AUTHOR: Julia TITLE: Cooking Classes in Vietnam DATE: 1/16/2009 09:32:00 AM ----- BODY:
One of the best ways to learn about a foreign cuisine is to take a cooking class. In the past few years, dozens of options have popped up in Vietnam -- capitalizing on the booming tourist industry. The larger hotels in Saigon and Hanoi offer upmarket classes at Western prices. In Hoi An, every other restaurants offers some sort of course. With little planning, you can arrange a class any day of the week. Your budget can help in deciding your best option. Here are some other considerations:

Hands-On or Off? For sure, the best learning happens when you try the recipes yourself. However, some people prefer to just watch a demonstration, especially when they're on vacation. And there are varying degrees of hands-on -- some schools will have all the vegetables and other prep done in advance, while other will have you chopping everything right down to the garlic cloves. In any case, most hands-on programs will offer a burner, cutting board and knife for each participant. This allows you to prepare the entire recipe and eat your own creation.

The Recipes? Most cooking schools have set programs and menus. Be sure to inquire in advance about the recipes. If you're interested in learning a particular recipe or technique, you may need to schedule the cooking class on a particular day. If the menu doesn't interest you, look for other options.

The Program? For sure, all programs involve some amount of cooking and eating. Some will offer a market tour as part of the program, others may offer a small section on ingredient identification or on the eating culture. The market tour can be especially interesting if you are unfamiliar with the open, central markets common around the world (except in the US). If you are new to a culture or cuisine, this also offers a great opportunity to become familiar with the more unusual ingredients.

Private or Group? The larger hotels and schools usually offer group classes for up to 16 guests. This can be a fun way to meet other travelers and hear about their adventures. A group class does not necessarily mean the class will be less "hands-on." The smaller restaurants usually offer private classes. Depending on the skill of the instructor this can also mean more opportunity for customization.

On my trip, I took two cooking classes, both of which were recommended by the Lonely Planet.

Hidden Hanoi

These classes are offered in a small cultural center outside the center of town. The class is led by a lovely woman (An) who learned how to cook from her mother and learned beautiful English from an Austrialian in university.

The program begins with an informal discussion of Vietnamese food culture and a video that shows how the locals cook -- with a small burner and a cutting board. No fancy equipment.

I chose the street food menu, which included the Bun Cha and Spring Rolls. In the kitchen, all the vegetables were washed, but nothing had been chopped. We chopped all the vegetables, seasoned all the meats, and rolled all the spring rolls. We started on the cooking of the spring rolls and the meatballs, and An had the assistants finish these tasks for us so we could move on. We also made roses out of tomato skins.

At the end of the class we received the recipes, beautifully wrapped in rice paper with a bow and cooking chopsticks in a little bamboo souvenir purse.

My thoughts
While An is a lovely and articulate woman, her cooking experience is limited. Her recipes, which are quite good, came from her mother. As such, if you have a lot of experience cooking, you may find her lessons a bit remedial. I would have preferred that we chopped less so that we'd have more time to prepare additional recipes. At $40/person, it offered mediocre value: the recipes are great and the gifts were lovely, but did not get added value from the personalized instruction.

Red Bridge Cooking School

This cooking school is located on the outskirts of Hoi An. I enrolled in the Classic Half Day Tour. The program meets at a restaurant in town, and begins with a market tour. Our group of 16 divided into smaller groups so that as we navigated the central market we could gather close enough to our tour guide. He identified many vegetables and gave us opportunities to taste some of the fresh, local fruit. We looked at the fish and fresh noodles. We were introduced to a vendor selling traditional vietnamese knives, and given a sales pitch.

After the tour, we boarded a boat to cruise down the scenic river to the cooking school.
When we arrived at the cooking school we were given a tour of the herb garden and then seated in an open air classroom around a cooking island. A large mirror was strategically placed so we could all see what was happening on the counter. The instructor was the chef at the adjoining restaurant. Behind the demonstration area were 16 cooking stations, so each participant could cook their own dish.

On the menu were 4 dishes: Seafood Salad, Fresh Rice Paper Rolls of Shrimp, Hoi An Pancakes (Banh Xeo) and Vietnamese Eggplant in Claypot. The demonstration was rapid fire, we had an opportunity to try our hand at making the fresh rice paper, the rice pancake and the eggplant. Much of the ingredients and sauces were prepared in advance, so the class focused on the highlights of each recipe.

We sampled the spring rolls and Banh Xeo as we cooked them. At the end of the lesson, we retired to the tastefully appointed, open air dining room. We each enjoyed our individually prepared eggplant. The staff served family style the seafood salad and a behind-the-scenes prepared steam fished.

