Friday, October 31, 2008

An invitation to lunch.

Maybe it was a little premature to announce the return of regular entries... I'm sorry about the lack of blogging lately- a mix of too much work, miles of travelling, and too few precious minutes of internet access have left my blog trailing behind my life. We're currently in Trang province, where our work is taking us among a string of gorgeous islands. Our favorite island so far is Ko Libong-- it's the largest of the islands, but also one of the least visited. In fact, there are only three small guesthouses on a single beach-- the rest of the island is used for agriculture and rubber tapping. Even the beach with the guesthouses manages not to feel too commercial, as it's split right in the middle by a small village.

While walking past the village yesterday, we passed two boys picking coconuts from a tree. They stopped us, and directed us to watch as they chopped them open, then offered us each a drink. It was much tastier than other coconut juice I've had-- as fresh as possible, and still cooled by the shade of the tree. We gave them back the coconuts, and after they each enjoyed a drink, they hacked the coconuts in two. With a twist of the blade, the smaller boy created a spoon, and gave us a half to enjoy the tender coconut flesh.

On the way back through town later that afternoon, Bordeaux and I stopped at a general dealer's to get a drink. While we relaxed in the shade, we were joined by a man from the village, who was taking a break from working. He was building a new guesthouse, he explained-- pantomiming nailing, in case we didn't understand. After asking us the usual questions about where we were from, and where we were staying, he invited us to join him for lunch. We were each given a plate heaped with rice, and we served ourselves modest spoonfuls from the soup bowls. The first was a clear broth with chunks of beef, the other a spicy-sour curry of shellfish. Though it was a modest lunch, it was very tasty. And more than anything, it was a generous gesture on our host's part-- and it was certainly far more interesting than eating at our guesthouse. Finished, we thanked our host, who suggested we come back in 2009 to stay at his guesthouse. Hopefully we'll return to take him up on the offer.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

One day of eating in Saigon.

Even though I've managed life in Bangkok for over a year, the city of Saigon still intimidates me. I am, however, fascinated by it-- it's a colorful town with a tropical atmosphere, and its streets and sidewalks teem with activity. I almost chose to live there, rather than in Thailand, and I'm still curious about what life would have been like. Despite, I feel as though I can barely began to comprehend the city, can barely see over the traffic of whirring motorbikes-- making eating, in a sense, a challenge. Searching out a distant market seems daunting, seeking specific street-snacks seems impossible. Thankfully, there are enough good flavors and tastes in the city that I was well-fed on my last visit, despite my lack of adventurousness.

On our last full day in Saigon, Bordeaux and I took a leisurely breakfast at La Fenetre Soleil, an inviting upstairs cafe. Though it's located up a dingy staircase and down a dark hallway, it manages to attract it's fair share of fans (including a fellow blogger). My breakfast was a double dose of rich Vietnamse coffee: an iced black drip coffee, and Vietnamese coffee french toast. The latter was particularly spectacular: smooth and well-flavoured, and drizzled with sweetened milk (though I don't know what peanuts have to do with Vietnamese coffee, they added a nice crunchy texture).

For lunch, we ducked behind a downtown mosque, to a shady courtyard curry shop. The richly spiced dishes were excellent- particularly a beef curry with tender strips of okra. It was eaten with roti, which were crisped golden brown. The beverage, though simple, should be noted- bubbling soda water with two wedges of lime, and a little white sugar. After drip coffee and avocado shakes, it's my favorite Vietnamese drink-- perfect for the steamy tropical heat.

For dinner, we chose an outdoor restaurant near the central Ben Thanh market. Among our dishes were grilled shrimp on sugarcane, and a crunchy banh xeo pancake. We have another restaurant there that we favor, and we should have gone there again-- they didn't live up to the quality of their neighbor. At least the Saigon beer was cold.

Hopefully next time I'm in town I'll be better prepared, and feeling a little more adventurous. In the mean time, for an expert's guide to eating in the city, cruise Robyn's Saigon articles on Eating Asia.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Red Bridge Cooking Class in Hoi An.

Back in March, when Bordeaux and I went to Hanoi, we briefly considered taking the long train trip down to Hoi An. Thankfully, we stuck around Hanoi-- at the time, we of course didn't know that we would get to return to Vietnam, and have the chance to spend almost a week in Hoi An. While doing a little online research in Hoi An back then, I encountered the Red Bridge Cooking Class. It sounded great- a chance to cook some local Hoi An dishes in an attractive riverside setting. I bookmarked the page, setting aside just in case.

As we prepared to visit Hoi An, the cooking class at Red Bridge was on the top of our must do list. Upon arriving in town, we stopped by Hai Cafe, where the classes are organized. Two classes were offered at Red Bridge- a half day class and a full day class, each with only one menu available. The full day class offered the chance to make pho bo (beef noodle soup), cha ca (grilled fish) with dill, lemongrass shrimp in banana leaves, and chicken and banana flower salad. Though we love all of these dishes, the menu didn't sound right to us- both pho and cha ca with dill are more associated with Hanoi, and we know how to make banana flower salad. Instead, we chose the half-day class, which seemed to focus more on Central Vietnamese cooking, and had some dishes we wanted to know how to make- eggplant cooked in a claypot, seafood and pineapple salad with fresh herbs, rice paper rolls with freshly made rice paper, and banh xeo, 'Happy pancakes.'

