I’m a bit of a food snob.
There, I said it.
So after seeing the chic Saigon Cooking Class website, I was excited to see what a cooking class housed in what used to be Saigon’s Opium Refinery (built in 1881 and center of the red light district in the 50s and 60s) would be like.
The morning class started with a tour of Ben Thanh, the iconic market with its distinctive clock tower of postcard fame. I have to admit, I was a bit disappointed when I heard that’s where we’d be meeting, as my impression of Ben Thanh is a market rife with foreigners being hassled into buying overpriced Vietnamese kitsch. But Ms. Ilda Briosco, owner and Managing Director of the school reassured me, “We chose Ben Thanh because it’s very close. While it’s touristy, it has some of the freshest items and is very clean in comparison to some of the other local markets with their dirty, sticky floors”. While I’ve been to Ben Thanh market a dozen times, I have to admit that this was the most entertaining and informative visit.
I was met by Chef Luyen, a diminutive woman with an easy, toothy smile. Armed with a grocery list, we wound our way through the many stalls selling everything from brains to broccoli, dragon fruit (pink on the outside, white or magenta on the inside with a mildly sweet, crunchy taste) to durian. I was impressed with how talkative the sellers were. In my own experience, market sellers aren’t a friendly bunch, especially with people they don’t know. And if they think you’re not going to buy anything, they’re just as likely to not give you the time of day. But we had a blast chatting with some of the people in this frenetic market. There was the lady who sold everything made from the lotus plant, from the seeds to the stalks to the leaves. “Vietnamese people use everything”, says Luyen.
I saw that this was true as we rounded the corner and saw pig ears, brains and intestines for sale. According to Luyen, the meat section of the market opens in the early morning hours (2-3 am), so early shoppers are guaranteed the freshest cuts. “Vietnamese like their beef tender but their chicken chewy”, remarked Luyen as we passed by the meat stalls. “Westerners like their chicken plump, industrialized, while we prefer our chicken chewy, with texture”. Another Vietnamese friend of mine, also a cook, described eating industrialized chicken as “eating air”.
We made our way past spices piled high as well as vibrantly colored fruits and herbs that I had never seen before.
In the 40 minutes or so we were in the market, Luyen answered all my questions and if she didn’t know something, she’d stop to ask. It was nearly the most fun I’ve ever had in a market.
After ticking off the day’s ingredients, we made our way via a short taxi ride back to the cooking school, located on the second floor, above the Hoa Tuc restaurant, set amidst a cluster of trendy restaurants at 74 Lý Tự Trọng Street in District 1. (With no signage at the street level, look for a yellow archway across from the Park Hyatt.) The space is one big airy room with kitchens and an office in the back. Floral stencils on the pale yellow walls brightened up the space in a Parisian 1930s Art Deco kind of way.
The school specializes in simple, traditional meals. Ilda, who hails from France, had a vision to discover local ingredients and cooking methods (think charcoal braziers instead of ovens), fusing her obvious passion for cooking with her own culinary experiences. Her partner managed the successful Hoa Tuc restaurant below and two years later, the cooking school opened in response to clients who wanted to learn how to make the food. “Vietnamese cuisine has very strong flavors – nuoc mam (fish sauce), kumquat (a small citrisy fruit), ginger… It’s time consuming to make and it’s all about the balance and combination”.
The morning of the class, it was just me and Meghna, a Singaporean housewife who had never tried Vietnamese food before moving to Saigon with her husband. The pace of the class was lighthearted as we plied Chef Luyen, who has quite good English, with our questions. We learned that peanut butter, while considered a breakfast food in most countries, is used in lots of Vietnamese sauces. Also that the best quality fish sauce is 60% fish sauce, 30% water and 10% salt. While any kind of fish can be used, the best is anchovy, and is why Vietnamese fish sauce is better than Thai (made with sardines) or Cambodian (made with shrimp) varieties. Aged / fermented in wooden barrels for a year, it can be used for 2 years after.
In no time, we set out bringing the day’s 3-course menu to life: fresh spring rolls with prawn, pork and rice noodles with a black bean and peanut dipping sauce, green mango salad with baby spinach and grilled chicken sate and finally fried rice with lotus seeds, prawns and vegetables all wrapped up in a lotus leaf.
While some of the dishes were more assembling than cooking (for instance, all the ingredients for the fresh spring rolls were pre-prepared and just needed to be rolled up), all the dishes were visually appealing with vibrant colors and a variety of textures.
My favorite had to be the contemporary take on mango salad, especially with the spicy, sweet and sour dressing and the addition of a local vegetable translated as crab herb (cang cua), which added a light, delicate freshness to the dish.
Here’s how it’s made:
Sweet and Sour Dressing
2 1/2 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon + 1 teaspoon fish sauce
3 1/2 tablespoons rice vinegar
1 teaspoon minced garlic
1 small red chili de-seeded and minced
Mix all ingredients together until sugar is completely dissolved. Set aside.
4 chicken thighs, boneless and skin removed
1/2 tablespoons chili sate (2 small spicy chillies, 1 clove garlic, 1 tablespoon oil)
2 cloves of shallots, peeled and chopped
2 pinches of black pepper
1 teaspoon fish sauce
2 tablespoons oil
Prepare the sate by combining ingredients and stir-frying for 2 minutes with a pinch of salt. Set aside. Marinate chicken with all ingredients and set aside for 20 minutes. Chargrill, cool, and cut into 4cm slices. Set aside.
160g crunchy mango, julienned
80g carrots, julienned
40g red capsicum (peppers), julienned
80g cang cua herb
60g baby spinach
40g shallots, peeled and finely chopped, with rice vinegar
Vietnamese basil, roasted peanuts
Mix all ingredients and top with slices of chicken and crushed peanuts. Add dressing just before serving.
For the final dish, we made a lotus fried rice, complete with crunchy lotus seeds. The wow factor came when we lined a bowl with a lotus leaf, tipped the rice into it and folded it over to make a kind of lotus-leaf package. After leaving it for a few minutes to infuse the rice with the scent of lotus, we slit open the package, releasing the tantalizing steam in a fanciful presentation.
After each dish, we had some time to taste what we had just made. Iced tea or water was included.
All together, I appreciated the attention to presentation. I attribute this to both of the main chefs having 5 star hotel backgrounds (hailing from the Caravelle and Sofitel / Intercontinental). I can see these complex yet unintimidating dishes served at a colorful dinner party amongst friends.
Just after noon, the final course was served – a tart passion fruit custard (prepared for us), after which we were given a little recipe booklet. Kudos to Saigon Cooking Class – where food meets art!
How to book: See the school’s easy to navigate website, www.saigoncookingclass.com. Now through September 16, enjoy reduced rates on the half-day gourmet tour at USD 40 (regularly USD 45.50). Classes without the market visit are USD 35 (regularly USD 39.5). But if you haven’t been to the market with a local before, I’d highly recommend it (market tours only available in the morning). Classes are busiest on Sundays and in the mornings with an average of 8-12 participants (half that in the afternoons). The menu changes daily and I saw dishes that I’d want to learn on every menu.
Disclosure: While I was a guest at the Saigon Cooking Class, as always, the opinions expressed on this blog are solely mine.