A 6:45am rise on a holiday is not my idea of fun or relaxation. But that’s the time the iPhone alarm went off as we were heading out very early for the Red Bridge cookery course.
At the Hai Cam cafe in old town Hoi An for 8am, we joined Lindsey from Chicago for a day long adventure in vietnamese ingredients and cuisine. Just the three of us along with our guide for the day, Susan, we drove off in an air conditioned mini bus, first stop Tra Que Organic village.
Tra Que is basically a large herb farm where no pesticides are used. Susan picked out the thai basil, with its aniseed flavouring; lemon basil, which was very lemony; row after row of spring onion; tall lemongrass; vietnamese mint, very peppery; sweet potatoes, the leaves can be used in salad; papaya trees, small but with large fruits; water spinach with enormous leaves; and some rogue ‘English’ mint, the mint we already know, and the type used in mojitos.
We stopped at a family home for some refreshment. Complimentary water, ginger, sugar and small dark translucent vietnam basil seeds, it looked like frog spawn, and before telling us what it was, Susan joked that’s what it actually was. We finished up with some lessons in banana leaf jewellery.
Back in the air conditioned van and to the local market. Susan guided us through the carnage that is the buying and selling of fresh food; complete with horrors and delights.
Piled high were dragonfruit, green vietnamese oranges, cucumbers, pineapples, aubergines, carrots and banana flowers (some of which we bought for later).
To the seafood section, with shrimp, prawns, mackerel, crab, sardines, squid, red snapper, octopus and even sting ray. And then around to the horrors of the meat section. Live toads trapped in bags, queuing before being skinned alive. Pigs noses and all sorts of meat joints being chopped with cleavers; waste not want not, meat falls on the bloody market floor, that’s ok, just pick it up again, and carry on.
Then there were the eggs. Duck eggs, quail eggs, and so on. And then the fertilised eggs, the eggs that contain the half formed baby ducklings and chicks. Our guide bought two for her breakfast. We were intrigued.
We had just a couple more things to pick up for the cooking. Some more herbs, some rice noodles, a banana flower. We tasted some more oddities too, a leaf that had a distinct mustardy aftertaste, ah, it clicked, this is wasabi. Or more, wasabi is made from the roots of this.
Sam picked up a weird looking vegetable, “Bitter melon”, Susan told us. We tried a bit, eugh, yes, that’s bitter alright, but more like a pepper. A really bitter pepper.
Back to the van and south east to the Red Bridge cooking compound. Newly built and very stylish, it housed a swimming pool, a couple of cooking areas and a restaurant, all alongside a calm river. We relaxed by the pool with some drinks before beginning our cooking lessons. Susan called us over so we could have a look at her duckling before she ate it, even offering us to try, but we turned her down. “Keeps you young and strong”, she said.
For a moment I watched a crazy thought pass through Sam’s head, “should I try it?”, “hmmm”, I was ready to dive in and tell her not to.
Our first lesson was a simple crispy shallot recipe. A garnish that’s used on everything in Vietnam. Chop up the shallots, cook them in lots of fat, drain and voila. A little like cheese and onion crisps if you ask me.
We were going to make a beef pho, and to begin we needed a good broth. We barbecued some lemongrass, an onion and several random bones of beef. When ready, we cleaned them off in a boiling pan of water, and then moved to a second pan, which would become our broth. A cleaner, less fatty broth mixture, less skimming required. A very useful tip.
We’d leave that broth cooking for a long while. Next we prepared some chilli, sugar and salt to make a pho garnish. Mostly just chopping and talking.
Pho also needs rice noodles. We were shown how to make a rice noodle mix; soaking rice in water until translucent and then rigorously blending to form a thick but smooth white mixture. We spread this mixture thinly and evenly over muslin stretched across a pan of boiling water. One Vietnamese minute later and we had our cooked mixture. Skewering carefully with a bamboo stick, we lifted the noodle from the cooking drum onto a plate, carefully folding as instructed. A little bit of oil, and some lengthways slicing and we each had our noodles! Easy, interesting and exciting.
