‘When foreign people come to the Hoi An market, they say ‘mmm this is delicious’ and ‘mmmm yum’, says our petite Vietnamese guide who will later metamorphose into a chef for our cooking class. ‘But you shouldn’t say yum in Vietnam’, she continues, smiling a big smile. ‘Do you know why?’ I look at her, puzzled. ‘If a man goes to the market full of women and starts saying ‘yum, yum’, all the women will run away. Why? Because ‘yum’ means ‘horny’ in Vietnamese.’
The market walk
Having been warned to mind our language during our exploration of the Hoi An market, our guide proceeds to walk us through and explain the different culinary uses of a selection of strange fruits and vegetables at the market. Since it’s afternoon and most of the buying and selling has already been done (Vietnamese housewives will visit the market early in the morning), the area is enjoying a quiet period. Stall owners, mostly women, nap besides their left over fruit and vegetables. Squid turns a gentle purple colour as it freshness fades away. Most of the fish was sold hours earlier, when our guide/chef secured the mackerel for our class, except for some live crabs, kept motionless by securing their claws with thick rope.
The way to the cooking school
Cruising gently along a river under a slightly overcast sky, then watching as your boat snakes through narrow water paths flanked by lush vegetation until you reach a private little wooden dock must be the most relaxing and peaceful way of reaching a cooking school…ever. The boat driver navigates the waters slowly because the water level is particularly low. In the rainy season, the river running along Hoi An swells up, and floods, sometimes even of two metres, hit the old homes which line the waterfront. But for now, the river is calm.
The cooking class
The cooking class and subsequent dinner are held in a series of very sleek modern buildings which you wouldn’t really expect in this rural corner of Vietnam , but the specialities which I get to cook are quintessentially Vietnamese, with some Hoi An specialities thrown in.
We start with a seafood salad made with shrimp and squid bought from the Hoi An market that morning, and cooked with shallots, peanuts, turmeric, salt, pepper, lime and ginger, to be placed into a hollowed out pineapple decoration.
Then we’re introduced to the art of fresh rice paper making, which involves time and patience. Our chef explains how a cup of plain white rice needs to be soaked for 7 hours, then rinsed three times until the water with which the rice is washed comes out clear. The rice has to then be blended into a smooth mix with 2 cups of water, until ‘rice butter’ is produced, which then needs to rest for a further 1 hour. The butter is then used to make fresh rice paper. 2 rows of pots filled with boiling water await us, with a piece of white cotton placed and tide on top of each with some elastic. Using a small ladle we put about 2 tablespoons of rice butter on the cotton and even it out into a circle, then cover it for 1 minute with a lid which is slightly larger than the pot itself. Finally, taking a flat wooden stick previously wetted in hot water, we gently lift the finished rice paper off the cotton, flip it wet side up onto a plate, and proceed to stuff with fresh spring roll goodness: grated green papaya, cucumber, carrot, ginger, lettuce leaves, fresh Vietnamese herbs and cooked shrimp.
Probably my favourite dish out of the cooking class was the Hoi An pancake, an amazing delicate snack which we make with a rice flour batter and a very small pan. We heat a little bit of oil, cook a small ladle of batter plus a small piece of cooked pork and shrimp, flip the pancake then drain the oil. Using a piece of cotton cloth, we remove more of the excess oil before stuffing the pancake with fresh herbs and bean sprouts and rolling it in rice paper.
And finally, the chef throws into the lesson an aubergine winter warmer cooked in a pot for around seven minutes with a wonderful and rich garlic, chili and spice paste. And after a couple of hours of being bossed around by our very demanding though tiny Vietnamese chef, we get to sit down and enjoy our aubergine pot, steamed mackerel and fresh fruit in an outdoor restaurant which hugs the curves of the peaceful river. Wonderful.
This cooking class was made possible by Buffalo Tours, which operates customised, guided private tours in Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Thailand. 18 years’ experience and 250 employees in ten offices worldwide (including eight in south-east Asia) offer local expertise and destination insight to create bespoke holidays including accommodation, transfers, flights, cruises, day trips and excursions. Buffalo Tours is a Vietnamese travel company, which means that the profits made stay in Vietnam and the local region.
Editor’s note: Buffalo Tours sponsored my cooking class, but as always, the thoughts and opinions expressed are my own.
-Text and Photography by Denise Pulis @www.theartofslowtravel.com. All rights reserved.