In Ho Chi Minh City: A lively market tour and an enjoyable Vietnamese cooking class

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Lotus fried rice served in lotus leaves and decorated with lotus flower petals is among the dishes we prepared in a cooking class in Ho Chi Minh City.

By Betty Gordon

© 2016 text and photos. All rights reserved.

My friend Susan and I took a fascinating two-week trip to Vietnam and Cambodia in March. This is the 14th post in the series about our experiences.

We had so much fun — and scrumptious food — at our cooking class in Chiang Mai, Thailand, in 2011, that we decided we’d also like to try our hand at Vietnamese cuisine.

Auspiciously, there were no shortage of options to choose from. After checking out guidebook recommendations and reading many sites online (we briefly considered taking the class while in Hanoi), we decided on Saigon Cooking Class.

It met these basic criteria: A hands-on session — not just watching someone else cook; an interesting menu, with ingredients that could be adjusted to satisfy dietary requirements; a market tour before class; classes available on enough days so that we could fit one into our itinerary; a small class size; and not too expensive.

Once we settled on the provider, I made an online reservation. Saigon Cooking Class sent back an attachment with a map, featuring a star designating Ben Thanh market’s location, and a picture of the Cua Tay entrance, our meeting point with our English-speaking guide, who would be, we were assured, wearing clothing emblazoned with “Saigon Cooking Class.”

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The stalls at Ben Thanh market in Ho Chi Minh City are packed with a wide range of foodstuffs and handcrafted souvenirs. 

A few days earlier, Susan and I had located the market, within easy walking distance from our hotel. Investigating where the locals shop is among my favorite pastimes when I travel. Colorful fruit (fresh and dried) and produce, sometimes of strikingly odd hues and shapes, freshly ground aromatic spices, a variety of meats and seafood and the opportunity to sample food or have a full meal make markets cheap and endlessly interesting attractions. Ben Thanh market displayed all this and more in abundance.

Markets are also generally a good source of affordable souvenirs, especially handmade traditional crafts, in addition to packaged foods (be careful on that account with regard to what can be brought back to your country of residence).

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An assortment of cookies and candies (left) and types of coffee (right) flank mounds of papaya and mango and other dried fruits.

Promptly at 8:45 a.m., we were waiting at the Cua Tay entrance.  Our guide — who also turned out to be our instructor — arrived first, but three participants were more than 20 minutes late.

Once they showed up, chef Mỹ Hoa escorted us up and down the bustling aisles in the covered sections and outside where many of the seafood stalls were. She held up various fruits and vegetables, explaining what they were, and took questions. She also purchased ingredients, such as noodles, that we would use later in class.

Huge squid rested side-by-side in round, metal, water-filled tubs; “jumping chickens” (aka frogs) sat on one another’s back, crowded into bags of green netting; crabs were tightly stacked in neat rows in square crates; and plastic containers revealed snails and shrimp and octopus and fish … obviously an impressive selection of edible creatures that walk, swim, crawl or wiggle.

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Hanging between a large piece of fresh beef and a black plastic bag is the naked tail of a water buffalo. The tail is used in soup recipes.

Among the more unusual things we saw: a long, pinkish, graduated tail of a water buffalo, stripped of its fur, and suspended on a hook attached to a horizontal pole; and moundlike, milky white pigs’ breasts, which I never would have been able to identify myself. Not surprisingly, everything but the oink was also for sale.

After the tour, chef Mỹ hailed some taxis, and we were driven over to the Hoa Tuc restaurant, the location of our class. If I understood her correctly, she said the building at one time had housed an opium processing plant. Hoa Tuc translates as “opium poppy.”

Susan and I were the only Americans in our international class. Others included a couple from Cologne, Germany; a couple originally from Hong Kong but living in Canada; and two women from Australia.

Our menu, prepared in this order:

Fresh spring rolls with prawns, pork, fresh herbs and rice noodles (goi cuon)

Peanut dipping sauce

Green mango salad with char-grilled chicken (goi ga cang cua)

Lotus fried rice in lotus leaf (com goi la sen)

A cold dessert prepared by staff (I had banana tapioca pudding with tapioca pearls, topped with peanuts; the rest of the class had fruit mousse)

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Purple aprons sit on stools, and the cooking area is set for our first dish: Fresh spring rolls with prawns, pork, fresh herbs and rice noodles, which had been purchased at Ben Thanh market. When we made fried rice, each station had a wok sitting atop a heat source.

Each participant was given a purple apron to wear, and everyone had an individual cooking station equipped with the necessary utensils. Some of the ingredients had been prepped (staff grilled the chicken for the mango salad) and distributed on plates and in small dishes. Chef Mỹ, now in her white uniform complete with toque, demonstrated each dish, and then circulated among us as we cooked our versions.

