Cooking extravaganza in Hoi An

One of the highlights of our two-day stay in Hoi An, was the half day cooking tour with the Red Bridge cooking school. Despite only booking the day before, we were able to join an afternoon tour that finished with dinner. Perfect! Meeting at the Hai Cafe in the beautiful old town, we caught up with some other travellers who had been roaming round northern Vietnam - to the parts where we were due to travel next. It was great getting a heads up on what we could expect to see. We were then divided into small groups, and started a walking tour of the local produce markets. We'd walked through the buzzy little markets a few times during our stay, but it's so much more interesting when you have a local pointing out what's what.

The Asian greens and herbs were all so fragrant, and between jack fruits, pomelos, pineapples and a bunch of other tropical fruits, incredibly colourful. Little old ladies hunched under their bamboo cone hats and pastel ponchos in the rain, chatting loudly to each other, seemingly oblivious to the tour groups marching past them. Our guide, Luna, explained the different flavors that say green or yellow mangos would give, and which would best suit certain dishes. We then wandered through the small fish markets, where the day's catch were laid out in cane baskets.

Next stop was a 20 minute boat trip, where we saw more of how the local people lived and worked on the river. We passed fish nets and rice padis, and hundreds of boats - fishing is such a critical activities here - and the seafood was definitely a specialty of the region. As the rain drizzled down, we arrived at a the Red Bridge Restaurant's jetty. Lush, tropical gardens were lit with lanterns, and we were offered a drink, before heading out to explore this top restaurant's herb garden. Lemongrass and mint, bitter herb and basil grew under shade clothes, once again, all very fragrant. I wish I had the space at home to have such a herb garden! Then it was time for the real action - cooking class, with Tun, one of Red Bridge's chefs. Our "cooking school" was in a thatched hut which literally backed onto the river. 20 gas stoves were set up in an L shape at the back of the hut, with the demonstration area and large mirror sitting over it so we could see what the chef was doing. The chef was hilarious - he seemed to really understand and cater for the Australian sense of humor, and cracked jokes about us, food and pretty much everything. His first dish was a seafood salad served in half a pineapple. Lots of fresh, finely grated veggies and some local prawns, all swished around in the fry pan, and within about 3 minutes he'd turned the lot out into the pineapple shell. Talk about making it look easy!

We then learnt how to make batter for rice paper rolls - it's pretty easy - just soak rice for about 7 hours, mix in some water, and throw it all in the blender. It looks just like pancake mix. To cook rice paper rolls, the chef used a large pot of boiling water with a white cotton gauze secured tightly over it. He ladled a spoonful of the batter onto the cotton, spread it round with the spoon, then closed the lid to steM it for about a minute. He then used a sliver of bamboo to lift the rice paper from the cotton and flip it onto the plate. From the, you could fill with pretty much anything you like - he used a seafood mixture, with bean sprouts and lots of mint. So quick! So delicious!

Trying to photograph the demonstration was fairly tricky - it was low light conditions and the chef moved very quickly. Even at f/2.8 and ISO 2000 on the 5D, it was hard to get sharp shots. Oh was after all, all about the food. We then made our own pancake, using a nifty little frying pan that would have been no more than 12cm in diameter. We used dried rice paper rolls to make another form of cold roll, again adding greens and sprouts. The final dish was an eggplant hotpot, and once we'd tried our hand at cutting up the ingredients according to chef Tun's instructions and getting it on the boil for 7 minutes, we saw how to carve cucumber and tomato create edible plate decorations. My attempts at carving cucumber were not at all successful, but Michael did a pretty good job. Here's what the cucumber was meant to look like...

We then collected our bags and simmering hot pots, and headed up to the restaurant to consume it. They brought out more of the seafood salad from earlier in the demonstration, and with a few drinks, we concluded a very tasty evening. It was a great class, and yet another fascinating view of how the Vietnamese people shop, prepare and cook food. Just wondering how to smuggle the chef back to Australia with me.... Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

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