I love good food, I own stacks of cookery books and I follow endless foodie Instagrams and blogs, but unfortunately, I’m no culinary genius. I’ve been known to burn a crumpet or two during my time, and seeing as they’re toaster fare it’s probably fair to say I’m no Nigella. It’s not because I’m necessarily a bad cook per say, it has more to do with the fact that I’m easily bored in the kitchen. I don’t like the rules and steps and my impatience often gets the better of me. I veer off course; I’m adding salt where sugar should be, favouring the rough chop over the julienne, opening oven doors too early only to be met by a mess of meringue that once again has failed to raise – basically, I’m failing. Or should that be failing to follow the recipe…either way I don’t like failure. So while travelling the world and getting the chance to sample many different cuisines, I decided that I would take a cooking class in the hope that the interactive nature would capture my imagination and thus put some food on the table.
Serene Garden in Hoi An, Vietnam offers two types of cooking classes; the first is an evening class that sees you whip up a few local dishes and the second is an all day class that takes you around the town on bicycles to source ingredients, learn about the culture of Vietnamese food and then sees you prepare and eat (the best bit) a three course meal under the guidance of their head chef.
My day as a master chef (optimism is the key to success) started at 8am as we set off on old-fashioned style bicycles complete with wicker baskets, to ride our way to Hoi An’s organic village. Here we were treated to lessons on herbs and spices, and the growing techniques of each planation. I even surprised myself by guessing a few of the herbs as we made our way around the lush green gardens, watching the local farmers tend to their crops.
From here we hit the road once again to head to the food market; a bustling place full of local people going about their daily shopping. The Market, which opens from 6am until 7pm is a hive of activity offering up sights and smells that ignite your every sense. We made our way past vegetables and fruits, herbs and spices. Saw the local fisherman trading their catch and the butchers wrapping up all manner of meat – every cut a delicacy of some sort for the people of Vietnam who waste not a scrap.
Witnessing the food market in full swing gives you a real appreciation for where your food comes from. It forces you to think about food in a way that a supermarket doesn’t. There is emphasis on texture and flavour, of trying before you buy. It’s a sensory experience, which makes the whole cooking process far more exciting.
Back at Serene Garden, knife in hand, apron at the ready I was game to cook up a feast. Todays menu featured: Fried Wanton with Sweet and Sour Shrimp Sauce to start, followed by Clay Pot Cinnamon Pork and a Vegetable Pickle, then Red Snapper with a Green Mango Salad to finish. All accompanied with steamed sticky rice and the Vietnamese favourite, Morning Glory (and no it isn’t what you think, you filthy, filthy readers!) Morning Glory is a green vegetable sautéed with garlic and salt, which is eaten with most meals throughout Vietnam – it’s delicious and highly nutritious (*I listened in class).
Our chef talked us through each step and over saw the process from start to finish, offering up tips on knife skills and the art of using chopsticks for EVERYTHING. No cooking utensils will ever be needed again, fact! Following the recipe meticulously was easier now that I had invested myself in the whole cooking process from start to finish. I was excited to see the outcome, was taking pride in my role as chef. I was enjoying cooking!
After each dish had been prepared, cooked and plated up complete with obligatory vegetable garnish fashioned into a flower (harder then it looks), we sat down amongst the vines of the garden, in the afternoon sun and ate our meals.
Cam’s attempt at cucumber flower garnishes…
Rich in flavour and perfectly balanced with sweet and sour each dish was a delight to not only eat, but to cook. So how’s my appetite for cooking you ask? Well and truly sated – I can’t wait to share my new recipes and bring back a little piece of Vietnam to Britain.
Words By Sophie Maguire