A day in a Vietnamese cooking school

CHRISTINA PFEIFFER
Last updated 05:00 23/10/2013
Vietnamese food
THE SECRET: The key to great Vietnamese food is fresh ingredients.

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Women in straw hats squat beside baskets of green vegetables.

The air smells of mango and coriander, mingled with earthier scents of vegetables and meat. We weave our way past fruit stalls piled with mangosteens, rambutans, papayas and dragon fruit.

The twang of haggling voices is muted - every so often - by the rumble of scooter engines, as locals ride past.

I've joined a cooking class at the Red Bridge Cooking School in Hoi An. But before we get into the real business of learning to cook, our guide, Luna, is teaching us about the ingredients by taking us on a tour of the market in the old town.

"You'll find chicken, pork and duck here. No cat; no dog; no snake," she says, with an impish grin. Truthfully, I would not have been surprised to find all of those items for sale at the market.

Dog meat, in particular, is sought after in northern Vietnam and served in special dog meat restaurants.

It's around 2pm and most of the meat vendors are stretched out on benches, snoring with straw hats over their faces. Worn out from an early start (the best time to shop is around 6am), the vendors are conserving energy with an afternoon siesta, in preparation for the after-work rush.

Luna points out unusual local items, such as brown noodles used to prepare Hoi An's famous cao lao dish, and "thousand year eggs", which are cooked and buried in the ground for weeks until the yolk becomes grey and the egg white turns brown.

At a spice stall, we're introduced to Bot Ngu Vi Huong (five aroma powder). The local seasoning is an aromatic blend of cinnamon, cardamom, nutmeg, aniseed and ginger. From the market, there's a short stroll along the waterfront, past colourful timber boats, before we climb aboard a boat that will ferry us along the Hoai River to the Red Bridge Cooking School.

It's an enjoyable 20-minute boat ride to the school, which is on the river. The school, restaurant and bar are housed in open-air pavilions in a tropical garden setting. There's also a pool.

Before the lesson, Luna shows us the herb garden, which has rows of lemon basil, lot leaf, lemongrass, fish plant, coriander and dozens of other herbs I've never heard of.

Then we head for the cooking pavilion, where Nguyen Nhat Thanh hands us recipe sheets and begins our class by demonstrating how to prepare goi han san trong thuyen thorn (seafood salad with Vietnamese herbs served in half a pineapple). The lesson is hands-on. After Nguyen demonstrates how to prepare each dish, it's our turn at the cooking stations.

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We learn how to make cha gio tuoi (fresh rice paper), by pouring a batter of blended rice over a thin white cotton sheet wrapped around the mouth of a pot of boiling water.

Nguyen makes it look easy, but removing the thin layer of steamed rice paper with a bamboo stick proves quite tricky for most of us. But with a little help from his assistants, we're soon stuffing and rolling sheets of rice paper with shrimp, grated green papaya, cucumber and carrot.

His instructions are easy to follow and peppered with humour.

"What's that? You're not making a burrito," he pokes fun at a man whose rice paper roll is so bloated it's almost bursting.

We also pick up useful bits of knowledge, such as, in Vietnam, food is cooked with chopsticks not wooden spatulas.

We learn to cook banh xeo (Hoi An pancakes), ca tim kho to (Vietnamese eggplant in clay pot) and ca hap Viet Nam (steamed fish on a bed of vegetables). And to make sot chua ngot (sweet and sour sauce), sot tuong dau (peanut sauce) and nuoc mam (fish sauce).

To decorate our plates, Nguyen transforms a tomato into a rose and a cucumber into a fan. When it's my turn, the results are a disaster. I end up breaking my fan and eating my rose. When all the chopping and stirring is done, the best part is sitting down to a self-cooked feast and savouring the fruits of our new cooking skills.

GETTING THERE Cathay Pacific operates flights to Hong Kong. Dragonair has four flights a week to Da Nang and daily flights to Hanoi. See cathaypacific.com. Check out the latest Hong Kong deals here.

COOKING THERE

A half-day tour at the Red Bridge Cooking School costs $33 and includes a market tour, boat ride, welcome drink and cooking class.

Wendy Wu Tours has a selection of tours that include Hoi An and the Red Bridge Cooking School, such as the 16-day Vietnam Trails itinerary (from $4,429 a person twin share) and the 10-day Living Traditions Cooking Tour (from $2226 a person twin share).

- Sydney Morning Herald

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