Saigon Cooking Class By Hoa Tuc
Recently, while flipping through the channels, I stumble across with Luke Nguyen’s cooking show, prompt me of my Vietnamese cooking class I had while visiting Ho Chi Minh back in 2012. It wasn’t a planned trip, Badri was instructed to fly to Ho Chi Minh particularly in Vung Tau to teach the local something to do with systems, I heard the news and asked if I could join him for the trip with my own ticket and annual leave. It was a discreet moved, my section mates thought I’m just taking some leave but everybody on Badri’s section knew about my trip. It was a good move, when the lady next to my cubicle knew about my trip next week later, she said she wanted me to do some souvenir shops for her. She was talking about the fabrics and crapes in the Ben Thanh Market. Me doing souvenir shopping? Crapes? No way.
We landed in Ho Chi Minh in the afternoon, Muhammad the local Vietnamese already waiting for us, we jumped on the van, stop by at the office before continued the ride to Vung Tau from dusk till night. I remember we stopped at the resting area, we were having a monk’s dinner, a humble meal of rice with group of black mushrooms, fried tofu, bunch of fried pale green long bean and lots of tiny short of brown thing. It was dry and the rice is sticky, I poured over the dark soy sauce to lubricate it. The meal was tasteless but it was a live saver for that night.
“This is food for monk,” said Muhammad. “No animal.”
“This one? Milk?” I asked.
“This one can la,” he said. “When we traveled around Vietnam we always go for vegetarian and we have to explain to them to cooked without animal like pork soup.”
“I see, when you were studied in Malaysia it must be heaven for you to eat everything,” I said.
Next day, I sat by the window from the bedroom, looking out the wet town of Vung Tau. Badri spent his day at work while I spent the day in the room since it was raining from morning till the afternoon. I managed to walk around in the early morning before it wet and became the target for the local the moment I step foot on the street. I thought they just being nice like a friendly neighbour but the truth is they were trying to make a money. There is one particular guy persistently followed me on his bike. I remember his white shirt, his black pants, his half cut Vietnam’s helmet, his grin, slowly ride his bike following my walking pace luring me to jump on his bike for a ride. He probably in forty something from the wrinkle on his face, constantly offering me to take around Vung Tau. “My friend. Come. One dollar. One hour. I take you around. Motorbike,” he said in his best English, one word at a time. Didn’t took ‘No’ for an answer, patiently waiting for me on the street to return back to him even when I’m already walking on the pedestrian walk, making my to the beach.
Badri and I went out for dinner later that night, together with Mr. Son, Muhammad and few local staff from the office. We sat ourselves near the beach seafood restaurant, facing the dark beach with tiny dot of lights from the fishermen’s boat on the horizon. Muhammad do his best to convince the others to just having seafood with exception, they can drink alcohol if they want to. Muhammad did the order, speaking in his halting Vietnamese with the waiter about rice, fishes, prawn and other sea lives and to change the pork broth to water. A small stove fired up on our table with boiling water for us to boil our food, we had a lot of seafood that night, I’m stuffed, but the food was tasteless, maybe because it just a pure water without any stocks.
Mr. Son bring out his Chivas and said “Tonight, you drink this!”
“No cannot,” said Badri.
“Yes you can, you can drink this, just a little bit,” Mr. Son persuades. “You look like you can.”
“No cannot,” I said. Badri already shakes his head with weird smile and laugh.
“Tonight you follow Mr. Po, he already booked three girls,” Mr. Son suggested.
“No cannot,” both Badri and I said at the same time although there is a dirty thought suggested that I should take the offer.
“Karaoke? How about karaoke?” asked Mr. Son, he already confused why men like us said no to alcohol and pussy.
“Dancing? How about dancing?”
“No karaoke? No dancing?”
“No karaoke, no dancing.”
Mr. Son confused and ignored us after that. He and his friends already drunk, cigarettes on their mouth and fingers, talking loudly in Vietnamese followed by great burst of tears, probably talking about Badri and I passing up alcohol and pussy. Glass were raised followed by clinking sounds as the glass were hitting each other round after round, Muhammad joined them with their conversation, but with ice water on his hand. The Chivas already half through in the middle on the dinner and quarter more the bottom when we walked out from the restaurant. I’ve to admit that I’m a little scared that night on the way back, Mr. Son take on the wheel. Unsteady on his feet, breathing alcohol, red eyes but nonetheless, we arrived back safely to our accommodation. I tried to sleep but I as awake thinking about the three girls that Mr. Po already booked for us. What happened to them? Mr. Po get back his deposit? Mr. Po had foursome with them?
