There was a distinct lightness to everything I cooked at the Saigon Cooking School. Fresh herbs, paper thin rice paper, clear coconut water – it could have easily been billed as a healthy cooking class.
We started with fresh spring rolls stuffed with blanched shrimp, pork, rice noodles, and herbs, including basil, mint, chives, lettuce, and bean sprouts. The rice paper felt like it was going to crack as I rolled in all this goodness but we painted the edges with water to make the wrapper a bit sticky to help hold everything together. It wasn't the prettiest spring roll I'd ever made but it was the closest one has come to feeling like a healthy salad. Our 'dressing' was a homemade peanut sauce made by mixing roasted peanuts with hoisin sauce, water, garlic, and chili, making for a sweet and salty flavor to complement the fresh rolls.
Our second course was morning glory salad with prawns and a tangy kumquat dressing. Morning glory, or water spinach, is a common and popular green vegetable in Vietnam and is served raw in salads or often sautéed with garlic as a side dish. When eaten raw, typically just the hollow stem is used and it is sliced into super thin strips with a tool that basically has a pinwheel of razor blades on top of a long pole. You ram the morning glory up the pole and the razor slits the vegetables while a plastic circle protects your fingers. It's pretty cool and I bought one on the street later for two dollars. The strips of morning glory are put into a bowl of cold water, where they curl up beautifully, making a lovely, crunchy base for salad. We added onion, carrot, shrimp, basil, fried garlic, fried shallots, and roasted peanuts to the salad. The dressing used kumquats, rather than lime, as the base, creating a sour and tangy taste without the bitterness that sometimes accompanies lime. We mixed sugar, fish sauce, garlic, chili, and salt into the dressing to round out the flavors. It was a refreshing and light dish, great for the summer.
The main course was a clay pot chicken stew with ginger, basil, and coconut water. We started by briefly marinating the chicken in ginger, chili, garlic, sugar, fish sauce, and annatto seed oil (an orange oil that apparently gives color but not flavor). Next we heated the clay pot and added the chicken and julienned ginger until the meat was sealed. Coconut water came next for the braise. This was the first time I've added coconut water straight from a coconut to a dish – the other times I've cooked with coconut it has been the milk, which has to be briefly processed by mixing the shredded flesh with water. This feels like a distinctive element of Vietnamese cooking – going right to the source of the ingredient, and using the lighter coconut water rather than the heavier milk. We seasoned our chicken with fish sauce, salt, pepper, and garlic as it was cooking and added in fresh basil at the last minute. The result was delicious – strong flavor from the ginger in a light broth from the coconut water.
Dessert wasn't part of the cooking agenda for the day but the chef was kind enough to serve us a light passion fruit mousse which was absolutely fantastic. I'm waiting for passion fruit to become the next “It” fruit in the progression of lychee, pomegranate, and mango. When passion fruit is made into artificial flavoring it becomes cloyingly sweet but in its natural form it balances tart, sweet, and crunchy in a very addictive way.
One of the best parts of the class (which I took before my husband met me in Vietnam) was meeting two American sisters whose parents are Vietnamese and who were visiting the country together. They invited me to join them for an evening of exploration, pointing out different foods, ordering things in Vietnamese, and were also great motorcycle dodging companions.Additional information:
Saigon Cooking Class by Hoa Tuc Restaurant
74/7 Hai Ba Trung, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City
Tel: (84-8)3 825 84 85