04 August 2009

A Cooking Lesson in Hoi An

Strong Coffee in the morning. "Like a shot of whiskey" my grandpa used to say....

For my birthday this year (in May) we were in Hoi An, Vietnam - a pretty little jewel of a city in Central Vietnam and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site due its historical downtown shopping district. One of my BFF's (Willie) and his girlfriend (Alexis) were backpacking with us for 3 weeks.

Good Morning Vietna.....oh sheesh.

The morning of my birthday we started off with 2 big bowls of the most delicious noodle dish I have ever eaten - Cao Lau. Hoi An is known throughout Vietnam as a culinary destination due to the efforts of one family. It is they who make the famous Cao Lau noodles and wonton wrappers with water from one special well, noodles so unique and yummy that over the generations the operation has been forced to move from a small home to a factory that supplies the whole city. The noodles are slightly gummy, but in a good way - served with a sweet broth and a selection of vegetables that vary depending on the restaurant. In this case it was black ear mushrooms, pineapple, carrots, tomato and basil with big chunks of tofu and special croutons.

It was so delicious that over breakfast Willie and I decided to take a cooking class for lunch while S and Alexis went shopping and poking around.


We started our class with a tour of the market, purchasing fresh ingredients to make our five course lunch. This woman asked him to sit down take a photo with her, and then her friendly face turned serious as she looked at him and said "1 dollar." I was like "but you're not even in a costume or anything! You're just a lady in a flowered shirt!" He paid. I sure the heck wouldn't've.

All in a day's work.

The market was packed to the rafters with fresh fish, produce and spices - a living (and sometimes still breathing) display of how valued whole food is in this country. Not the shrink-wrapped, preservative-laden pseudo Franken food that you would find in a Safeway, no siree. This is as nutritious and fresh as it gets.

Red Gold and Green, Red Gold and Gree-eee-eee-eeen.....

I am completely sold on any cuisine that features this many colourful spices. My mum and I lived with my grandparents when I was a kid, and my Ukrainian g-ma used exactly three colours of seasoning: white (salt and a ton of fresh garlic) black (pepper) and red (Lowry's seasoning salt.) My Irish grandpa did her one better and added old dried out rosemary (from one unending box in the cupboard) to his sporadic cooking. (I could never figure out what the shit was always in his Italian food, the things I called twigs and picked out of my mouth.) Even my mum, who is an amazing chef, veers toward Mediterranean foods. But as an adult I have discovered all of the Asian spices: tumeric, chilies, cumin, coriander, fenugreek, asafoetida, cloves and many more. Thank god. White, black and red (and sometimes faded old green) were getting boring.

Let's just get this whole bowla water on a flame.

Holy crap! Holy ever loving crap! I know it is hard to tell, but this metal bowl is HUGE and those shramp are the size of small lobsters. These would be good contenders for my shrimp vase of hospitality....

My first time cooking an entire fish, head'n all.

Getting down to business now. We arrived back at the kitchen and began to prepare our meal: A whole fish cooked in banana leaves, squid stir-fried with lemongrass and garlic, deep fried veggie spring rolls, special Hoi An wontons (with pork - S and I ate around the meat bulb in the middle) and rice.

Better than a punching bag.

Getting to work with a mortar and pestle - there is something so luxuriously stress relieving and sociopathically Nigella-like about pounding the hell out of your food. This is a mixture of lemongrass (which I secretly do not like and forgot to tell them before we started) garlic, ginger and shallot. Replace the lemongrass with basil and I would be one happy camper.

We all keep a barbecue in the house, am I right?

We sliced the fish and stuffed it with lemongrass, scallions, garlic, ginger and melted butter, wrapped it all up in the banana leaves and then onto the barbecue for about 30 minutes while we moved onto preparing the other dishes.

Willie, it's almost as if you have experience rolling things...

I had no idea deep fried spring rolls were so easy! S (the most amazing vegan chef EVER) always makes these big fresh salad roll things and even though they are delicious they always fall apart and get kind of soggy, and that's without them going near a fryer. I now know that's because we cram too much stuff into them (I like to live in excess, what can I say? More is more!) The secret is to only put a pinch of veggies in the middle, seal them with egg and pop them into a wok filled with potentially disfiguring boiling oil.

