I firmly believe the best way into a culture is through its food. That, however, doesn’t always mean simply eating as much as you can (although I do that as much as possible). Cooking classes can often give you a deeper look into the people somewhere—especially those that include market visits. You’ll often learn about techniques and ingredients you otherwise would not have learned about, and get deeper insight into the food you’d otherwise only have eaten: where it comes from, who makes it, and how its made. One of the best examples of this I’ve ever experienced was the Green Bamboo Cooking School in Hoi An, Vietnam.
The class, lead by Van for an extremely reasonable $45, begins at 8:00am with a pickup at your hotel. While in the car picking up the other participants, you’ll be given a list of 50 or so dishes, and everyone in the class gets to pick one. By the time you arrive at the market, Van has a list of dishes that will be made that day and knows which ingredients to pick up. You’ll start with fresh herbs and vegetables, before going into the fish market to get any ingredients you may need there, through the meat section, and ending with the most important ingredient: the noodles (including the legendary local cao lao noodles).
Markets traversed, ingredients amassed, and knowledge imparted, you’ll next stop for a quick Vietnamese coffee to get your energy up before your marathon cooking experience. Van, with two helpers, will take you back to her house and gather you around, setting up the menu and who will cook when to make a reasonable facsimile of a meal (ie, if you picked an appetizer, you’ll be cooking near the beginning). Some of the dishes, like summer rolls, everyone gets to try their hands at. Otherwise, everyone is given their prep instructions, a selection of beer, and work gets underway.
When a dish is ready to be cooked, that person is called up to the stove and the cooking begins. After each dish is complete, it is divvied up so everyone in the class can taste it. This makes for a day tasting a lot of food, but never quite too much—though, by the time class is over, you may not need dinner that night (and you may need a nap). After class, everyone is given a cookbook of all the dishes along with a multi-use vegetable peeler perfect for papaya salad and a pair of long cooking chopsticks. I was probably more excited about getting these than I should have been.
This was easily one of the standout days of our time in Vietnam, which is impressive because looking back it seems like they were all standout days. The class, the food, and just being in a relaxed and beautiful town like Hoi An all contributed to the fun. Van is an excellent teacher, and makes sure any questions are answered and everyone leaves satisfied. It should be a must on any trip to Hoi An.