Posted by: Anna | May 18, 2011

Vietnam Cooking Class

In Hoi An, I signed up for a Vietnamese cooking class. While I can make a mean chili and a tasty roast chicken, Pho and the like are a mystery to me. I was eager to learn the underlying theory and to learn a few dishes I could replicate at home. Many of the restaurants have cooking classes, but we tried the food at Morning Glory (a local restaurant), and it was good – really good. They also offered a longer cooking class than anyone else, supposedly for the advanced or professional chef. I decided to fudge my experience and sign up with Tommy’s encouragement. I’m sure his enthusiasm is for my benefit only…not because he gets to eat whatever I can learn to make…

We started our morning with a visit to the local market. The market opens around 5:30, and that is the busiest time of day. The market sells everything from fresh fish, to rice, to plastic toys, to coffee, to clothes, to anything you can imagine. Locals shop every morning (women, for the most part) at the market; there is no grocery store. Everything you need is available at the market, and Vietnamese buy everything fresh. Even the restaurants get all their food from the market; there is no food delivery truck that brings them everything they need. If you have been thinking you want to eat more “real” food, not processed, Vietnam will be able to provide that as local food is all fresh-prepared from actual, recognizable ingredients.

The young woman who took us to the market stopped at one of each major type of food stall – fruit, vegetable, herb, meat, fish, rice, etc. The prices get cheaper later in the day, as fresh food is delivered every morning. The restaurant shops at the market four times every day. Literally, someone goes to the market on foot with a basket and stocks up on whatever is needed for the next meal or next group of preparations.

I really enjoyed stopping at the fruit because there are so many kinds of fruit here that we never eat. Since there is a very Asian belief in food as medicine, she explained to us which fruits are good for hot weather (to make you cooler) and which are good for cool weather (to keep you warm). She would explain how to buy each kind of fruit (what to look for) and we got to taste all the exotic ones. Her fruit buying tip was: “Pick ugly fruit. Like boyfriends. Ugly outside means sweet inside.”

We then proceeded back to the restaurant where we made 8 dishes. There were four of us (all girls) in my glass – two Aussies and one Polish girl. The setup for this class was really nice, very different from my Indian cooking class in Shashi’s tiny home kitchen. Here, we each had our own station, with equipment, burner, etc. The teacher had a mirror above her workstation so it was easy to see exactly what she was doing as we went along. This was cooking class for the truly lazy – all the ingredients were chopped and measured for us – we literally just did the cooking.

Pre-measured ingredients for one of the dishes. In between each dish, the two helpers would whisk away all the dirty dishes and return with pre-measured, pre-chopped ingredients for the next dish.

In class, I learned that the hallmarks of Vietnamese food are fish sauce in absolutely everything and fresh herbs. The food is largely light, with lots of vegetables and lots of seafood. Vietnamese food is traditionally cooked over an open fire outdoors, although now most people have gas. Full kitchens are not common. Everything is stove prepared, although the Vietnamese are big sandwich eaters, always on a baguette. (A holdover from French occupation, I think)

Various soups with noodles are the most common food in Vietnam, eaten on every street corner and available for breakfast, lunch or dinner. To eat vietnamese soup like a Vietnamese person, eat big bits first, then drink from the bowl. Tommy was thrilled to learn this was the approved method, as he always wants to drink his soup broth. Here it’s the thing to do. When they are sick, they eat cabbage soup with shrimp, which was our first dish. It’s the Vietnamese chicken noodle soup.

Beautiful cabbage soup

Next, we made fresh spring rolls with shrimp and pork. Interestingly, I tend to think of seafoods and meats being separate flavors for separate dishes, but in Vietnamese cooking, frequently both appear in the same dish. The flavors are delicious together. This is a ubiquitous food here, light and tasty. Spring rolls made for Westerners in Vietnam have two concessions to our palates – one, they don’t use the fatty bits of pork but the lean ones, and two, they use dill/basil/coriander instead of the soapy tasting herb the Vietnamese prefer.

We then continued with the light food and made a tasty green mango salad. Salads made from unripe fruit (mango, papaya, etc) are popular, and offer a way to use fruit that would otherwise be inedible. Grating the fruit into long strips and tossing with a few other simple but flavorful ingredients creates the salad. A good tip I learned when we made our salad – to use fresh white onions in salads, slice then soak them for 15 minutes in ice water. It takes some of the pungency of the onions out, and makes them taste better in a salad. I thought the salad dressing was particularly tasty, and would be easy for you to make at home. Here’s the recipe.

