Our strategy when we arrive in a new country is to eat out for the first few days to get a sense of the local flavors and cuisines before hitting the grocery store where we will hopefully, at that point, recognize some of the food choices. After spending the last month in Malaysia where spicy foods reign, we were excited to try all sorts of new flavor combinations that didn’t set our mouths on fire. Particularly interesting was Pho Bo, a beef noodle soup that comes to Vietnam from the northern part of the country. The traditional process is to spend about four hours making it, straining it over and over to make a clear broth that then has noodles, beef, and vegetables added to it. The most surprising thing is that this savory soup is flavored with cinnamon, anise, ginger, and cardamom. This is something that I wanted to learn to make.
So off we went to a Vietnamese cooking class. We chose one given by the Vietnam Cookery Center in Ho Chi Minh City based on the recipes being taught and their positive reviews. Since we had discovered very few people here spoke English, I was particularly excited to see reviews that mentioned how understandable the staff was. Cooking classes in this area seem to arrange their classes by menus offered each day and the particular class I wanted included Pho Bo, Green Spring Rolls with dipping sauce, and sautéed chicken with spicy and sweet basil sauce. Plus it included a market tour. Since Erich’s parents were joining us for three out of our five weeks in Vietnam, we were excited to share this with them.
Bright and early Wednesday morning we took the shuttle into District 1 and walked from there to the Ben Thanh Market. We had been to another market that was a much more local market and the differences were pretty stark. Ben Thanh is clearly a tourist’s market, complete with lots of foreigners, sales people who spoke at least some English, and prices to match. However, we were met there by our guide who spoke beautiful English and walked us through, explaining everything, and we were happy to find that our group of six would be the whole class. We hit the fruits and vegetables first where she cleared up our confusion about different varieties of Mango (there are over 200), explained that the weird bumpy cucumber thing was called bittermelon and could be used in stir-fries, and had us smell or taste easily 20 different herbs and greens while explaining how to recognize and use them. Then we went into the meat section where we learned the proper way to cook lungs, heart, and other internal organs (slice them thinly and cook in a bit of oil and sauce) and headed into the seafood area. Since Ho Chi Minh City is near the ocean, it is well supplied with shrimp, fish, octopus, snails, and other sealife, though we were warned away from salmon as it is imported and very expensive.
We then caught a taxi back to the fifth floor cooking center where we were given tea and sugared ginger and left in the capable hands of Linh, our chef, and her helpers. The cooking tables were set with individual burners and little cups of spices that we would be using for our recipes. After introductions, we began marinating our chicken in a clay pot and then turned our attention to our shrimp and pork spring rolls. The spring rolls were an exercise in fine motor skills as we took the mustard leaves, filled them with noodles, egg, pork, and shrimp, rolled them up and tied them with a spring onion. These are then dipped into a mix of sugar, lime juice, fish sauce, and garlic. They were delicious and fresh tasting!
Then came the soup. Linh had started ours early that morning since the broth needs to cook for at least four hours. She started with a chunk of thigh bone and since we didn’t get to see it before, she started a new one. The bone was put in warm water with a bit of salt and lemon juice and we got to watch the blood leech out and the bone whiten. Then it came time to season it. A tray was brought out with whole spices on it. The cinnamon wasn’t anything that we recognized as it was still attached to the bark (the cinnamon is actually on the inside of the bark). The cardamom was a whole nut with little seeds inside. These, along with star anise, were broken up into small pieces (nothing was thrown out), and cooked in a dry pan along with some whole cloves. The smell was amazing. Once everything was toasted, they were put in a basket like an oversized tea strainer and dropped in the soup to be lifted out later. We then piled ginger, onion, and shallots onto a wire mesh and cooked them directly over an open flame. When they were blackened, the outsides were peeled and the insides were washed and dropped into the soup.
While the soup finished cooking, we cooked our chicken in the clay pot and got ready to enjoy our lunch. We were taught to fill a wire mesh dipper with precooked noodles and bean sprouts and dip them into hot water for just a few seconds before dumping them in a bowl. Then slices of beef were added to this along with onion and soup stock poured on top. I had heard that olfactory senses retain the strongest memories and this is one of those aromas that will now instantly bring back memories of the humid breezes and fun we had that day.
In addition to the chicken and soup, Linh brought out a tapioca dessert that was filled with interesting textures and flavors, nobody’s favorite, but a great way to cap off a day of new tastes and experiences. We all loved that not only did we learn new recipes and cooking techniques but that we learned so much about Vietnamese culture and had a wonderful day together.