Our last full day in Vietnam was spent at the Hidden Hanoi cooking center. We took a "street food" cooking class in a small group; just us and another couple from Singapore. When we arrived, we were greeted with fragrant Jasmine tea and a short introductory lecture about Japanese cuisine.
We learned first that in Vietnam, breakfast is almost always eaten outside the home at the small, informal eateries along the side of the road to which we had become accustomed. One main reason for dining out is that breakfast dishes are traditionally more intensive dishes, like the famous a flavorful pho (pronounced "fuh") soup made with clear broth, meat, and rice noodles.
For lunch, but especially dinner, people usually prefer to dine at home with their families. Most at home meals have three dishes, all served at the same time from central bowls. The first dish is some sort of green vegetable, such as morning glory, watercress, pumpkin leaves, or spinach, usually boiled, steamed, or stir fried and served al dente. The second dish is something salty, usually meat (especially pork) that is boiled, steamed, or grilled. The Vietnamese custom of over salting meat comes from a way of preserving meat without refrigeration, and also helping meat to stretch through war times. The final dish is some sort of clear broth soup, often just simply the boiling water from the meat or vegetable with spices added. Gently pickled vegetables are commonly served as a condiment. Finally, rice is always included, but doesn't count toward the three dishes. The overall emphasis of the meal, like with much of southeast Asian cuisine is balance: balance between hot and cold, between sweet and salty, between greasy and boiled, between soft and crunchy.
We also learned about the various types of markets common to Vietnam. Most people purchase their food items at either formal markets with official stalls and vendors who pay rent or at informal markets called "frog markets." The later is presumably names because the vendors linger in the street and have to quickly hop away when the police come around to interrupt their sales and confiscate food. Regardless of what market one chooses to shop at, everything is always bought and sold fresh daily, often to the degree that meat and seafood are bought live and killed at home.
Fried Spring Rolls
First we worked on the fried spring rolls, which were filled with pork, shrimp, dried wood ear mushrooms (which look like elephant ears because wood doesn't have ears, obviously) and various other vegetables and Vietnamese seasonings. The spring rolls are fried twice. The first time is to cook the inside and the second time, at a higher temperature, is to crisp up the outside.
We even learned to make tomato roses to plate with the rolls, which is gimmicky but cute.
Bun Cha ("Boon cha")
Bun cha is a Vietnamese street food. Like many street food dishes, it's eaten from a bowl. The broth-like sauce is made from fish sauce, water, and sugar. Unlike the fish sauce we've cooked with in the US, Vietnamese fish sauce has a lighter brown color and a delicately sweet, almost caramel flavor - which explains why in Vietnam it finds its way into almost every dish. Pieces of grilled, marinated pork belly, both straight and in the form of meatballs, swim in the broth alongside pieces of pickled radish and carrot. At the table, the diner tops up his or her bowl with fresh herbs (mint, basil, pernil) and lettuce and dips in fresh rice noodles for a central platter. It's a delicious, fresh, and filling meal, but it takes a while to cook.
Interestingly, while Asia generally rocks at barbecue, Asian sausages (which are commonly grilled) are usually terrible. Most look and taste like pieces of spongy rubber and come in shades ranging from unnatural pink to unsettling grey. Bun cha sausage meatballs, which are made at home, are a rare example of well seasoned, deliciously marinated, and freshly made pork belly goodness.
We loved learning to make bun cha, not only for the joy of eating it but also because it was a dish that we had literally never heard of before arriving in Vietnam. Turns out Vietnamese cuisine is much more varied than pho, bahn mi, and spring rolls!
Above: Making the sausage.
Above: Grillmaster Andrew at work.
Time to eat!
The fresh fruit that we ate for dessert was prepared for us, but I won't miss the opportunity to brag about what was served.
First up was the fresh starfruit. It comes in both green and yellow without much difference in the flavor. Starfruit, has a bright, crisp flavor a bit like a lemony green apple. It's tart but not overly so, and I love the flavor. The best part (aside from it's beautiful shape) is the texture, which is perfectly tender, as if you crossed an apple with a ripe watermelon. The outer skin, which is edible, is thin and waxy. I loved it so much they even let me take home the extra!
Nope not grapefruit; the next fruit we had was pomelo. If your unfamiliar, it's basically a really big grapefruit that is eaten all over Asia. It is very common in Southeast Asia in particular to serve fresh fruit with a mixture of salt an chili. This was already a technique that I do at home with mangoes but I'll try it with a wider variety of fruit from now on!
We loved our cooking class at Hidden Hanoi, and were even sent home with nifty gift bags with the recipes, vegetable peelers, and some jumbo sized chopsticks for frying at home. Next time we see you, we hope you're hungry!