We took a taxi out to Hidden Hanoi, which was located in a beautiful red and gold tube-house near West Lake. From the beginning, there were some minor difference with the other classes we'd taken. The others both started with a tour of a local produce market, but this one began instead with a quiet chat about Vietnamese cuisine. In a sunny room upstairs in the cooking school, our guide An spoke with us over cups of herbal tea. She asked us about what dishes we had tried that we liked, made some comments comparing Thai and Vietnamese flavors, and shared with us some general philosophy about Vietnamese cuisine. An was sweet, engaging and extremely informative, and this opening discussion felt as relaxed as having tea with a friend. I liked that this class followed a different format than most others, and the discussion was a great way to start the course, as it set an inviting atmosphere for the day.
We'd selected the Street Food menu, which to us seemed the best introduction to some basic Vietnamese cooking. The principal dish we were to make was bun cha, a dish of marinated barbecue pork that Bordeaux and I had both become addicted to. In addition, we were making fried spring rolls, and we would accompany the dishes with rice noodles, an herb salad, and a light soup of chili and fish sauce. The kitchen set up was rather different than I'd encountered in past classes. At both cooking schools I'd visited previously, we'd each been in charge of a wok (either alone or with a partner), and we'd been responsible for cooking all of the dishes ourselves. In the end, we each had our own oversized meal to ourselves. Here, we worked communally to prepare the dishes that we would all enjoy together. While Bordeaux and another student chopped vegetables for the spring rolls, I sliced pork and mashed lemongrass together with chili to make the bun cha. We each got to try our hand at the different tasks- slicing produce, rolling the spring rolls in the pan, and fanning the barbecuing pork. In part, this seemed necessary since most dishes take a little time to cook- much different than the quick wok frying of the Thai and Lao dishes. But it also contributed to the relaxed, communal vibe of the meal.
Additionally, it meant that instead of being overstuffed, we had a perfectly sized meal to share (perhaps even a little too big). We took our beautifully prepared dishes to the table, and had a relaxed afternoon meal. The spring rolls were crispy but fresh, the bun cha beautifully flavored from the marinade, and the noodles and fresh herbs were the perfect foil for the heavyness of the meal. More than just a cooking course, I felt as if we'd been given a brief introduction to Vietnamese culture. Our teacher, An, was a great source of information, and while the meal had been wonderful, and the instruction perfect, more than anything, she made the class worthwhile. It takes a long time to make this meal, An told us, so we don't make it often at home- but when we do, it's always better than you can get on the street. She was definitely right.
Editor's Note: I also just wanted to point out that I am posting my entries sort of out of order as I struggle to catch up. So please either scroll down to see what I've posted, or simply check out my entries on Ha Long Bay, Cat Ba Island, the Ho Chi Minh's Museum, street-food in Sapa, and a particularly delicious dish of binh my pate. Thanks, and hopefully I'll be totally up to date soon! -X