Is there a better way to learn about a new culture than to eat it? I didn’t think so. Local food is such an important part of a country’s identity and something you just can’t skip delving into on a trip to Vietnam. So last year, shortly after I moved to Vietnam, I indulged in a Vietnamese cooking class in Hoi An to learn more about the ingredients, style of cooking and most importantly, how we could recreate Vietnamese classic dishes for ourselves. I was super disorganised on this trip but luckily (being monsoon season) I was able to get a last minute spot on the Thuan Tinh Island Cooking School which turned out to be a pretty magical day!
Hoi An Market Tour
This Vietnamese cooking class in Hoi An started with an early pick up from our hotel, from which we dove straight into a tour of the Hoi An food market. The tour was lead by our chef for the day, Hon. During the 40 minute tour we learned about the fresh produce and discovered some unusual foods we don’t get back home, like durian and longans.
Related Post: Photo Journal – Hoi An Market
The Hoi An food market was a shock of hectic activity and interesting smells (oh yeah, we are talking about you dried squid). I learned so much about the different herbs used to season food in Vietnam and it was particularly interesting to find out what all the herbs you add to Pho are. Who knew there was a herb, called fish mint, that smells of fish?! Unusual, right?
After hopping around vendors, buying fresh ingredients, we were ready to head to the Thuan Tinh Island Cookery School.
Paddling through coconut groves in Hoi An
From the market we headed to the riverside and jumped aboard a big boat. A quick 20 minute ride down the main river saw us clambering onto smaller boat, getting ready to enter the idillic coconut groves, in which the Thuan Tinh Island Cookery School is based. This was one of my favourite parts of the day (after eating our delicious Vietnamese cooking of course!).
The water is so calm. With the buzz and smells of the city far behind you, it is just peace. You even get a nón lá hat to wear, which made the experience even more fun to me! And no, despite living in Vietnam for over a year and a half I still haven’t bought myself one.
For more must have experiences in Hoi An: Hoi An Wanderlist
What do you cook?
The all important question. “What do you cook during this Vietnamese Cooking Class?” During the Thuan Tinh Island cooking class we made, and most importantly ate, 4 traditional Vietnamese dishes. The four dishes we recreated were gỏi cuốn, bánh xèo, bún bò nam bộ, and to finish the days menu, a classic phở bò. For each dish we were treated to a demonstration by Hon, followed by our own chance to cook and then eat our food while it was still hot. Spreading the meals out like this broke the day up nicely, but as someone with a small appetite I must admit I was struggling to finish the final dish! Best to come a little bit hungry.
First we prepared rice milk
Before we started cooking dishes we were taught how to prepare rice milk, a crucial ingredient in the bánh xèo, which are rice pancakes that we were about to make. The process was so simple and quick: Using a stone mortar we gradually ground a bowl of rice, mixing it with water in a ratio of 2:1. We were only able to prepare a little bit of the milk as it takes time. Nowadays you can buy powdered rice flour which you just mix with water, like a batter or cake mix from home. So it was a nice insight to understand how long the Vietnamese cooking process can take!
Fresh Spring Rolls | gỏi cuốn
Then we got to work starting our dishes. First up on our Vietnamese cooking class – rice paper (or fresh) spring rolls. Following an expert demonstration from Hon on how to make the peanut dipping sauce and wrap our rolls, everyone hurried off to our stations to give it a bash. I think its fair to say, we are master spring roll-ers and super proud of our efforts.
First you quickly wet thin sheets of rice paper, then you arrange the salad and herbs, place the prawns (always called shrimps in Vietnam) and roll it up nice and tight. I learned that the trick to rolling the prefect spring-roll is not to wet the rice paper too much and to roll quickly. The end result went down a treat and I was particularly impressed with the peanut dipping sauce (nước lèo).
Rice Pancakes | bánh xèo
Next up was one of my favourite Vietnamese dishes – traditional rice pancakes. To make the bánh xèo we used the rice milk we prepared at the start. As demonstrated by Hon, you have to flip our pancake half way through to ensure it was cooked all the way through. Hon’s flip was perfect and mine…well, mine was disastrous. Not quite on-the-floor-disastrous, but it did result in 3 support staff assisting in a patch up job so I didn’t have to start over. Oh so artistic. BUT the end product still tasted amazing.
These pancakes are very unlike what Brits would refer to as pancakes. First of all they are savoury, filled with pork, shrimp, garlic and herbs, and the batter is rice milk with herbs and spices. Along with the pancakes we prepared a common Vietnamese dipping sauce called nước chấm, which is a mix of chilli, rice vinegar, kumquat, sugar and salt. The pair are a match made in heaven and I happily devoured the second course, albeit with me a little behind everyone due to my pancake repair job. To eat them, you wrap a folded pancake in salad leaves and dip in nước chấm.
Beef Noodle Salad | bún bò nam bộ
The third dish of the Vietnamese cooking class with Thuan Ninh Island Cookery School was a zesty beef noodle salad. The salad was the easiest of the dishes to recreate. The salad has a pocket of hidden herbs under a mound of vermicelli noodles, with a refreshing soy sauce vinaigrette and sizzling beef on top.
Beef Pho Hanoi style | Pho Bo Ha Noi
I may have been having to loosen the belt straps to finish the noodle salads but the day was not over yet and I still had one last dish to make – Beef Pho. This is one of the most common and famous Vietnamese dishes, eaten by locals for breakfast, lunch and dinner (though hopefully not all in one day). Beef Pho, pronounced /fuh/, is the epitome of fast food. Forget your burgers and fries, Pho can be made in a matter of minutes. First, we boiled noodles and bean sprouts by dipping them in boiling water for only 20 seconds. With the noodles and sprouts in our bowls, we then boiled the beef in a similar manner. First in the bowl is the beef, topped with spring onions and ladles of beef broth (which was prepared at the start of class so it had time to bubble away). And hey presto your bowl of Pho is ready – it’s that quick and easy.
Thoughts on the Thuan Ninh Island Vietnamese cooking class in Hoi An
I had such a great and varied day learning to cook Vietnamese food in Hoi An with Thuan Tinh Island Cooking School. The tuition was brilliant. Hon and his helpers (of which there were many) were extremely attentive, double checking I remembered the steps and making sure all the dishes tasted amazing. Plus they kept everyone refreshed with passionfruit juice, which got sneakily topped up while we were cooking. The level of English was very high and the small class size meant that the experience was kept intimate. The Thuan Tinh Island Cooking School is located on an island in the middle of coconut groves, which is so peaceful. The space for cooking is big and open sided, meaning that you are surrounded by nature throughout the class. You get a copy of the recipes so you can recreate the dishes at home, which makes for a great souvenir.
How to experience this Vietnamese cooking class for yourself
I booked the day before and was just really lucky that there was still availability, as there is a maximum of 10 people per class. This is great for creating an intimate setting, but it also means you should book further in advance to ensure a place. I booked over the phone, however you can also book via their website. This Vietnamese cooking class with Thuan Ninh Island Cookery School cost $34 per person. I paid in VND at the exchange rate on the day. While I paid cash, they were also taking card, or you can pay online when booking.
What’s your favourite way to learn about a new culture? Food is the one of the major players to me!
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For more on Hoi An:
- Hoi An Wanderlist
- Photo Journal: Hoi An Market
- Hoi An Guide and Budget
- Self-Guided Bicycle Tour of the Hoi An Countryside
Disclosure: This post is not sponsored in any way by Thuan Tinh Island Cookery Class, I truly just loved the experience with them and wanted to share it with you in the hopes you too can experience Vietnam to its fullest beauty.