To Jerk: Happy Birthday.
Love: the Squid.

Here is a secret: I had never ever cooked squid before this day (except when playing Cooking Mama.) I'll confess - I often find squid incredibly creepy unless it is in tiny approachable calimari rings with no tiny legs As a child I loved calimari, which my mum told me was "Greek chicken." Turns out that she and my stepdad were just quickly eating all of the leggy ones when I was not looking... Imagine my surprise and horror when I encountered what I thought was a deep fried spider on my plate at the age of nine. Not pleased.

"Willie. Stop fumbling with my camer...aww, you're getting squid juice on it. Hurry - my smile is starting to look fake and strained...."

It turns out that slicing through these big rubbery squid tubes is actually really fun. And while I did not enjoy the altogether too tender, rubber bandy texture of these I would definitely jump at the chance to cook them again.

The full meal deal.

The final result was pretty amazing - even though I didn't love the lemongrass all over all kindsa everything. The fish was tender and perfectly cooked, the spring rolls were crispy and the wontons (sans porc) that we covered in sauce and veggies were as good as the Cau Lao. I want to be adopted by this noodle makin' family in Hoi An just so I can eat this every day.

That may just be a mango mojito. Happy Birthday to me!

For supper that night we headed to Mango Rooms, one of my favourite restaurants in Asia. It was my second visit - the first was last year on a work trip to Vietnam and I was dying to order the seared Ahi tuna with mango salsa. I was not disappointed! And because it was a Tuesday (I mean, my birthday) we finished the night with more dranks around town. The resulting hangover is probably what led to Willie polishing off our cold cooking class leftovers the next morning, straight from the fridge with his hands........

If you are in Hoi An I absolutely recommend taking a cooking class - you will have so much to impress your friends with when you get home, and you'll get to cut squid, bash lemongrass around and stuff a whole fish. What could be better?


The Bug said...

The fish sounds great - but I don't know that I can get around how creepy & crawly the food is when you're preparing it. Just give me the final product & I'll be perfectly happy!

Kristin said...

Very fun post to read. I found you on Blogs of Note. I love to travel but didn't have funds this year--so I will live vicariously through your posts!

Dawn (dandy) said...

I cannot wait to share this post with my fiance!!

Holly said...

Core, everything looks so yummy and I usually don't like many fish dishes. I want to slice a squid now too hehe.

Holly x


*jean* said...

what a wonderfully funny post! and your meal looks just incredible....i'm jealous....

Maggi said...

How did you end up on such an interesting trip? I've been reading your blog pretty regularly, and it makes me wish I was experiencing all of the amazing things that you get to experience. How long have you been gone?

kanmuri said...

Sounds like a lot of fun. I'll try to take a cooking lesson when I go to Vietnam :D

Katie said...

I am a total foodie, so I really enjoyed this post. The cooking class sounded amazing. I really enjoy squid, but I've never prepared it myself. Too bad you didn't post any recipes. :)

Sidthegnomenator said...

Fantastic post, not sure about the noodles for breakfast though!

I will just say that I started baking my own brean simply because of the de-stressing element I got from beating the dough up. I'm stealing your term "sociopathically Nigella-like" for future references to this, though.


Marguerite said...

It all looked like a lot of fun and the food looked great. I love trying new cuisine. Glad you had a happy birthday!

Violet Dear said...

Maggi - I have been away for 10 months, and plan to stay away for another 3 or so....(I am on my way home for one week right now though - it feels weird to be 'visiting')

I saved a lot and planned a lot - but anyone can do it!

Cheers - Thanks for reading! :)

Cw said...

Ahhh adventures in foreign food.. We did have a riotous time didn't we! Saving for South America starts in September... I'm gonna follow your "rules" for travel saving.
Miss yah jess!


Pat said...

I love your comments under the photos! They are too funny! And how cool to take a cooking class in another country! What a great adventure you are on!

brypie said...

im hungry looking at all that food :)