Don’t You Pho-get About Me (Or Cooking Class/Cu Chi Tunnels Combo Tour) Part 3

So, when I last left you, Marta and I had just completed our cooking class and were preparing for the rest of our day. This would involve a visit to a rubber tree forest, a traditional village making rice paper and the Cu Chi tunnels. Our first stop, our wonderful guide told us, was to be the traditional village. One quick bus ride later (I think Marta and I fell into food comas as neither of us remember this part of the trip), and we were told the plans had changed slightly. We would be beginning with the rubber tree forest.

We got out of the bus and crossed a quiet country road (a nice, if not weird, change from Ho Chi Minh City) and were stood on the edge of a large looking forest. Each tree had blue ribbons tied around the trunk

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Each tree was covered in claw-like gashes and our guide explained they were cut to harvest the sap. The sap would leak from the cuts into a spile and then into a small bowl, made specially for collecting it. Our guide warned us that we could not go in too far as this was private land, owned by the government, but they allowed visitors around the outskirts. Our guide also insisted that Marta and I take a picture together. I am glad she did, as this was one of our only photo together for the whole trip.

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Marta and I
Marta and I (Picture from her blog, which you can find here)

After the picture was taken, we were told that we could go to the traditional village. This was actually a small hut across the street, but was one of the best parts of the whole trip. Outside was a traditional machine for sifting the rice. Stepping inside the hut, we saw a woman sat on a little stool. She had some watery batter in a little bucket and was next to an old-fashioned steamer. Scooping up the batter with a small ladle, she would spread it evenly over the hot surface of the steamer, cover it with a wicker lid and then, about twenty seconds later, would effortlessly roll it onto a drying rack. Marta and I tried, with no where near as much success as the woman and it makes you realise just how talented she is to not only do it but make it seem so easy too.

After finishing up here, it was time to go off to the Cu Chi tunnels. But that tale will have to wait until tomorrow, dear readers.

Ricky

Don’t You Pho-get About Me (Or Cooking Class/Cu Chi Tunnels Combo Tour) – Part 2

So, in my last article I ended by telling you the menu that Marta and I had picked out (See it here if you missed it). So, without any messing around I will get stuck back into the cooking class with this article.

We started by preparing the pho. Even though it was the third dish we would eat, it took the longest time to prepare for. This was so the chicken bones and spices could simmer to make the perfect stock. Our chef and host told us that pho restaurants in Vietnam keep their spice mix a closely guarded secret.

Our pho stock bubbling away. The spices are wrapped in a towel.
Our pho stock bubbling away. The spices are wrapped in a towel.

Following on from this, we made the bahn mi. This was absolutely amazing to make, and even better to eat. As I mentioned in the last post, both Marta and I were so hungry that we failed in taking any pictures of this particular dish. But let me assure you, dear reader, that it was mouth-watering, succulent and exactly what I needed (even if I didn’t know it ). A combination of cucumber, carrot, mint, chicken (barbecued to perfection) and a sweet sauce, with just a hint of salt.

Next up, we began preparing for the salad. Our pho broth was left to boil away during this whole time so that it would be just right when it came to serving it. The salad consisted of carrots and cucumbers cut with a “fancy knife” as our chef called it. This was, in reality, a knife to give them a nice serrated edge. The dressing was a simple squeezing of cumquat juice. It made the salad equally refreshing and (with chilli) spicy.

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Finally, it was time for us to get back to the pho. We began by removing the bags of spices and the bones. We added a little more water, fish sauce and sugar to get the taste just right. Marta’s was so good, the chef even called it the best.

For the final dish, we dragged our now bloated bodies out of the chairs and back over to the workstations. Using a wok, we barbecued the banana and caramalised it with honey. Adding vanilla powder, coconut milk and salt into the pan, we created a thick sauce with which we would drizzle the banana. As the sauce thickened, we sliced the banana ready for serving. The last thing to be added was a sprinkling of sesame seeds and peanuts – this made the dish ready for serving.

After eating our deserts with now very full stomachs, the chef had one more surprise for us. One by one, he called us up to him and presented us with certificates and the recipes we had used. We couldn’t have asked for a more perfect start to our day.

Getting our certificates
Getting our certificates

With this done, we paid (and tipped generously – I urge you to do the same. The class is more than worth it) and got ready to go on to the Cu Chi tunnels, rubber tree farm and traditional village where they made rice paper. But, alas, you shall have to wait for my next post to hear about that.

Ricky

All photos from my amazing girlfriend Marta over at Down From The Door.

