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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.