My second foray into discovering Vietnamese cuisine hands-on was in Ho Chi Minh City or as the locals like to call it, Saigon. The cooking class was again booked through Cookly and I picked The Vietnamese Cooking School as it was not only highly rated but also offering a sizeable discount.

Unfortunately my Uber Moto driver was a bit technologically challenged and misread his Google maps and I reached the venue approximately 10 minutes late. However, Chef My was waiting seemingly patiently right in front of her school. She was gracious enough to brush off my apologies and took me up to her cooking studio and introduced me to my fellow cooks. I was extremely glad to note that the group would comprise no more than four people including Chef My herself. That would predictably lead to a more intimate and interactive cooking experience.

The ever smiling Chef My.

Soon after I had freshened up I was poured a tall glassful of ice cold jasmine tea. Meanwhile Chef My begun with her introduction to the class by talking about the most important Vietnamese cooking ingredients and how each of those could be used in different dishes. She also spoke about how she likes to change her menu for the classes around according to the season and freshness of ingredients available in the neighbourhood markets. The menu was conveniently chalked down on a blackboard displayed in a corner of the room.

The menu for the afternoon.

She begun with the dipping sauce for the Net Rice Paper Fried Spring Rolls with Pork and Mushroom. She directed us to follow her step by step so that it would be easy to follow the recipe and technique. Of course most of us could not match her speed and precision but she patiently took time out for each  of us and helped us wherever and whenever she deemed fit. The dipping sauce was easy enough but rolling the rice paper to hold its shape seemed a bit more challenging. 

Few of the primary ingredients of the classic Vietnamese dipping sauce.
The delicate work was made to look easy by Chef My.

While talking about the different kinds of rice papers she demonstrated how a a net rice paper should ideally be rolled. Although my rolls weren’t as firm as hers, I did manage to save myself the embarrassment of soggy and loose rice paper rolls. Soon after the rice paper rolls were deep fried in vegetable oil and then Chef My showed us a culinary trick of adding more texture and freshness to the dish by wrapping the rice paper rolls in crisp lettuce leaves.

Apparently, my roll weren’t too bad for a beginner.

Next she moved on to the Lotus Stem Salad with Prawns and Pork. She showed us how to cut the lotus stems to achieve uniform shape and size such that the flavours remained consistent through out he salad. Chef My also explained the significance of rice vinegar during the washing process to retain the colour and crispness of the lotus stems. This was possibly the easiest of the dishes that afternoon.

The ingredients for the Lotus Stem Salad.

As it turned Chef My’s assistant was gracious, kind and warm as the instructor herself. She continued to clean the cooking stations as and when necessary, bring new ingredients as the dish demanded and pour endless refills of the refreshing iced tea. While Chef My stepped out on to her neat balcony and started four coal barbecues she invited us to devour the Net Spring Rolls and Lotus Stem Salad that we created.

The lettuce leaf wrapped Net Spring Rolls.
The fresh Lotus Steam Salad with Prawns and Pork.

Back in the kitchen it was time to start marinading and minced beef with lemongrass, garlic, soya sauce and sugar. Then came the challenging bit of stuffing the lolot leaves with the marinaded beef, rolling them and getting them to hold their shape without tearing. Lolot leaves, Chef My told us was a unique Vietnamese ingredient and resembled the betel leaves in flavour and texture. On my part, after decimating a couple of leaves I managed to get them right. Well, right enough to serve the purpose.

Step 1 – Decently rolled lolot leaves, skewered.
Step 2 – Barbecue in progress.

Finally it time was time for the part I was keenly looking forward to. Grilling the leaves on the charcoal barbecue. The leaves needed to be turned frequently because they cooked really quickly and could easily be burnt which would lead to a charred mess with undercooked meat inside. Once again, I managed to avert any disasters and retained the edible form of my lolot leaves. 

Step 3- Ready to eat grilled lolot leaves stuffed with beef.

It was soon time to eat my own handiwork, which as it turned out wasn’t half bad. However, Chef My had a pleasant surprise in store for all of us in the form of chilled flan with Vietnamese coffee. That was not all, she presented each one of us with a personally signed recipe booklet where the recipes of that afternoon were enclosed. It was this warm and touching side of Chef My that has left a lasting impression on me.

Chef My’s parting gift, chilled flan with Vietnamese coffee.

So if you’re in Saigon and a cooking class is on your agenda do log on to Cookly and look for Chef My’s The Vietnamese Cooking Class. I can give you my word that you won’t return disappointed.

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“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.

The cafe cum waiting area.
Pic. courtesy Hanoi Cooking Centre.

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.

Chef Le Dinh Hung, instructor and guide rolled into one.

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.

Fresh meat and fish being sold abundantly in the local market.
Everything from fruits and vegetables to sauces and dried good were all a stall or two away.
Freshly slaughtered chicken. 

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.

The ginger chicken cooking process starts in a deep pan.

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.

The best looking fresh spring rolls with classic dipping sauce.

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. 

The sweet soup. Sweet corn being cooked in coconut milk with pandan leaves.

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.

The final touches being applied with the ubiquitous kaffir lime leaves.

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.

The banana flower salad plated by yours truly.

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.

The rather elaborate spread for a mouth-wateringly delicious Vietnamese lunch.

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.

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