Don’t You Pho-get About Me (Or Cooking Class/Cu Chi Tunnels Combo Tour) – Part 1

When Marta and I were planning our Vietnam trip, the one thing that we both agreed strongly on (and that was suggested by many, many friends) was that we take a cookery class whilst we were there.

After undertaking some research and carefully examining our remaining money, we became worried that we just wouldn’t have enough money to do the cooking class AND the Cu Chi tunnels tour. The tour of the tunnels alone was around $40 each, and we were worried we just couldn’t justify such an expenditure. But then, our luck changed.

Marta stumbled across the HCM (Ho Chi Minh) Cooking Class. They were offering a cooking class AND a tour of the Cu Chi tunnels in one package for $69. We looked up some reviews on TripAdvisor, which sold us on it even more. A quick email later and we were booked in for the following day (even more impressive, as it was the Lunar New Year).

As the next morning arrived, Marta and I realised that we had slept through the alarms and rushed around to get ready. Luckily, our guide was ten minutes early, giving us both time to make ourselves a little more presentable. Our guide was absolutely amazing. Despite it being early in the morning, she was keen to talk to us both in English and taught us about different Vietnamese traditions.

About 30 minutes later (though it felt shorter), we arrived at the cooking class and were immediately introduced to our chef, Mr. Luong Viet Tan. The cooking class itself took place in an open-walled hut (though it was more like a banquet hall). Immediately, the chef put us at ease. He talked to us whilst lazing back in his chair. He had two restaurants in Melbourne, but his real pleasure was the farm that the hut was surrounded by (and the cooking classes he ran there). Local people had laughed at him when he first set up his organic farm and cookery class. But he knew it would succeed – his time in Melbourne had shown him what people wanted.

Our view.
Our view.

Although he didn’t make any profit here (“We just make enough to get by”, he claimed), the pride and joy in his voice was clear. He had created a little slice of paradise on Earth. The air was beautifully scented from the Thai Basil, soundtrack provided by birds and paddy hats swinging in a light breeze. The view was a simple one but clearly beautiful.

We were soon joined by a German couple and the class began. He began by showing us how he cultivated oyster mushrooms. You fill a large plastic bag with tree mulch and obscure them (in this case, with plastic sheeting) which enables the mushrooms to grow. Following this, he took us on a tour of his farm, allowing us to pick things like cucumber and basil along the way. These would be used for our dishes later.

One of the best things about taking this course was that we were allowed to choose our own menu. Marta and I chose the following:

Entrée: Special Vietnamese bread with BBQ chicken with chilli, lemongrass in special sauce (bánh mì thịt nướng)

[We were too hungry to get a picture of this]

Salad: Papaya salad with prawn (Goi Du Du)

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Main course (soup): Famous beef noodle soup (Phở bò) [We had to substitute beef for chicken to prevent the needless slaughter of animals]

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Dessert: BBQ banana with honey served with coconut milk (chuối nướng mật ong nước cốt dừa).

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Well, that is all I have time for today. Check back Wednesday for the next post in this series, in which I will finish talking about the cooking course and introduce you all to the Cu Chi tunnels.

Ricky

Note: All photos in this were taken by my girlfriend. See them and more over on her blog at Down From The Door.

Saturday Snow (Or How I Battled Epic Monsters and Survived)

So, those of you reading in Korea will know that we have had quite a bit of snow over the last few weeks. In fact, I am not sure I have ever seen such consistent snowfall in my life. Go Southern English upbringing. I am not sure how I feel about the snow. On the one had, I like snow. It makes things looks pretty, makes for amazing photo opportunities and puts me in the right mood for Christmas (which is getting close at an alarming rate). On the other hand, I have the coordination of a particularly drunk penguin and can imagine myself tumbling over some time soon.

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Me, unfortunately.

“So what about these monsters you mention”, I hear you cry? “They sounds much more interesting than snow!” Well, sit patiently, dear reader, and I shall tell you. Recently, a small group and friends and I have begun playing Dungeons and Dragons (D&D). I used to do this back home with friends and missed it a lot living here in Korea. This is our third meeting so far, and boy was it a good one. We got two battles done and made it halfway through our first level. Unfortunately, I also decided that playing a wizard was not for me. Luckily, our amazing DM Richard is letting me re-roll my character for the next time we meet. Paladin or Cleric is my class of choice!

This guy knows the bad baking struggles.

Keep an eye on the blog over the next few days for a post about how me, a person with no baking skills, helped my friend Jess and my girlfriend Marta make some amazing cookies. You will be enthralled by tales of icing, grinding and tasting. It will almost be as good as the cookies I am eating right now!
Ricky