Thanks to its reputation as a sterling foodie city, Hội An has a huge variety of courses on offer, each promising a more authentic and gastronomic experience than the next. After an iced coffee-fuelled browse through the options, we emailed Van at the Green Bamboo Cooking School. We plumped for Van’s classes because she guaranteed a small (2-10 student) class, seven hours of cooking time (not the usual 4) and an extensive menu from which to choose a dish each. This meant we’d cook up to ten dishes, rather than the five dish set menus typically offered by schools based in popular restaurants. Van’s course also included the standard market trip. We like our food: a good cookery course was always on the cards during our Asian adventure, so we decided (it was an easy decision) that practically a full day spent cooking and eating fresh Vietnamese food would be totally acceptable.
As it turned out, the Green Bamboo course was arguably one of the best experiences that we have had in Vietnam. Everything ran smoothly and, more importantly, deliciously. Van was the consummate hostess and teacher, helping us to cook ten tasty dishes, each of which we ate fresh out of the wok, pan or clay pot.
The day began with a pick up from our hotel in a minivan, which took us to Hội An’s Central Market. Van doled out traditional Vietnamese conical hats and the vital weapon in an self-respecting Vietnamese shopper’s arsenal: red plastic shopping baskets. No 5p charges for plastic bags in sight.
After introducing ourselves to our fellow students we headed into the hustle and bustle of the market, where Van showed us the huge array of pulses, fish sauces, rice papers, noodles and spices that were on offer. The cacophony of colours, sights and smells really was amazing. Van bought all of the dry ingredients that we would need for the day’s menu from a variety of indoor vendors, explaining each in turn.
Outside, we tried some Vietnamese fruit before buying all of the vegetables and fresh herbs that we would need in the kitchen later. A few of our group tried their hand at shredding lemongrass and we all had a sniff of some red basil, fresh turmeric, various types of coriander and some fiery little chillies.
Our next stop was the fish market, where we bought Spanish mackerel and some fresh prawns whilst tiny Vietnamese women gutted huge fish and ground smaller fish into patties for fish cakes. The array of crabs, prawns, shellfish and whole or filleted fish was incredible. Our final stop in the market was the meat hall, where we were surprised by the lack of flies and meat smell, but Van explained that the pigs and cattle had been slaughtered in the early hours of the morning, so the meat was so fresh that the flies weren’t interested. It was clear from our market experience that Vietnamese cuisine is based wholly around freshness and buying what you need, rather than doing a weekly shop in Tesco. (Ed. other soulless supermarket brands are available.)
After a quick iced coffee, Van’s driver took us to her house, where the cooking began in her large kitchen, set up perfectly for teaching groups.
Our day’s menu was comprised of:
- Fried pork and prawn spring rolls
- Vietnamese fish cakes
- Stir-fried beef
- Stir-fried prawns
- Stir-fried squid
- Fish and pork belly cooked in a clay pot (Will)
- Pork and prawn crispy pancakes (Cat)
- BBQ fish in a banana leaf
- Cau Lau
- Pho Bo
Our first job was to prep all of our meat and seafood, which meant shelling a huge bowl of (still wriggling) prawns and deboning some condiserable chunks of fish. Once we’d gotten over the need to swiftly dispatch the prawns that were jumping between bowls in a futile attempt to escape our attentions, we minced the pork belly and prawns required for the pancakes. The fish for the clay pot needed deboning and cubing and the pork belly had to be diced with a huge sharp knife.
Prepped dishes were put into marinades, comprising of various combinations of chillis, ginger, tumeric, shallots, fish sauce, soy sauce, lime and herbs. It was difficult to keep track of everything that was going on, but Van and her two helpers kept us all on course and before we knew it the first dish was being cooked.
To ease the work of Theis, the Swedish spring roll chef, we all chipped in rolling our own spring rolls in two types of rice paper; smooth first, then a latticed one for extra texture when fried. Soon enough we were all tucking to delicious, crispy spring rolls, which we dipped into a sauce of chilli, sugar, fish sauce and lime. The spring rolls were followed by fragrant fishcakes, again, perfect with out dipping sauce.
Next up were three types of stir fry, each of which was served with steamed rice. The lemongrass in the prawns’ marinade was especially tasty, and the twist of leaving the tails on for presentation was one that we will be taking home with us.
The fish in a clay pot with pork belly was a relatively ‘slow’ dish by Vietnamese standards – taking about ten minutes to cook! The end result was tender fish, crunchy onions and caramelised pork belly bits, rich with tumeric and chilli. The majority of the stirring of our dishes was done with a pair of giant cooking chopsticks, which were slightly unwieldy at first but more accurate than Western tongs once you got used to them.
The pancakes were labour-intensive, requiring the combination of a thin rice-flour and tumeric batter, beansprouts and a pork and prawn mixture in a little pan, fried until crispy. It was a roasting-hot day and there were a lot of pancakes to make over a hot pan, but the end result was delicious and Van’s cold water towels went some way to cooling us down.
Next up was arguably our favourite dish – Hội An’s specialty, Cau Lau. Slow-cooked, sweet pork was sliced and combined with crispy rice cracker shards, lime, herbs, chilli, chilli jam and special noodles only available from four families in the city. The result was delicious, a variety of textures and flavours that worked perfectly, epitomising the freshness and flavour of the best of Vietnamese food.
Finally, we all sat down at the table in Van’s dining room to chow down on Pho Bo, our old friend from Hanoi. This was our tenth dish of the day and we were all stuffed to the gills, but couldn’t help but polish off the tasty noodle soup with tender strips of beef.
All-in-all, the Green Bamboo Cooking School was a fantastic day’s learning and eating, hosted by a friendly, knowledgeable and highly-skilled Van. The goodie-bag that each couple was given – including a pair of giant cooking chopsticks (yay!) a vegetable shredder and a cook-book – was almost as welcome as the hug Van gave each of us as we left her home.