My thoughts
This was an action packed afternoon, hitting all the key points, but not delving too deeply into any one. Unlike the Hidden Hanoi class, so much of the prep was done in advance that we missed learning how to make the batters for the rice paper and pancakes, as well as all the dipping sauces. But with the recipe hand-outs, I would likely be able to recreate them on my own. The chef was well versed culinarily, but did not allow opportunities for questions.

One of my top goals on this trip was to learn how to make rice paper. I had my opportunity to steam one sheet, remove it from the cotton sheet and roll my own spring roll. I would have liked to practice at least once more, but the pace of the class did not allow for it.

At $22USD per person, this class offered great value - a full meal, a boat tour, a market tour and cooking demonstration. The recipes were deceptively simple because all the prep work was done in advance; they were good, but not great. Some of my classmates commented that they were not likely to recreate the recipes because of all the chopping. I especially enjoyed meeting other travelers, and we had plenty of time to talk to each other.


----- COMMENT: AUTHOR:Blogger Psychgrad DATE:1/16/2009 11:13:00 AM That would be an amazing experience. Good reviews. It sounds like the 2nd school would have been better as a full day so the everything could move more slowly and allow for more experience preparing the dishes. ----- COMMENT: AUTHOR:Blogger Peter M DATE:1/16/2009 12:36:00 PM Sounds wonderful. I think to learn any cuisine, you have to go to the source, eat what the locals are eating and get a sense of their tastes and diet. ----- COMMENT: AUTHOR:Anonymous noble pig DATE:1/16/2009 06:05:00 PM What an experience you've had. It's the only way to learn. Good for you. ----- COMMENT: AUTHOR:Anonymous we are never full DATE:1/16/2009 07:54:00 PM i really enjoyed this synopsis. i've always wanted to do a course abroad but worry about some of the things you mentioned in your post. but thank you for this - very thought provoking. i'm sure it was a great experience/trip with delicious food. i'd love to learn to make rice paper! you totally should post that one when you do it! ----- COMMENT: AUTHOR:Anonymous chefectomy DATE:1/16/2009 10:59:00 PM What a great time. Thanks for the thorough overview.

--Marc ----- COMMENT: AUTHOR:Anonymous Lydia (The Perfect Pantry) DATE:1/17/2009 06:21:00 PM I could have spent a month in Hoi An, exploring the market, learning how to cook, wandering the streets, sitting by the river. What a magical place! ----- COMMENT: AUTHOR:Blogger Julia DATE:1/18/2009 11:00:00 AM Psychgrad, To your point, he second school did offer a full day program, but I felt I didn't want to commit that much time -- as there are some many other things to do and see when traveling.

Peter - Yes! Eating what the locals is key too! Perhaps more important?

Cathy -- It really was great! I highly recommend it.

WANF -- I just tried recreating the rice paper at home and so far have been unsuccessful. I will post something about it as soon as I can figure out what I'm doing wrong :)

Marc - It really was fun!

Lydia -- Did you take any cooking classes on your travels? What was your experience? ----- COMMENT: AUTHOR:Anonymous white on rice couple DATE:1/24/2009 02:30:00 AM Sorry to hear that the classes didn't give you exactly what you were looking for. I think most of them are set up for a quick, synopsis of Viet cuisine and culture.
I think with your extensive experience and skills, you could have almost given the classes!
But the Red Bridge is definitely a deal for $22 especially with such an extensive tour.

Thank for sharing your experience! Your valuable write up will be helpful to many. I'm going to use it as a reference for folks who want to know what it's like first hand to take a cooking class in VN. ----- COMMENT: AUTHOR:Blogger Mary DATE:3/23/2009 10:52:00 AM Julia, you've done a great job with your review of the two schools. One thing I've found as we traveled through Asia is there is a great deal of repetition in the dishes that are prepared in cooking schools. The only way to avoid it is to schedule private lessons that can be tailored to your needs. That gets to be expensive very quickly. ----- COMMENT: AUTHOR:Blogger marker william DATE:3/23/2013 10:27:00 AM Hi
It is very right Common about almost the cooking school in Vietnam But If you have been in Ho Chi Minh City and Enjoy HCM Cooking Class in Cu Chi .You will be very exciting with great healthy Food .The School has been on Big Agricultural Villages where you can see and learning anythings from food and listening the Master Chef with Pharmacist and Biologist explaining so many helpful things .Then we will pick everything that we need for cooking then chopping up and Prepare and Cooking following Master Chef .He has excellent cooking skills and great knowledge about Nutrition .All the food is So delicious and We can cook it at home as well for sure .That I love it so much .I highly recommend this Places for everyone when you visit Vietnam ----- --------