WHAT better way to experience a foreign culture than by learning how to cook its cuisine? It’s the perfect souvenir to take home and show off to all your friends and family.
Plus, if you’re planning on marrying a Vietnamese person with traditional values, you’ll have to showcase your cooking skills in front of their family before you tie the knot.
“Unless you can cook well for the whole family, you can’t get married. No more dating, no marriage, you’re out,” cooking instructor Mai told Travel Wire Asia during the Apron Up Cooking Class in Hanoi.
As Vietnamese cuisine differs across the country, choosing where to take a cooking class depends on individual tastes. However, the capital of Hanoi is a great place to start if you want to learn how to make Vietnam’s traditional and colorful dishes.
And Apron Up Cooking Class, found in Hanoi’s Old Quarter, is the best place to experience this.
“Vietnamese cuisine is simple like the people and nature here. You don’t need to be a chef to make successful Vietnamese dishes, but you do need the tips to make wonderful ones,” Mai added.
Apron Up Cooking Class has been voted as one of the best culinary masterclasses in the capital. For just US$32 per person, tutees will source all the ingredients from a local market before cooking up a storm in the kitchen and later devouring their creations.
The friendliness, patience, and guidance of the instructors combined with their encouragement will make you feel like a Vietnamese MasterChef.
From the moment you walk into the unsuspecting restaurant on 66 Bat Su Street, warm smiles greet you from every direction, followed by a tiny cup of green tea to get you raring for your imminent market adventure.
Traditional market culture is thriving in Hanoi.
Despite the development of superstores on the outskirts of the city, the Old Quarter has held on to its century-old markets, selling everything from festival decorations, clothes, flowers, ready-to-eat dishes and most importantly for those in the Apron Up Cooking Class, ingredients.
The market is just a short stroll away from the restaurant and provides a great opportunity to chat with your instructor.
Mai told us she only learned to cook pho when she was 17 years old. She explained that because it’s cheap and easy to go out and have it, she never saw the need to learn until later in life.
Once you arrive at the market, your instructor will explain the significance of all the ingredients needed to make the dishes. After grabbing bunches of coriander, scallions, and perilla, the market trip concluded at the roadside butchers.
According to Mai, a good butcher could sell up to six pigs a day, and not just the parts Westerners consider good. “We eat everything from the hooves to the ears,” Mai explained as she pointed a bowl of pig hearts.
So, with all the ingredients in the bag and knowledge of the medicinal powers of certain herbs, we headed back to the kitchen to cook up a feast and our instructor explained how to make the first of the five dishes, pho.
Pho (pronounced as “fa”), considered as the national dish of Vietnam, is a simple dish with a wealth of complex flavors. “The clearer the soup the better,” Mai remarked as she burnt the remaining beef off the bones over a naked flame.
Traditional pho normally takes 24 hours to cook but burning the meat off the bones reduces cooking time to two hours.
As the bone broth simmered, Mai added coriander seeds, cinnamon sticks, cardamom pods, star anise, sugar cane, and salt to a frying pan, filling the room with the warmest fragrance.
This was then added to the broth in a cloth bag, along with charred shallots and onions and left to simmer while we attempted to make spring rolls.
Although these bite-size snacks are popular in many Asian countries, spring rolls differ in every region.
Vietnamese spring rolls are stuffed with the most colorful ingredients, hence “spring” like the season. The ingredients included two types of locally grown mushrooms, glass noodles, carrots, scallions, shallots, bean sprouts, minced pork shoulder, egg yolk and of course, fish sauce.
Mai revealed the Vietnamese people used fish sauce in everything to add the perfect amount of saltiness to each dish. Mai rolled a perfect spring roll in seconds and explained professionals can do identical batches of 20 in less than a minute.
With the pressure on, the tutees managed to create two platefuls of irregular sized, slightly broken spring rolls, that were dunked in hot oil and sizzled until golden brown.
While the oil drained out of the spring rolls, Mai showed the class how to make green papaya salad starting with grating all the ingredients.
She explained the popularity of this salad goes beyond the zingy, fresh taste and is consumed wildly by women because it helps to enhance the size of their chest. A few worried looks from male members of the group ensued before Mai blurted, “Science!” while shaking her head.
Thrown into this side dish with the green papaya were bean sprouts, chilies, lemon mint, carrots, and smashed peanuts. It was then doused in a dressing of fish sauce, rice vinegar, and sugar.
By this time, three of the total four hours have passed and the instructors understood hunger was taking hold of the tutees.
To solve this without filling up on snacks, you’re shown how to create another Vietnamese staple: egg coffee, which deliciously tides you over until mealtime.
This bizarre-sounding drink was the invention of Vietnamese coffee shop owner Nguyen Van Giang who substituted milk with a whisked egg during milk shortages in the 1946 French War.
The frothy egg yolk is whisked until it turns the consistency of custard. Then, a generous sprinkling of sugar its layered on top of black coffee and dusted in chocolate powder.
The combination of creamy and bitter tastes resembles a light Italian tiramisu and is often enjoyed as a dessert across Vietnam.
But at Apron Up Cooking Class it’s the entrée to the feast which is about to ensue.
With the final dish of bun cha, traditional grilled pork noodles, cooked and plated, there was only one thing left to do, eat!
Sitting around the table enjoying delicious dishes you’ve only just learned to cook is incredibly rewarding. Apron Up Cooking Class also hands out certificates and cookbooks to all the participants to prove they can cook and to ensure they don’t forget how to.
You needn’t fret about dietary requirements either as Apron Up Cooking Class has an established menu of vegetarian dishes. Four classes run every day of the week and private classes are also available if you want valuable one-on-one time with the instructor.
With no age restrictions and over 30 dishes to choose to cook, there’s an experience waiting for everyone at Apron Up Cooking Class.
There is, of course, a stack of other cooking classes to be enjoyed all over Vietnam. Some offer more intensive courses where you can learn how to make glass noodles from scratch or pickling vegetables while others focus more on the in-depth history of each dish.
Ultimately, wherever you chose to learn how to cook authentic Vietnamese food, you’ll discover a newfound appreciation for this simply prepared, yet complex-flavored cuisine.
To find out more about Apron Up Cooking Class, head over to their website.