Vietnamese Salad Dressing

3 tsp lime juice
2 tsp sugar
1 tsp fish sauce
2 tsp shallot oil (see next recipe)
1 tbsp chili sauce, or mild red chili pounded with garlic

Stir together in small bowl.

Shallot oil

2 cups peanut oil
200 grams shallots

Peel shallots leaving the end on so shallots remain whole when slicing. Slice thinly and dry in the sun for two hours. Heat oil until warm. Add shallots and deep fry slowly on low heat for 10 minutes. Stir gently with chopsticks. When shallots start to turn light brown golden color, turn off heat. Drain well (keep oil) and place on a tray lined with paper towels to drain. When cooled, store shallots in an airtight container and store oil in a separate airtight container in a cool place. Keeps one month.

The recipes below are for a special occasion or rich person’s meal. Most Vietnamese eat noodles and broth every day. This is a meal that could be fairly simply replicated at home, for those who want to have a recipe to try out. This was one of the dishes we ate at the restaurant before deciding to take the cooking class – it’s delicious. Enjoy!

Fish in Caramel Sauce

1/2 cup shallots, peeled

1/3 cup peanut oil
1 tsp sugar
5 drops fish sauce
600 grams (small pieces – 4 inch diameter) mackerel fillets boned, 1 inch thick slices
2 1/2 tbsp fish sauce
1/2 tsp sea salt
1 tbsp sugar
1/2 tsp coarse black pepper
1 cup fish stock (or vegetable or chicken)
8 chunks fresh pineapple
1/2 or 1 (depending on taste) large red chili (jalepeno) sliced, with seeds

Caramelize shallots with five drops fish sauce and 1 tsp sugar in peanut oil over medium heat for 10 minutes until brown. Set aside. Can do ahead.

Place fish in wide shallow cooking pan. Add other ingredients, including caramelized shallots and oil, to pan and stir gently with chopsticks to incorporate ingredients. Turn heat on medium-high and bring to a rapid boil for 3 minutes. Reduce heat to low, cover, and simmer for 15 minutes. Season with additional salt and fish sauce to taste. Serve in pot (same one it was cooked in) with steamed rice and green vegetables. Serves 4.

Stir fried green beans

300 grams green beans, sliced thinly on the diagonal
100 grams white onion, sliced in 3/4 inch wedges
50 grams jicama, julienned into 1/2 inch sticks
12 green onions, cut into 2 inch sticks (white parts only)
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1 tbsp shallots, crushed
1 tbsp garlic, crushed
1 tbsp green onions (whites only), finely chopped
1 tbsp green onions (greens), finely chopped
1 tbsp fish sauce
1/4 tsp sea salt
1/4 tsp sugar
1 cup small sprigs or chopped fresh herbs, coriander, dill and spring onion curls

Heat oil in a wok over high heat. Add shallots, garlic, and finely chopped green onions and cook for 30 seconds. Add jicama, white onion, stock, fish sauce, salt, sugar, and toss to coat. Cook over high heat for 3-4 minutes. Add green beans, toss, and cook an additional 2-3 minutes over high heat, tasting and adding additional fish sauce or salt if needed. Place vegetables on plate and top with fresh herbs. Serves 4.

I didn't include the recipe for the stuffed squid (top left) as it is a bit more complicated. The fish is in the little pot on the top right.

Note: This recipe could be used for other combinations of vegetables. For stir fries, it’s important that all the vegetables be cut the same size for even cooking. Also, make sure all your ingredients are prepared and measured before starting the wok. Otherwise, you may overcook the vegetables while scrambling to prepare the next ingredient.

The teacher of our class invited Tommy to come and eat lunch with us. He and I shared the last three dishes I prepared.

Overall, I enjoyed the class. The recipes were not as detailed as I would have liked, and the class was certainly not the amazingly personal experience that my class in India was. I didn’t fall in love with Vietnamese food, although I am in strong like. I look forward to many more cooking classes in Asia, coming home with a new repertoire of recipes to make at home.

More Vietnam cooking class pictures here.



  1. I love the idea of cooking with ingredients that have already been chopped and organized for you. And someone to do the dishes for you to boot! Awesome.

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