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Wednesday 24 Jul 2013
Hoi An, Vietnam

Food heaven

I had the unenviable task of waking up four hungover lads and getting them up in time for a cookery class.  Luckily, they had located Simon and Carl’s bike last night, locked in a yard in the next road from where they’d left it, so they went off to fetch it and we all met up again at the ‘Morning Glory’ restaurant.  The cooking class started off with a tour of the local market with a local guide.  We were all given typical Vietnamese conical hats to keep the sun off – even at 9.30am it was already very hot.  Carl is over six feet tall anyway, but the addition of the hat made him even taller and he towered over Nyoc, our poor guide.  She was barely five feet tall and kept getting the giggles when she looked up at him.  She barely came up to his elbow.  She insisted on taking photos with all of us, but especially with Carl.

In the market, we were taught about the most common fruits and vegetables used in Vietnamese cooking.  A lot of them I recognised from previous Asian market visits, but I was surprised at how many different varieties of greens they have.  A key component of Vietnamese cooking is their use of fresh herbs.  Nyoc introduced us to lots of herbs, letting us smell them and guess what they were, before telling us which dishes they would commonly be used in.

We walked along by the river, which had swollen overnight and now covered half of the road too, to their new Market restaurant.  This had an open courtyard laid out to resemble a street food court.  We were greeted with ice-cold wet towels – perfect after the heat of the market – and then shown around the food stands and told about each one.  We tried some samples, including delicious steamed beef in betel leaves. 

Upstairs, they had designed a full kitchen studio with five rows of stainless steel tables laid out with stoves, utensils, plates and the food we’d need for the class.  The front bench had a huge mirror above it, angled so that everyone could see what the teacher was doing – very reminiscent of school chemistry lessons.  At first I was dismayed at the thought of a cooking class with over 20 people in it, as my previous experiences have been best in small groups, but they were so well organised that my doubts proved unwarranted.  The teacher was a tiny lady, heavily pregnant, but she had such a big personality that she kept everyone engaged the whole time.  She was a lot of fun, with a very cheeky sense of humour.  While preparing the spice mix for one dish, she started with a spoonful of chilli powder, while explaining we didn’t have to make it ‘too spicy’ (added another spoonful), ‘just enough to taste’ (and another), and it was ‘really up to us’ how much went in, until the bowl was empty.  Then she just stood there with a big innocent grin on her face as she tasted it and said: “See? Not too spicy!”

She made it much more than a typical cooking class by explaining a lot about Vietnamese food culture and introducing each dish with the story behind it.  Our first dish was known as ‘Mother-in-law soup’, a traditional cabbage soup that brides would cook for their new Mother-in-law after getting married.  Food still plays a huge role in Vietnamese culture and women are still expected to cook each day.  If the soup went well, you were fine, but to get it wrong implied you were unable to cater for your new husband in the way his mother expected and life could get pretty miserable…  This is a dish girls are taught to make from an early age so they'll be prepared for the challenge when the day comes! 

After mixing the herbs, spring onions and marinated shrimp to make a paste and showing us how to tie the cabbage parcels, the teacher let us loose to try our own.  She had made enough shrimp paste for everyone as it took several hours to prepare fully, but we made our own broth.  Then the assistants came round with a small bowl of shrimp paste each and we tied our own parcels – a blanched cabbage leaf rolled around a good scoop of shrimp paste, tied up with a couple of chives.  We had to make quenelles of the shrimp paste to cook in the broth – very funny watching the boys concentrating so hard trying to use two spoons without flicking the shrimp paste across the room.  But all went well and we had a delicious bowl of soup each at the end.  I would love to try and cook this one again, but I’m not sure I’ll have the patience.

Next, we made a marinade of 15 different herbs and spices to coat our chicken pieces, which were taken off to be cooked on the charcoal grills downstairs.  In the meantime, we cooked crispy rice flour pancakes with various herb and egg toppings and prepared a green mango salad to have with our chicken.  Taking our plates down to the restaurant, we identified our chicken pieces by the extra vegetable on the end of the skewer (mine was a green cherry) and ate it with rice and steamed morning glory.   It was a great class and we really enjoyed ourselves.  I was very tempted to buy the gorgeous cookery book, signed by the lady who set up the school and restaurants, as it included so many stories about life in Hoi An and the street food specialities, but it was one thing too many to carry.

We went back to Yali for our final fittings.  Back in January, I had bought a beautiful orange silk sarong outside one of the temples in Myanmar.  It had a zig-zag pattern of colours around the bottom, but the material was a bit too see through to wear as it was.  I had also failed to notice a long blemish in the fabric when I bought it.  I took the material with me to Yali yesterday and asked if they could make a proper skirt with it, including a lining, and avoid the blemish.  When I tried on the new skirt today, it looked ok, but they had left the blemish clearly visible at the back – it now looked like a bird had pooped on me!  I was quite upset, having carried this material for 7 months for this very purpose, to think it had now been ruined.  Luckily, with the help of one of the assistants, we realised that by making the skirt shorter, we could probably hide the blemish in the new seam.  Fingers crossed…

That night, we all went to the Cargo Club for dinner, another restaurant run by the same people as the cooking school.  We sat out on the roof terrace overlooking the river.  Vietnamese is absolutely my favourite food of the trip.  I had a dish called Cha Ca, a coconut fish curry served with rice noodles and a huge pile of beansprouts and fresh herbs, which the waitress stirred into the curry at the table.  It was one of the best things I’ve tried yet.

I picked up my newly shortened skirt and spent another hour making final adjustments, but I was thrilled with the result – a knee-length, A-line skirt with the pattern around the bottom edge.  It fitted beautifully and the seamstresses had eliminated all signs of the blemish.  Perfect!


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