Cooking with my family in Vietnam

We arrived at the little organic farm that housed the open air bamboo cooking school laden down with all of our stuff.  A big backpack and day pack each, plus a rugged little rolling suitcase.  They looked at us as though we were insanity itself, but were polite enough not to say anything.  We were headed out of town on a bus later that day, and didn’t see any point in backtracking to our hotel after our class.  As we unloaded our things they eventually got the courage to ask “why did you bring your luggage?”

It was clear they thought we had somehow misunderstood and were thinking this was a sleepover class!  We shared a laugh when we explained the situation, and they so visibly relaxed that their shoulders dropped by a good six inches.

Our chef was a cheery woman with a neat little baby bump, who was full of laughter, patience and jokes.  After a welcome drink made from lemon juice, ginger, sugar, mint and lemon thyme seeds (that looked a whole lot like chia seeds), she dressed us in loose brown smocks and pointy hats – farmer’s clothes – for our tour of the fields.  But not before she made me tie up my smock at my waist because women can still look pretty, even on a farm!

As she walked us around the fields, we tasted fresh herbs picked right from the plants – peppermint, basil, lemongrass, lemon thyme, morning glory and wasabi flavoured mustard greens. We learned how the farmers fertilise the ground with dead water lilies, ground up peanut shells, and water buffalo dung – or as she called it, chocolate cake.  We saw peanuts, cabbages, lettuces and mangoes growing alongside every herb imaginable, and some you didn’t know about!

After our tour, it was our turn to try our hand at farming in a little patch behind the restaurant.  We followed instructions from the barefoot farmer, turning over the earth, fertilising it with peanut seeds, planting little seedlings, and then watering it directly from a can. This is the way the entire island is farmed.  No chemicals, no modern machinery. It’s all done by hand, and driven to the market in Hoi An each morning on the back of a motorbike.

The food we had across Hoi An was among the freshest and the best we’ve eaten anywhere on our trip, and the fact its locally and traditionally grown is not hard to imagine.

After playing at farmers, we were all three treated to an herbal foot soak and massage — because we were so weary from all of the farming of course.  I wonder if the farmers themselves subject themselves to this treatment?  At one time, Mark had two women working on his feet, and one on his shoulders.  I thought it was a perfect thank you for semi-willingly subjecting himself to a cooking class.  He thought it was further punishment for allowing himself to be goaded into this day!  

After our pampering (or torture if you’re Mark) we got down to the business of cooking.  We changed out of our farmer’s clothes and into our chef’s aprons and apprentice hats. If you’re going to cook like a pro, you may as well look the part.

I was so proud of Mark and Austin.  They both dove right in, enthusiastically learning to julienne, dice and mince, and Mark fielded more than a few friendly jabs at his skills like a champ.  Austin genuinely wanted to learn, and paid close attention to the instructions and the ingredients, as he intently created his dishes.

Our first dish was a gorgeous banana flower salad.  I’m allergic to bananas, so I wasn’t sure I would be able to eat it, but I tried a little bit and didn’t react, so that was good.  It was a beautiful salad, made with the banana flower that looks like it wouldn’t be out of place in Jurassic Park.

It resembles an oversized lotus flower, and consists of concentric layers like a leek.  Purple pink on the outside and yellow on the inside, it’s just so pretty to look at. As you peel each layer away, there are dozens of tiny banana embryos that would otherwise have one day become a banana.  

The flower is an expensive ingredient. Each tree produces only one flower every six months, and that one flower would yield between 150 to 200 bananas. The opportunity cost of that banana flower is tremendous, and it’s treated like a delicacy.  It was for this reason alone that I was determined to at least try it before rejecting it from the start on the basis of it being banana related.

The salad was just as gorgeous to eat as it was to look at. A light, zingy chili dressing brought together the fresh herbs, thinly sliced banana flower and vegetables topped with prawns, peanuts and fried onion.  Even Austin ate his creation, and given it looked nothing like a hot dog or a chicken nugget, that was pretty impressive.

We made crispy spring rolls, fresh spring rolls, and savoury Vietnamese pancake.  It was all simple food with fresh ingredients, and with a little instruction on technique, we were soon feeling like Vietnamese food cooking heroes.  

Austin was an instant success at spring roll rolling – I think his little fingers are better suited to the task. When it came to doing the cooking, he insisted on doing it himself.  He made the peanut sauce on his own, and fried his own pancake. He was so proud of what he’d created, and we had to fight him for the last spring rolls when we finally sat down to our feast.  

I loved that we did the class as a family. I know it wasn’t Mark’s first choice of activity for the day, but the fact we did it all together, and had a brilliant time doing it, will make it one of my favourite memories of this trip.  The boys both loved it too, and we were bursting with pride as Austin tried new new foods, jumped right in to try the cooking, and genuinely wanted to learn.

We laughed, we tried, we created and we ate.  That day will be hard to beat.

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About the author: Shalena

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  1. Annette - August 12, 2018 at 1:59 am

    Once again really enjoyed reading more of your travels and all about Vietnam. Scenery certainly looked absolutely magnificent and what experiences you had while in the different areas. The night on the boat would have been magic and I am so glad you were able to experience the “cooking” experience as a family – you just love cooking Shalena and would certainly have been a highlight. Would have been great, especially for Austin, to “play” farmers during the cooking experience. Already looking forward to reading your next posts Shalena, you make them such interesting reading. Annette

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