It’s a disaster around me. The explosive sounds are deafening; I can’t hear anything he’s saying. The smells are overpowering, leaving me desperate for fresh air. I’m in a panic and look to him for guidance. I don’t know what to do next, so I freeze…
I’m in a cooking class in Hanoi.
Although this is meant to be a group affair, I’m the only student today, as nobody else signed up and my travel buddy, Ashleigh, is lying in our hotel room with a bad flu, ingesting meds and trying not to die.
I have chosen the KOTO Hanoi restaurant for the session, partly because they received excellent reviews on TripAdvisor, but mostly because they seem to be the only one offering cooking classes during the low season. The organization’s acronym stands for Know One, Teach One, and they are a social enterprise dedicated to training disadvantaged Vietnamese youth, giving them the skills necessary to find employment in the hospitality industry. A worthy organization, I think, and this is how I end up alone at this Hanoi establishment on a gusty Wednesday morning.
By the time I walk up the five flights of stairs to the top deck, where my cooking lesson will begin, I am sweaty and out of breath. The chef turns and looks surprised at the sight of me. While he was perhaps expecting a cooking expert or gourmet food aficionado, he instead gets me, a gangly Westerner in a tank top and a skirt two sizes too big (weight loss is inevitable when you are regularly eating Asian-sized portions of food, walking for hours each day, and losing nine litres of water weight per hour in sweat).
I look uncertainly at the equipment around me and introduce myself to the instructor. He is tall and most definitely younger than me, although due to the fact that everyone in this country appears to have flawless skin and a youthful laugh, I can’t tell by how much. I am a sweaty mess, my lion-esque hair has freed itself from the elastic which I naively thought could contain it, and – by the fear on my face – it must be obvious to him that cooking is not a thing I do.
First things first. We head to the nearby market to pick up some ingredients. Once there, we pass bags upon bags of dried mushrooms, baskets filled with colourful but otherwise unidentifiable vegetables, and strings of raw fish lying flat on beds of newspaper. Their eyes are wide open in shock, their mouths agape – they never saw that hook coming.
The chef points out the various ingredients we will be using in our lesson. Seeing some vendors he knows, he walks over and a short conversation ensues. Then, he introduces me. One of the more chatty vendors looks me up and down, grins, and says in Vietnamese: “Naoghaosidungfilukangaolo.”
“Xin chao,” I say, using the only word I know. Hello.
She laughs and asks, “Ewidsgnxfeldfksldhweoifh?”
“Xin chao,” I respond again.
After further exchanges, which result in hilarity for all involved but me, it’s decided by all parties that no useful information will be gained from this. I am led by the chef back to the cooking school, where our lesson will now begin.
Fried spring rolls
We start with the most basic of Vietnamese cuisine – the spring roll, or cha gio. I have made spring rolls before, in China and Canada, so I’m confident that my expertise will shine through and that the chef will commend me for my perfectly executed and delicious tasting rolls.
We spread the rice paper on the counter and he demonstrates which vegetables to put inside: finely grated carrots, sliced shallots, crushed garlic, chopped mung bean noodles, and dried mushroom pieces. I enthusiastically plop the chosen veggies into the middle of the thin paper and start rolling.
The chef watches me, appalled, as I attempt to roll enough food for a full meal in something slightly bigger than my hand. Three things I did not consider before rolling:
1) We’re making 16 of these bad boys, and there needs to be enough ingredients to go around.
2) If there is too much crap on the rice paper sheet when rolling, it won’t fit, meaning a large portion will end up on your hands, on the counter, and on the floor. Oops…
3) The rice paper sheet, while flexible and strong, is not a magical elastic band, and will rip if filled over capacity.
My first spring roll could feed a family of four. It has torn from my attempts to overstuff it with veggie goodness and is three times the size of the chef’s example roll. It looks like a soggy plastic bag has thrown up on the table. I put it aside and begin attempt number two.
Our next challenge is marinated grilled pork, or thit nuong. This will definitely be my forte, my chance to regain my instructor’s respect. I have done Korean bbq so many times that cooking pork in a pan will not be a problem.
The chef brings out two bowls of raw pork that has been marinating in a special sauce all night. The pork is in a ball, and the marinade, while smelling fantastic, is the colour of blood and the consistency of a pulpy juice.