I left Vung Tau early in the morning the next day. Badri already left to work and we planned to meet in Ho Chi Minh later in the evening. The rain was pouring down the whole morning like yesterday. I walked in the early rain with my bags along side the upcoming traffic, in hope that any motorist can’t followed me back against the traffic. I walked to the jetty without failing to attract locals to offered me a ride, among them, the same guy from yesterday. There are no particular reasons why I wanted to jumped on the plane to Vietnam. At that time around I was in the crucial moment of my life to quit my job, thinking that this trip could be beneficial for me before taking the big trip, a training ground.I didn’t have plan, I just wanted to get away from work, to really thinking should I proceed with the big trip or not. But I know that once I set foot in Ho Chi Minh I should take a cooking class, I want to experience it, even though if just a simple meal.
I ride a ferry to Ho Chi Minh riding the wavy sea to the muddy wavy river of Saigon. Rough ride but not so rough that I need to use the barf bag provided by the ferry. We passed by cargo ships, tug boats, fishermen’s boat, barge, cruised under the suspension bridge before made it to the jetty after one hour and fifteen minutes ride. With two bags front and back, I walk passed the streets and alley under the fine rain, jumped off a puddle to get to the class. It supposed to be conducted in a restaurant nearby the Park Hyatt, I found the Park Hyatt but the restaurant couldn’t be located. I walk around the block, asked the restaurant from the passer by, I stormed in random restaurant asked if it the class before I sat outside the KFC using their free Wifi to re-look for the address. I’m in the right location, the restaurant is inside this little area where I need to walk under the arch that leads me to a secret location.
Following their Chef through the colorful and vibrant Ben Thanh market to purchase necessary ingredients for the cooking lesson sounds like a very good experience to me. But I already missed the visit to the market session earlier and just made it in time when the cooking class about to start. The class is upstairs, above a restaurant where the non-English speaking waitress silently walked me to the classroom. I met with the rest of the group, there were five of them, combination of men and women from motherland United Kingdom and Australia. We were lead by a local chef, Luyen, speaking in her pidgin-English making me a little hard to understand.
“Hannan, you just came from Vung Tau?” asked Luyen.
“Yes, all the way from Vung Tau,” I said.
“You took ferry?” she asked.
I affirmed it.
“How was it?” asked Luyen.
“Bumpy,” I said, then laughed at my own unreasonableness.
“How are you? Are you Ok?” she concerned.
“Yeah, I’m good,” I said.
“Maybe you can introduce yourself to others,” Luyen suggested.
I introduced myself and apologised for being late.
“Sorry I’m late, it’s raining and I couldn’t find that secret pathway there, so I go around the whole block.”
It’s a warm atmosphere, we cooked all together with our Luyen with everyone has their own material and ingredients for a better understanding of cooking techniques. We use Vietnamese kitchenware to realize and enjoy a tasty three courses meal plus a repertoire of of Vietnam from the Luyen. There were two sets of tables, one for cooking and for dine. On the cooking table there were already stoves, plates, bowl and all the cooking utensils to cook for each one of us. Depending on their menu of the day, that day we learnt about combination of Vietnamese and French cuisine on a plate. During the class we just concentrate on the pleasure of discovering and cooking, Luyen demonstrate the action and we will replicate her skill and technique. I knocked down the first two courses easily, Tofu Soup with Sauté Tomatoes and Eggs and Char-grilled beef salad with kumquat, lemongrass and white baby aubergine. Maybe not that easily, I had some difficulties to peeled the tomato skin, I was doing it like peeling an shallot before Luyen came and demonstrated the technique.
“This is how you peel tomato skin.”
The tomato already in wedges shape, she press the skin part on the chopping board and started to peel it with a knife.
“Oh, I never peeled off tomato skin before.”
The second course is too easy, the beef already marinade, cooked and sliced. We just chopped the salad into tiny bits, tossed them on our plate and eat it. The only thing we done is the sticky fish sauce dressing, a combination of lime juice, sugar, fish sauce, garlic and minced chilli.
After each course, we ate it at the dining table. And while it happened, the staffs from the kitchen came out taking all the plates and bowl replaced it with the next menu. Plates of ingredient wrapped with salon wrap, table wiped clean, kitchen utensils back in the order and we are set to go. The third course was my favourite, involved a little bit of cooking action, the Vietnamese pancake (Bánh Xèo).
We sauté the prawn until it half cooked, took it out, wiped the wok clean very well to cook the pancake. We use the ladle to pour the batter we made earlier into the cleaned wok in circle and then turn the wok around to make sure the batter has a round shape and reach to 3cm from the edge of the wok. Sprinkle first Mung bean in order they stick to the batter. Minimise fire, add back the half coked prawn with onions and bean sprouts, cover the lid for two minutes to stay a little bit the bean sprouts. Two minutes passed and we uncover the wok, waited until the pancake goes dried. One tablespoon of oil slide around the work under the edge on the pancake and fold the pancake in half.
The guy next to me burnt his pancake as black as coal, exceeding the edible level. Luyen gave her pancake to him with words of encouragement.
There was, I recall, my first time doing something touristy cooking class in Ho Chi Minh. I knew, I was hooked. And I knew then, dear reader, every where I go I should check the cooking class.