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As seen in Transitions Abroad Magazine January/February 2005
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Vietnamese Cooking 101

Learning About Culture and Cuisine in Hoi An

Cooking in Vietnam

Although the town of Hoi An, in Quang Nam Province on Vietnam’s coast, is best known for its ancient architecture, bright silk lanterns and tailor shops, visitors often overlook its other treasures. For most, this ancient town is just a 2-day stop on a whirlwind tour down Vietnam’s sinewy coastline. But, it does have a speciality that makes it worthwhile to invest a few more days—the food. And, there’s no better way to sample the culinary fare and experience the culture than to participate in a local cooking lesson.

Hoi An was the site of the first Chinese settlement in southern Vietnam and as a result, the ethnic Chinese population made a lasting contribution to Vietnamese cuisine. It is best known for cao lau—a noodle dish only available locally because it uses special water from nearby Ba Le Well. Other specialities are fried wonton and fish wrapped in banana leaf.

In order to get an introduction to the cuisine, I headed to Hai café, one of the 17th century merchant shops that has been converted into an outdoor cafe, where Chef Hai offers Vietnamese cooking lessons.

Located in one of the pale pink and yellow shops that line the narrow dirt streets like faded Easter eggs. The lesson is generally two hours long, depending upon the skill of the participants. Chef Hai distributes the recipes at the start of the lesson. Then, once people are comfortable, they are called up to help prepare the first dish: squid salad. Relatively easy to prepare but not for the squeamish, it contains thinly sliced squid that is first sautéed and then combined with green papaya, ginger, garlic, Vietnamese mint, and lemon juice.

Vietnamese spring rolls are next on the menu. This is where the going gets tough for participants. While we struggle to wrap the thin rice paper around a mound of fresh market vegetables, Chef Hai rolls up enough for a crowd. Then, the more intrepid students deep fry their own creations in the sizzling wok. My egg roll disintegrated as soon as it hit the heat.

Grilled fish in banana leaf seems beyond the skills of most of the students. First the fresh fish is draped with lemongrass, coriander, garlic, onions, sugar, and rum. Then it is supposed to be wrapped in a banana leaf. Chef Hai rescues students who are caught in what seems to be a flapping green newspaper and transforms it into tidy little bundles that roast on the BBQ for 30 minutes.

While we wait, he introduces us to his traditional cooking utensils. Each performs miracles in slicing and can be purchased at the local market for just pennies. He also points out a photo exhibit that lines the walls of his restaurant. The photos show his support of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and their efforts to preserve forest habitat and assist ethnic communities in central Vietnam.

Soon, the grilled fish is ready and we sit down at our communal table to enjoy our traditional meal. Graduation has never tasted so good.

For More Info

Hai Café: The lessons, including instruction and the meal, cost VND 100,000 (approximately $7 per person). Located at 98 Nguyen Thai Hoc St.; Tel. 011-84-510-863210; info@visithoian.com.
G Adventures offers small group, responsible travel to Asia and supports local providers such as Hai Café. Visit www.gadventures.com for more info.