I gingerly take my giant raw pork ball out of the bowl and copy the instructor. He is ripping apart chunks of pork into bite sized-pieces and laying them flat on the cutting board. I follow suit, and realize this is harder than it looks. The meat clings to the ball, refusing to be freed no matter how much I tug.
We manage to separate all the meat and spread out the pieces. I look at the chef’s even pieces, while mine are of all different shapes and sizes, like a fleshy commercial for pork diversity, or a poorly made animal-carcass jigsaw puzzle.
That aside, it’s time to start grilling and stop fretting that my pork pieces do not meet the unrealistic beauty standards that have been set for them. We put our pieces into a pan that is sizzling with oil. Immediately, the pan hisses, splattering oil in every direction. I scream with surprise, and the chef gives me a withering glance, the kind of look I only recall getting from my high school math tutor and my mother.
He reaches across and turns down the heat on my burner; the sizzling dies down to a muted whine.
“It is too hot,” the chef tells me, with the patience of an elementary school teacher explaining to a class of children why it’s not okay to draw pictures of poo inside their textbooks.
After a few minutes, the pork is done. Mine comes out a little burnt and a little harder than desired, but is generally edible. I have lowered the standards for my cooking abilities; edible is the new excellent.
Banana flower salad
The next dish, the banana flower salad (nom hoa chuoi), basically consists of putting stuff together on a plate. I can definitely handle this.
The chef hands me the ingredients – some banana flowers, fresh mint, roasted peanuts, shrimp, and more. From the pictures I have seen of this delish dish, and from having it myself at various Vietnamese restaurants, I know that the key is placement. With care, I flaunt my superb decorative skills, carefully placing the vegetables in between the banana flowers, which have been sliced neatly into little rings. I start to add the shrimp around the pile, like gargoyles around a Gothic cathedral, ensuring that each one is equidistant to the others, and sprinkle the peanuts around the creation like –
“What are you doing? It doesn’t have to be perfect…”
The chef, who finished making his salad five minutes ago, takes the bowl of peanuts and throws them at the pile. They land haphazardly, but it gets the job done. He then plops the rest of the vegetables into the pile, messing up the layers I had painstakingly created, and also inadvertently killing my soul. He’s the bully on the beach who just destroyed my sandcastle…
Bananas in coconut milk
Now, the pièce de résistance of this lesson: dessert. This simple dish, bananas in coconut milk, or che chuoi, is precisely why I cook: because afterwards, you can stuff yourself with delicious things!
We chop up the bananas into bite-sized pieces and dump them into a saucepan that’s already bubbling with coconut-y liquid. The chef takes the bag of granulated sugar and pours some in without a measuring cup. He tastes some off of a spoon and looks satisfied.
“Uh… how much are we supposed to put in?” I ask.
“As much as you want. Put some in little by little and taste it to see if it’s sweet enough for you.”
I obey his instructions and pour. I taste it, burning my tongue in the process. Nope, not sweet enough. I repeat and pour more sugar into the saucepan.
“Uh…” the chef looks into the saucepan. “I think that’s enough…”
I taste it again. Nope, not good. I add more in.
The chef looks panicked. “Ok, that should be sweet enough!”
He removes the bag from my hand and hides it. I am annoyed at being treated like a petulant child, but I comply and stir my less-than-satisfactory dessert stew. He takes a clean tablespoon from the counter and dips it into my concoction. His face reveals either disgust or constipation.
“What? You don’t like it?”
Without saying a word, he dumps the spoon into the sink and turns his back on me.
I have now completed the “Hanoi Street Food” cooking class. In the three-hour session, I learned how to make fresh spring rolls, fried spring rolls, marinated pork, banana flower salad, and bananas in coconut milk. And I have the scars to prove it: angry red spots on my arms from the cooking oil, a pain in my tongue from the overheated coconut milk, and the searing shame of knowing I have butchered a cuisine that is centuries old and brings pride to the Vietnamese people.
I lay out my exploded spring rolls, blackened pork, lacklustre banana flower salad, and tooth-rotting, over-sweetened dessert, and start to do what I do best: stuff my face with food.
To see more photos from Hanoi and northern Vietnam, go to my album on Flickr!