours. I was glad to note that the cooking centre was situated in quiet residential neighbourhood which meant that there was unlikely to be too many sellers trying to cater to tourists.
Hanoi Cooking Centre seemed to be a professionally organised place with a reception, comfortable waiting area, clean toilets and a spacious restaurant situated on the first floor. While I made the acquaintance of my fellow cooks I was offered and served hot Vietnamese tea.
Sharp at 09:00 we were met by Chef Le Dinh Hung. An articulate and well informed man, he gave us an overview of Hanoi’s food scene. He also told us about how food served in homes could be different from the widely available street food and the food served in restaurants.
After the brief introduction he took us for a stroll to a typical Vietnamese fresh produce market. The market for me was a revelation. All sorts of meat, fish, fresh fruits and vegetables were being sold openly without any refrigeration whatsoever yet not a single fly seemed to be buzzing around and no putrified odours overwhelmed my nostrils. Chef Hung told us how a typical Vietnamese prefers to buy only fresh ingredients and is averse to storing meat, fish and vegetables in refrigerator. He told us about various qualities of rice and what role they play in everyday home cooking. He proudly told us about the variety of fruits, vegetables and seafood. Finally he wound up the market visit by buying freshly slaughtered but cleaned chicken and headed back to the class.
By now I was excited and looking forward to the main activity that was getting my hands dirty and cooking with all those beautiful ingredients. The menu of the day comprised of banana flower salad with boiled pork and shrimp, spring rolls with shrimps and omelette, classic dipping sauce, traditional ginger chicken and sweet corn and coconut soup. Once again the meticulously organised approach of the classroom impressed me. Each participant was provided with one’s own apron, cleaver and a bowl of water. We were offered a complimentary drink of water, lime juice or beer. Once everyone settled down we got down to business.
The first item that Chef Hung started with was the dipping sauce. According to him that would give the sugar, an important ingredient of the sauce, the maximum time to completely dissolve in the fish sauce and lime juice. Next up was the chopping and washing of an uniquely Asian ingredient, the banana flower. I took my time to julienne the banana flower as demonstrated by the patient Chef Hung and then soaked them in the bowl of water with a bit of lime juice in it.
I then moved on to chopping the omelette into bite sized pieces, slicing the other ingredients and then lastly butterflying the boiled shrimps. Then came the chicken which I had as per the instructor’s direction seasoned and marinaded with ginger earlier. The marinaded pieces of all the participants were then handed over to him and he then he began to show us how the chicken was to be cooked.
While the chicken cooked in its own juices Chef Hung demonstrated how to fold the rice paper for the spring rolls. This according to me was the most delicate step of the entire cooking class. If rolled too tightly the rice paper would tear and if it was too loose the roll would not only appear clumsy but could even open up. After giving it a couple of goes I managed to start rolling the rice paper such that it would look like a spring roll. In the roll went the shrimp, sliced omelette and pineapple, some rice noodles and fresh lettuce. At this stage Hung really took a lot of interest and patiently saw to the fact that each one us could roll the rice paper as neatly as possible.
Once everyone was done with the spring rolls Chef Hung moved on to the sweet corn and coconut soup. The surprise came when I learned that it wasn’t quite soup as we know it but a dessert instead. Sweet corn kernels boiled in coconut milk with sugar and pandan leaves, the ‘vanilla bean’ of Asia, until it was transformed into a thick custard.
As the ‘soup’ cooked Chef Hung transferred the almost cooked chicken into a traditional claypot to demonstrate the final touches to be applied to the dish.
Finally under Chef Hung’s instructions each of us proceeded to plate our banana flower with boiled pork and shrimps which was dressed with some of the classic dipping sauce, fresh coriander and mint leaves and peanuts to add some crunch to the dish.
We were all congratulated and given an apron and recipe booklet each as souvenirs and very warmly ushered upstairs into the restaurant where we were to be served our own handiwork. Although cooked by amateurs the food turned out to be deliciously authentic, possibly because of the able and patient guidance of the accomplished Chef Hung.
So that was how I dove into the world of food in Hanoi and had an experience to cherish for a long while to come. And I have Cookly and Hanoi Cooking Cemtre to thank for it. If you’re travelling somewhere and are interested in learning more about the place’s food and cooking do check out Cookly.