Cooking Up A Vietnamese Storm

Posted on October 9, 2010

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From an elevated bamboo table in a beautiful colonial-style villa, Executive Chef Pham Thi Dieu Dai explains the array of ingredients in front of us – chili, shallots, spring onion, pepper, salt, sugar, coconut juice, lime juice, chicken powder and fish sauce, the cornerstone of Vietnamese cooking.

The individual ingredients are mostly familiar. Over the centuries, Vietnamese cooking has been influenced by neighboring China and Thailand, whose dishes are more well-known around the world, as well as former ruler France. But Vietnamese cuisine remains unique – less oily than Chinese food and less spicy than Thai food, with a focus on fresh and healthy ingredients.

Chef Dai, assisted by Ms Nhu, who acts as translator, tells the class we will learn how to cook four dishes – Vietnamese spring rolls, sour clam soup with dill, caramel pork in claypot and steamed rice with coconut milk. The menu changes according to Chef Dai’s whim, availability of ingredients and any special requests made (in advance) by students.

We settle in behind our individual cooking stations for the first lesson – perfecting the spring roll dipping sauce. This is a very serious business, the key to serving tasty spring rolls, we are told. After overseeing the compilation of our ingredients, chef Dai summons us to the front of the classroom to taste her dipping sauce. We must adjust our own sauces to try to match hers. Chef Dai comes to each of our tables to taste-test our versions and provide advice.

After this relatively complicated process – I just couldn’t get mine to taste exactly right, even with Chef Dai’s assistance – we turned to the simpler taste of combining the pre-chopped and measured ingredients for the spring roll filling. Then we were on our way, rolling, frying and then eating.

At Vietnam Cookery Center in Binh Thanh District, Ho Chi Minh City’s original cooking school, each class is divided into three sections. The first is a quick outline of the traditional Vietnamese kitchen, ingredients and an important kitchen legend. The second section is the cooking, closely monitored by chef Dai, Ms Nhu and several other kitchen assistants. The third section is the grand finale – eating!

The Saturday afternoon class I took was small, just four other students – a chef from Israel, a father and daughter team from Australia (the teenage son didn’t cook but charmed his way into the eating section) and Vietnamese eating expert Vu, who I’d brought along for a local perspective.

Vu, who claimed the dishes he cooked tasted better than mine, said the recipes and instructions given at the course were similar to what is broadcast on Vietnamese TV cooking shows. However, it was the first time he’d actually cooked these dishes. He now intends to cook them at home, developing some improvements in the process.

Cooking the clam soup and the caramel pork in claypot was quite easy, as was watching Chef Dai prepare steamed rice with coconut juice. Somehow, while our back were turned, someone whipped up some dessert, sautéed banana in coconut milk, otherwise known as the sweet soup che chuoi xao dua. We ate Vietnamese-style, with lots of talking and laughing and discussion of the food. Beer and soft drinks were available to drink with dinner.

Armed with a Vietnam Cookery Center certificate and newfound cooking confidence, I later ventured to my local market to pick up the ingredients for caramel pork in claypot, one of my favorite dishes. I was delighted to find a man selling pre-chopped fresh shallots and garlic – just to make things easier.

As I chopped the pork and fussed over the rice in my own little kitchen I found myself longing for a team of assistants, as I had at the cooking course. Like the ball boys at the tennis, the kitchen assistants swooped in to pick up dropped items, wipe down the table and set up the ingredients for the next dish. But I guess, just like tennis, you have to perform at an elite level to warrant such assistance.

So the big test – cooking one of the recipes at home – was a success. The recipe, provided by the school, was simple and easy to follow. And it produced a similar result to what I turned out in class, even though I used a saucepan, not a claypot. The next big test is cooking all the dishes from the class for a dinner party.

Vietnam Cookery Center runs two standard courses a day, from 9.30 a.m. to 12.30 p.m., including lunch, or from 3.30 p.m. to 6.30 p.m., including dinner. The course is US$39 per person and a pre-course market tour can also be arranged for an extra $3 to $12 a head, depending on the number of people.

Center founder Caroline Reichardt says the school can accommodate cooking classes of up to 50. The center has a small air-conditioned restaurant area for people who book the luxury package.

Caroline also says cooking classes can be a fun team-building exercise for corporate groups or an interesting conference add-on.

The center also runs eight-week courses for residents and in-depth courses for professional chefs or hard-core home cooks.

All in all, the course taught me Vietnamese cooking is quite simple, once you have stocked up on the staples, such as fish sauce, chicken powder, tamarind sauce, cooking oil, chili, fresh limes and rice.

Vietnam Cookery Center, M1 Cu Xa Tan Cang Street (362/8 Ung Van Khiem Street), Ward 25, Binh Thanh District, Ho Chi Minh City.

Tel: +848 51 21491
Email: vietnamcookery@expat-services.com
Website: www.vietnamcookery.com


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