We met the other students at the Hai Cafe, in Hoi An's old town. There, we got the first sign of a major difference between other cooking classes we'd taken-- the number of students was much larger. As we waited for the class to depart, more and more people came, and the class quickly grew to around 20 people- massive, compared to the five person average we'd had at other cooking classes. Thankfully, multiple guides appeared, and we broke up into small six-person groups.

Like most cooking classes, this one began with a market tour. Hoi An has a great central market, and the tour took great advantage of it-- introducing us to local flavors and herbs, strange vegetables and fruits, and interesting utensils that revealed local cooking techniques. Our guide was great- informative, engaging, and funny.

She dropped us at the pier, where we boarded the boat to the cooking school. The trip was a definite highlight- a twenty minute float down the muddy river, past fishing traps and under arching palm leavess. Along the way, an old woman in a canoe, smiling between chomps of betel-nut, motioned our boat over. When we got close, she lassoed us, and hitched a lift off us.

We arrived at Red Bridge Restaurant, easily the most attractive setting for any cooking class we'd taken. Set right on the river, the kitchen was surrounded by lush tropical greenery, and decorated with bamboo blinds and white silk lanterns. After a quick tour of the herb gardens, our guides wished us a good class, and departed-- and we were left to merge the mini groups into one massive class.

We took seats in classroom like rows of chairs, and after a twenty minute wait, our cooking teacher emerged. He seemed tired, bored, and a little disinterested in the class-- fair enough, if he has to teach multiple 20 person classes a week. There were some weak jokes in his script, but he seemed so lifeless that they passed by without him changing the tone or speed of his reading. He proceeded to make the first dish, the seafood salad, completely on his own-- simply showing it to us. The dish was whisked away by one of the many assistants, and he proceeded on to the claypot eggplant. For this, we got our first taste of 'cooking'- we were shown to our stations, told to slice the eggplants, plop it in the boiling water, and add a cup of tomato sauce. We then returned to our seats, and the claypot eggplant was taken away by the staff. It proceeded basically like that for the rest of the class- we made fresh rice paper, but not the filling for the rolls; we quickly made the banh xeo, being prodded to hurry up the whole time by roaming cooking assistants. If any students made a mistake (which I, of course, made several) the assistants became vaguely annoyed, and either corrected them sharply, or simply did it themselves.

Having spent about an hour watching a cooking demonstration, and maybe fifteen minutes actually cooking, we were lead to the dining room for a late lunch. The lunch, at least, was fantastic. The seafood salad was tangy and spicy, the claypot eggplant rich and flavorful (made with, I suspect, more than just a cup of tomato sauce), and an extra dish, steamed ocean fish, was fantastic.

So now, some thoughts.

Good: The class was well-organized, and aside from the way too long wait for our chef to show up, ran smoothly. The market tour was informative, the boat trip was enjoyable, and the lunch was spectacular.

Bad: Maybe I'm hard to please, but the class was run too smoothly. It felt a little like a Theme Park of cookery-- fair enough, this is Hoi An, after all. But there was nothing personal, no individual character to much of it. We were rushed along an assembly line, getting to slice a vegetable here, and roll a salad roll there. Our cooking instructor was clearly bored, and it affected the atmosphere of the class. And really, aside from the discussion on the market tour, we learned nothing about Vietnamese cuisine and culture, or about what makes the cooking of Hoi An and Central Vietnam unique.

Verdict: Would I recommend it? It's complicated. As Bordeaux pointed out, this was the least enjoyable cooking class we've taken. At all of the others, we enjoyed a connection with our instructor and felt like we really got to try our hands at making some local dishes. At the best classes- like Hidden Hanoi- we actually learned about the culture through learning about their cooking.

And yet, I get the sense that almost everyone at the class had a great time. It was, all in all, a pretty fun day-- there were certainly more activities than at any of the other cooking classes I've taken. And we got an outstanding lunch in an incredible setting. And the price- $18- means that it was actually incredibly inexpensive.

So I think for a visitor to Hoi An looking for a fun day out, it's actually a great activity. It gets you beyond the old town to see some of the surrounding countryside, and you get a great lunch out of it. But for someone really interested in cooking, and in the cuisine of Central Vietnam- I think it's kind of disappointing. The full day class, I read later, is done in smaller groups, and is more geared towards this category of student- but it's a shame that the menu doesn't focus more on regional dishes, or offer some variety or choice. Numerous restaurants throughout Hoi An offer private cooking classes, where you have the choice of what to make-- and that may be the better option.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Will resurface soon.

I think this is the longest I've been quiet since I started PrimitiveCulture (hopefully I've still got one or two readers checking in), but I'll try to start posting regularly again. At the moment I'm at the Ho Chi Minh City airport, preparing to return to Thailand. The past month here has been incredible, and though we've been busy working, Bordeaux and I had a great time traveling from Hoi An to Phu Quoc via Saigon. Even though we covered a bit more of the country, I still feel as though I barely know it-- but as always, I got enough of a taste to make me want to come back for much longer some day.

There's a lot I still want to write about- delicious market treats, another cooking course, and --possibly the highlight of the trip-- a too-quick trip across the Mekong Delta (pictured above). But more on all of that soon...

Thursday, October 02, 2008

eating culture/eaten: Candied Ginger.

It's undoubtedly very touristy, but I love the sugared ginger sold by street-vendors in Hoi An. It's crunchy/stringy texture and sharp flavor make it the perfect snack after a mellow meal or during a stroll through the market.