Michael and I spent six hours in a private Vietnamese cooking class while in Hoi An a couple of weeks ago, and as it turns out, that’s a great way to spend six hours.
We’d signed up for a group class (this one, in fact) for $35/person. The instructor came to our hotel at the agreed-upon hour, but asked us if we’d be able to attend a private class the next day instead. He’d overbooked the group, and would give us the private class at the same rate. Yessssss.
We never do that thing where you offer up your seat on the plane to get a free ticket because our schedule is so precisely dialed in, but this situation gave us that thrifty, savvy feeling.
Our guide, Thai, fetched us at 8:30 a.m. from our hotel and asked what we’d like to learn. We told him that we’d like to focus on vegetables at least as much as the meat, and Michael specifically wanted to learn how to prepare pho.
With that, we set out for the market. Thai visited several vendors for different veg because “so-and-so’s family grows this green and so-and-so is so careful and calm with this kind of produce.” In the photo above, we purchased two different varieties of greens.
The passionfruit (in the center of the photo) became a never-ending supply of juice during our class.
We bought quail eggs for our hot pot.
Thai showed us how to prepare blocks of tofu as well as those cannoli-ish tubes, which approximate the texture of meat.
Clams for our appetizer.
The floor of the fish market was covered in water (why did I wear my cute shoes?) and live fish in buckets sloshed around and splashed our legs, but the place smelled surprisingly innocuous.
Shrimp for more snacks.
As with the fish market, the meat market seemed surprisingly clean and odor-free. We bought three different kinds of beef and watched the vendor guide the knife with her finger so close that I shielded my eyes. Thai said she could thin-slice meat with her eyes closed.
In the “pantry goods” (for lack of a better term) section of the market, we purchased black sesame seeds.
A taxi dropped us off at the beach, and we walked past several restaurants to reach this one–rented for our class.
The lack of electricity didn’t hamper us one bit. An assistant readied the prep station for us, and we used two propane burners to cook.
First, we grossed ourselves out and made ourselves proud by cleaning clams.
I made a shallot- and lemongrass-infused oil by cooking the flavorings in the oil, then draining it out separately. The idea is to create a flavor that is subtle and hard to define, but delicious.
We “grilled” the clams in a skillet, then topped each with a couple drops of the infused oil and scallions. With each clam, we scooped up a little of the lime/salt/pepper sauce, which I loved. Appetizers with a view, am I right?
Michael toasted the shallots and ginger, then later the cinnamon and star anise, for the pho.
He then scrunched those ingredients up with a mortar and pestle.
Thai explained that pho is restaurant food–most Vietnamese don’t make it at home because it takes too long and too much fuel, just like the French buy their macarons rather than home-making them. He said it was worth learning the shortcut method (using actual beef instead of bones for the broth), though, because we could probably make it better at home than most American Vietnamese places.
Michael loved it.
Next came the salt-and-pepper prawns (photo at top). We “toasted” the salt and pepper in oil until the flavor changed–this is hard to describe, but it did change. Then, we “grilled” the prawns in the salt-and-pepper oil. The way to eat these prawns is by breaking them open with your hands, eating the meat, and licking the salt and pepper coating off your fingers to adjust the seasoning. Awesome.
We cooked up the first kind of greens with garlic. Before that, though, we heavily toasted the black sesame seeds and lightly salted them. We served the cooked greens over rice with a generous sprinkle of the black sesame seeds and a little fermented tofu (which creeped us out and simultaneously tasted wonderfully cheesy). The black sesame tastes sort of chalky and earthy, but in a good way.
I wish I could remember more about how we grilled the eggplant. Thai taught us to cut it lengthwise to mimic the texture of meat. I think we used the same shallot/lemongrass oil for this, but I could be mistaken. I know we added soy sauce.
The hot pot (bottom left) included two different kinds of tofu prepared two different ways (fried first and not), pork belly, and quail eggs. It was seriously flavorful, but we were so full already that we couldn’t eat very much. We dipped the second round of greens in some of the hot pot broth that we’d poured off for that purpose. The eggplant was one of our favorite dishes overall.
These are all the ingredients for our last soup. Shrimp, chicken bouillon, fish sauce, okra, tomato, tofu, greens, mushrooms, pineapple, and shallots.
So good. Where’s that extra stomach when you need it?
We took one 10-minute break from cooking and walked down the beach to see the basket boats. By lunchtime, some of the other restaurants sleepily awoke for the arriving customers.
Our teacher returned us to our hotel at 2:30, full and giddy. I don’t know how to sign up for this class specifically, but this one is run by the same people. If you’re interested in the private class, I’m sure they could arrange it. Thai was a fun, knowledgeable guide and speaks English very fluently, and the rest of his organization receives great reviews.