When we finished each dish, we carried it across the room to the rectangular dining table and took photographs of our creations. While we ate, we had a few minutes to chat amiably with the other students and swap travel stories. Class was over at about 1 p.m.

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Chef My Hoa holds lotus flowers, the petals of which we used in the lotus fried rice recipe. In the jar in front of her are lotus root (top) and lotus seeds. Woks are on either side of her.

Below, I’m sharing the lotus fried rice recipe. Its presentation was the most unique of the dishes we made, and illustrates the importance of the lotus flower, Vietnam’s national flower, in the country’s cultural and religious life.

Most parts of the flower are edible, including the root, stem and seeds. The seeds are light tan, roughly oval in shape and larger than chickpeas. They are soft and yield easily to the bite.

The execution of this recipe is very much like making Chinese fried rice, though the ingredients differ a bit. For sodium, Vietnamese fried rice uses fish sauce instead of soy sauce, which means the white rice stays truer to color, and to my palate, produces a lighter flavor.

At home, it was a challenge to find lotus leaves and flowers. Despite calling every major Asian market in my area, I was not successful in my search, and I opted not to scour the Internet. So I just made the rice.

A more readily available substitute would be banana leaves. Instead of lotus petals, use any pretty, organically grown flower to decorate. The leaves and flowers are for presentation only, not consumption.

I also could not find dried lotus seeds, so bought a 17-ounce can, sold under the Pochy brand, a product of China. They were packed in syrup, and even when drained lent a slight sweetness to the rice.

Overall, I’ve adjusted the recipe a bit, streamlining a few steps and increasing some quantities. As with any recipe, tailor it to your tastes.

Prep all the ingredients before you start cooking. Like Chinese stir-fried dishes, this comes together quickly. Obviously, you can omit the presentation steps and just make the rice.

Lotus Fried Rice in Lotus Leaf (Com goi la sen)

Hands on: 30 minutes, plus overnight refrigeration for the rice

Total time: 50 minutes

Serves: 4 as a side dish

3 tablespoons vegetable oil, divided

11 ounces (300 grams) boneless, skinless chicken breast, cut into bite-size pieces

6 shallots, peeled and finely chopped

3 cloves garlic, peeled and finely chopped

11 ounces (300 grams) prawns (or shrimp), boiled in salted water, and diced (optional; can substitute firm tofu cut into small cubes or omit completely)

3 1/2 ounces (100 grams) green peas, boiled in water for 3 minutes (can use frozen)

3 1/2 ounces (100 grams) lotus seeds, pre-soaked, remove green shoots in the center, cooked for 20 minutes (or use canned)

1 medium carrot, peeled and cut into small dice

1/2 bunch fresh coriander, finely chopped, stems only

2 red chiles, deseeded, and finely chopped (or substitute dried red pepper flakes, to taste)

1/2 teaspoon ground black or white pepper

2 tablespoons fish sauce

3 cups jasmine rice, cooked and refrigerated overnight

3 green onions, cut into 1/4 inch pieces

2 dried lotus leaves softened in boiling water

In a wok or large skillet over medium-high, heat 1 tablespoon vegetable oil.

Stir-fry chicken pieces until cooked through and no pink remains. Remove to bowl and set aside.

Add remaining 2 tablespoons oil to the wok or skillet. Stir-fry shallots and garlic until fragrant. Add chicken, prawns, peas, lotus seeds, carrot, coriander, chiles and black pepper. Stir-fry 1 minute. Add the fish sauce and stir-fry for another minute.

Add the cooked rice and green onions and stir-fry for 4 minutes or until mixture looks dry. Be sure to break up any lumps of rice, if necessary. Be careful not to burn the rice. Turn off heat.

In a deep, medium bowl, lay one lotus leaf horizontally and the other vertically on top of it, with the excess of each leaf laying over the rim of the bowl. Transfer the rice mixture into the prepared leaves and pack it tightly.

Fold the vertical leaves tightly over the mixture, then repeat with the horizontal leaves. If the leaves are long, trim as necessary.

Place a large plate over the top of the bowl. Flip the bowl and plate over so that the plate is on the bottom.

Try to keep the leaves in a tight ball. It may be necessary to mold the leaf-and-rice mixture into a more circular shape.

With a sharp knife, cut a large “t” shape in the center of the leaves. Carefully pull back each leaf about halfway to expose the rice mixture inside.

Space lotus petals around the outside of the leaves to complete the presentation.

Recipe used with permission of Saigon Cooking Class by Hoa Tuc

Quick reference: The class cost $45; limited in size to 12. Participants can pay in Vietnamese dollars (968.000) or U.S. dollars or by credit card (adding 3 percent for that convenience). The fee was collected after class. If not going on the market tour, the cost is $39.50 (850.000 VND). Iced tea, water and copies of the recipes were also included. Saigon Cooking Class by Hoa Tuc, 74 Hai Ba Trung St., Ho Chi Minh City; www.saigoncookingclass.com

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