Proof of the pudding is in the making

(No.3, Vol.3, Apr 2013 Vietnam Heritage Magazine)

Students cooking under the
instructions of Chef Khang. Photo: Tu Anh

The Hoa Tuc restaurant is in a complex of eateries housed on the grounds of the former opium refinery. Its name means ‘opium poppy’ and it runs half-day gourmet tours with a cookery class on most mornings. If you come here to dine, you can expect traditional local dishes with an innovative twist. In addition, team-building cookery and tailor-made events can be arranged.
I was a member of a group of eight who assembled early one morning at the Ben Thanh market. Under the guidance of Chef Khang, we were there to view some of the ingredients we were to use to cook three famous local dishes. Previously thinking tofu was one thing only, I learned about the different varieties about this important ingredient for a country with many Buddhists. I got to know what a taro and a kumquat look like and which part of a lotus stem can be used in cooking. The Australians among us compared the price of a lime here (1000 dongs or five cents) with that back down under (one dollar twenty five cents). Mr Khang further gave us a rundown on the array of tropical fruits of Southern Vietnam.
It was a short taxi ride from the market to the restaurant and then straight down to the cooking class. Mr Khang’s English was as clear as a bell and his culinary vocabulary quite amazing. On one occasion-and this was due to my poor listening-there was a comic moment. ‘Do we cut off the prawn’s tail’ I asked. ‘No leave that on,’ our chef replied. ‘Too late now’, I lamented. My class was comprised of two Aussie ladies, a Taiwanese couple and a pair of ladies from South Korea, as well as a Japanese woman. We were only two men. If you are a man reading this, I can assure this is a worthwhile experience for you, too. All of my class mates were clearly experienced in the kitchen. I might describe myself as an elementary cook only, but in the hands of this sympathetic instructor, even a complete beginner would not be too challenged.
Our first dish which had us up chopping finely, dicing and rolling tightly, was ‘Mustard Leaf Roll with Crunchy Veggies’, topped with the aforementioned prawn. The stuffing consisted of lotus stem, palm heart, carrot, onion, cashew, shallots and herbs. Once done, we sat down and ate our creations as with the other two dishes which I proceed to describe. No complaining to the cook if you do not like it!
The next challenge were the ‘Sticky Rice Fritters Stuffed with Pork and Carrot’, for we which we practiced our stuffing skills and had a sizzling time deep frying our rice balls until they were as brown as toast.
The final grilling for we students was preparing a very popular dish you can easily find in Southern Vietnam - ‘Bun Thit Nuong’ or barbecued pork strips served with noodles and raw veggies. I loved using the double hand-held grill; the like of which you might see in the west only for spatchcock.
Finally, I should add that you also learn the secrets of making accompanying sauces and dips, notably ‘nuoc mam’ or fish sauce. Here you will learn the sweet southern version.
All in all, I felt a great sense of achievement as Chef presented me with my souvenir pamphlets of the recipes with key words translated into Vietnamese and personally signed ‘Congratulations.’ Whilst I will still leave the cooking at home largely to my Vietnamese wife, I came away with a greater appreciation of this country’s cooks and a greater knowledge of what I put into my mouth here on a daily basis.

Saigon Cooking Class at Hoa Tuc Restaurant
74 Hai Ba Trung St, Dist.1, HCMC
Tel: (08) 3825-8485

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