While cooking, we snacked on the spare rice noodle circles, placed within a crunchy sesame seed rice cake and dipped in a chilli sauce.
The appetiser dish was lemongrass shrimp. With a wooden pestle and mortar we ground up lemongrass, chilli, shallots, sugar, salt and pepper. Then we mixed in the uncooked shrimps and wrapped carefully in several layers of banana leaf, all ready to be barbecued. Really easy and simply scrumptious, we will be making this a lot!
On to the next dish, clay pot fish, or mackerel with fresh dill and turmeric. We split the tasks on this one, I ground up the turmeric, and ran the risk of staining my clothes, Sam chopped the mackerel into 1cm cubes and Lindsey chopped up the dill (which comes from north Vietnam where it’s cooler). With the smashed up turmeric we again added salt, sugar, pepper, and the usual, before cooking in oil. I stirred the oil continuously until it came to the boil, then added a few cups of water the fish and the dill, and left it to cook on the gas hob. It became quite stew like, and the chef later garnished with nuts before serving
By now our Pho broth was cooked up and ready to eat. Pouring the broth over our thinly sliced beef cooked it instantly. We combined it with our noodles and a variety of fresh herbs we’d picked earlier in the day. It’s the fresh herbs that make it special, such a powerful fresh flavour. We put chillies on top and washed it all down with Tiger beer.
One final dish for us to prepare. A simple chicken, or in Lindsey’s case, calamari, salad. Group work again, we grated papaya, cucumber and carrot. And added chilli and lemon, before marinating the chicken/calamari in a soy, fish sauce, salt and sugar combination.
The chefs went away and cooked this while we relaxed by/in the pool. We drunk our complimentary wine and discussed American politics, travelling around East Asia and the varying ways the UK, US and Vietnam are different.
We gathered around the table to eat our now ready salad, mountains of delicious food. Once again, we picked from a variety of herbs to garnish our salad and build its flavour. A useful exercise, though we made the mistake of not snapping the water spinach stalks.
With the day edging on, the clouds began to appear, build up and look threatening. We moved to the main restaurant to eat our final dish, the fish in clay pot, and to pick up aprons, recipes and tidbit utensils.
With the sky ready to rain down on us, we skipped the boat ride back home and took the minibus back, changing into our wet weathers on the way. We said goodbye to Lindsey, and I left Sam to revisit all the clothing shops to pickup her orders, try things on and make adjustments.
Meanwhile I simply relaxed by the room, typing out this here blog on my iPad, outside in the humid hot afternoon, the rain hammering down beyond the porch.
[Right now I’m in Hue, our next stop, sipping a watermelon milkshake, sitting in the hotel bar, listening to chill-out nondescript music.]
Our final night in Hoi An, we were ready to move on. But this town really is lovely. The coloured lanterns that hang in the shop windows on the waterfront give the place a magical atmosphere. As do the occasional candles that float downstream.
We took in the sights once more, and ticked the boxes that hadn’t been ticked: the small market over the bridge in An Hoi; crossing the Japanese bridge and visiting that part of town; buying stylish trinkets. For once it wasn’t raining, the moon and the stars were out whilst a storm in the distance occasionally dazzled us with a light show.
We settled on the Cargo Club restaurant for our evening meal, it came with a lovely balcony seat overlooking the serene river. There’s a Hoi An specialty we hadn’t yet tried, Cao Lau. Dark yellow noodles, a pork broth, beansprouts, with various greens and salad. Sam knew she was eating this, while I had a crispy pork salad. All very tasty, and accompanied with a chilled white vietnamese coffee. The downstairs delicatessen looked great, so we finished up with a mango cheesecake and a passion fruit cake.
Our time in Hoi An was coming to a close, and we were sad to be leaving, despite all the “you buy something?” and tourist haggling (part and parcel of any trip to Vietnam), this place is really quite special.
We wandered the streets back to the Life Heritage Resort on the edge of town, past the closed market and beneath the big banyan tree with all its lanterns.
Goodbye Hoi An, you’re too charming.