We love travel and whenever we visit a new place eating is high on our agenda. As you know, I love everything about food – planning it, shopping for it, cooking it, sharing it and writing about it.
Like most people I have more cookbooks and travel guides than any other kinds of books. We always buy a travel guide before we visit a place and Ian actually takes the time to look at it carefully and make plans before we get on the flight. I just look at the pretty book jacket and feel the anticipation of a new country. But before our trip to Vietnam I already knew how much I was going to love the food and bought a cookbook before we went. I was looking forward to trying the noodle soup they eat there called pho. Actually, no, not pho, that means city. Vietnamese is a language with six tones and those diacritics make a difference. I’m actually talking about phở, which is pronounced a bit like we would say ‘fur’ – like this. Sorry, I digress, but it’s interesting, right? To me, anyway.
So, before we went to Vietnam we bought two books – one on the the country and one on the food – and I did not look at either of them despite the fact that I am fascinated by both aspects. Ian is the detailed one, the diver who knows the value of ‘plan the dive and dive the plan’ so he booked us a tour in Ho Chi Minh and that motorbike tour in Hoi An I just wrote about. Meanwhile, I decided I should get my act together and at least plan something. So, for the first time ever on holiday I chose to do a one day cookery course. TripAdvisor threw up a place in Hoi An called Green Bamboo as the best of its kind there and judging by the reviews and photos it looked a good one. Mind you, with classes of 12 to 14 most days and each person cooking a different dish that we’d all get to sample, the thought of that amount of food was daunting. We chose our dishes in advance. I picked the Vietnamese staple I really wanted to learn – the fresh spring roll. Ian picked the traditional phở, with beef.
To begin, Van presented us each with a conical hat and a plastic shopping basket and took us to market to buy (and carry) all the ingredients we’d need. Smart move, I thought. It was a wonderful introduction to the food staples of the country. Later, back at her villa, we all stood around a large kitchen island and shredded our vegetables. Quite how Van managed to give us all individual attention I don’t know, but she did. Expertly choreographing the time, we each had our spot in the limelight so we could watch and learn how to do each dish and not just our own.
The phở, it seemed, being made with a broth, had to go on first. Ian was in the hotseat. He was presented with a pair of ginormous chopsticks with which to turn his garlic on the griddle and lift his bones into the bubbling water. Who’d have thought chopsticks would be so much more dextrous than the metal tongs I tend to use?
My dish was easiest it seemed so I was next. I only had to make a sauce from fish sauce, lime, sugar, chilli and garlic, grate in a ton of raw veg, cook a bit of tofu, pork and some prawns, soak some rice pancakes, place the filling in the pancake, add some aniseedy Vietnamese mint, roll it up neatly (!), poke in a pretty stem of coriander and a chive at the end, roll some more, put it carefully on a plate beside some dipping sauce and hey presto! My dish was the first to ‘go live’ and, hungry, we all stopped to eat a couple each. Delish. As I cooked, Ian was in charge of photographs. He forgot to take a photo of my finished masterpiece so please refer to one someone else made earlier at a market in Ho Chi Minh City at the top of this blog for the right kind of idea.
Now the beers could come out. Yes, at Green Bamboo, they offer free beer and as I was done for the day, I hopped onto a high stool, cracked open a can and watched the others work, interrupted every 20 minutes or so to sample another dish. And so we learned how to make rice pancakes, green papaya salad, barbecued pork, meat patties, fishcakes, more salads and curries, eating as we went. After six dishes Ian and I decided to share the remaining samples. Everyone else managed alone, though it beats me how they did it. 12 courses between 10 am and 3 pm was a marathon. Van claims that after the class she cooks and eats dinner with her family too. You can see in the photo how slim she looks on it.
Then, as we began, so too we ended with Ian and his soup. It was delicious, of course, spicy from chilli, garlicky, gingery and rich from stock, cinnamon, star anise and chinese apples. At the end of the day Van presented us with a homemade cookbook of the most popular dishes, the peeler you need for shredding all those raw veg and some massive chopsticks. We didn’t eat again that day.
Our day with Van taught us exactly what to order to eat during the rest of our stay in Vietnam. For both of us that meant more fresh spring rolls and more phở.
So, it seems, a cooking course is a brilliant thing to do on holiday. It made the remainder of our Vietnamese eating adventures all the more exciting.
Back home I sat down eagerly to look at the cookbook I’d bought on a whim before the trip. It was rubbish. Van’s will be much more useful.