Cooking up a storm with the Hoi An Eco-Cooking School in Vietnam

Not only did I come home from south east Asia with a slightly improved ability to use chopsticks, but also with the knowledge of how to make some excellent Vietnamese dishes.

Considering how much I love cooking, you might find it strange to hear that I’d never attempted a cooking course abroad before. But when a friend in Vietnam told me she’d booked onto a Vietnamese eco-cooking tour, I jumped at the chance to join her. 

There are lots of different cooking courses floating around but the best ones, apparently, are the ones that don’t just transport you to a kitchen and let you crack on with it, but instead that take you through every step of the cooking process.

So it seemed fitting that my one-day cooking trip in Hoi An began at the market. Our guide, a lovely Vietnamese woman who knew everything there was to possibly know about cooking, showed us around a local market where we handpicked all of the ingredients that we’d use later in the day. Spotting colourful fruits and vegetables that I’d never seen before, we got a first-hand experience of bartering with sellers to get the best produce for the day ahead.

We threw handfuls of pungent herbs, rainbow coloured vegetables and glossy meat into our wicker baskets, before getting onto a boat and watching the waves go by for 45 minutes before we arrived at our destination.

But the cooking wasn’t yet to begin – first we got to sample the local basket boats. I’d agreed to go on the cooking trip without really looking into what it actually included. I’d assumed that it was nothing more than a few dishes that we’d get to eat at the end but it was so much more. But it was actually an entire day into Vietnamese cooking culture.

But back to the boats! The basket boats were introduced years ago when the French took over Vietnam. They’d apparently set a tax for boats, so the local Vietnamese people fashioned their own mode of transport out of basket boats. They looked like upside down, half-opened coconut shells and provided about as much protection as you’d assume. Somehow, the basket-boat owners (drivers?) were able to manoeuvre tourists past the submerged palm trees, through winding, tree-lined routes and all the way up to a large wooden entry point, where our cooking class would begin.

The first thing I learned at the cookery class was the huge amount of effort required to create rice flour. Granted, the method we were shown wasn’t actually how rice flour is made commercially any longer but it gave me a new-found appreciation for rice. We were shown individually how to sieve the rice before bashing it with huge wooden poles, grinding it through another machine and eventually creating mini rice pancakes. While we were learning all the ins and outs of rice, the team behind the Eco Cooking School were setting up our work stations for the class ahead. Over a period of a few hours, we created five dishes. 

We started out by prepping the broth for our pho. We used a pestle and mortar to crush chilli, garlic and ginger together before stirring in beef neck (which smelt about as horrible as you’d imagine) and pouring boiling water over the top to leave for a couple of hours. Next, we were shown how to cook traditional spring rolls and then also summer rolls – their colourful, translucent counterparts.

We cooked a delicious peanut satay sauce to dip them in and made one veggie roll with tofu and one brighter one with prawns. By this point I was starving, so I was very pleased to hear that we could eat our food immediately after cooking it. I’d had fears that we’d have to wait for everything to cook in true dinner style before feasting but nope, we got to dig into our spring and summer rolls before moving onto the next dish – rice pancakes!

I’d tried pancakes the previous day at a tiny Vietnamese restaurant called Mr Son. They’re basically made by combining rice flour with oil, chilli, fish sauce, soy sauce, bean sprouts and anything else you fancy inside. Despite being quite simple to make, they were absolutely delicious. If I can find a place in the UK to buy rice flour, I’ll definitely be recreating them. 

Next up was a student staple – but done the proper way: stir fry! I considered myself something of an expert when it came to stir fry but how wrong I was. From learning how to cut the veg into special shapes, to figuring out the correct cooking times and how to stop the noodles from sticking together (my downfall), we watched our teacher cook stir fry all the way through before we went on to make our own. 

Finally, thoroughly stuffed, it was back to the broth we’d prepared earlier. We added a mixture of Thai and Vietnamese herbs to our broth and bulked it out with more veg, red chilli, lime juice and spring onions to form the perfect pho. Traditionally, pho’s left to boil for around 12 hours so I think ours could have been slightly better. However, in the limited time that we had, it was delicious and still felt quite healthy. 

I tried to make a mental note of all of the dishes that we’d created and the recipes needed to reproduce each one. But I needn’t have worried – at the end of the class we were each given a recipe book explaining exactly how to make each dish and also our own pair of cooking chopsticks!

Overall it was an amazing afternoon and I left with a newfound appreciation of Vietnamese recipes and the work that goes into perfecting each one. I’ve now been home for almost two weeks and haven’t had the chance to do any Vietnamese cooking quite yet, but I’m determined to serve up some rice pancakes and summer rolls now that I know how to make them. The cooking chopsticks were also a nice touch and a lovely souvenir from the day. 

The cooking class cost me just under £30 and included everything from the market trip to return transport to the hostel, as well as all of the food we cooked, the boat trip and basket boat trip and more. It was absolutely worth the money and I’d recommend anyone with an interest in cooking to take part. 

The company I did the cooking tour with was called the Hoi An Eco-Cooking Tour and you can find out more about them here. 

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