We chose to spend Christmas and the New Years in Vietnam this year. The lure of exotic foods coupled with a relaxing stint on the beach is exactly what we were in the mood for. We’ve been to Thailand, Malaysia and the Philippines so far but we’ve avoided Vietnam because of visa hassles. Getting a visa isn’t a big deal but I much prefer to deplane, grab our luggage and head to the hotel. It’s an easy landing plan.
Buuuuuuuut…. Then we found tickets for a phenomenal price to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam and figured let’s do it!
Once upon a time, I used to make detailed itineraries for our vacations, planning out where we would eat, what shops we’d enter and which sites to visit.
Buuuuuuuut… Then we had 3 children which means itinerary plans don’t really work out.
Now what I do is make a list of key excursions and pick days to go sightseeing once we’ve arrived. One thing I definitely had on my list of to dos was a cooking class in HCMC. I really like Vietnamese food although to be honest I haven’t eaten it too often. In Germany, Olivia (David’s fabulous wife) ordered Vietnamese spring rolls and they were absolutely delicious! Then I had a terrible bowl of Pho in Shanghai. That was it. One good, one bad experience.
Since we were going to Vietnam, I wanted to try lots of authentic Vietnamese dishes in HCMC!
Buuuuuuuuuuuut… We don’t eat pork and Nadia is terribly allergic to shellfish and the Vietnamese love their shrimp!
Our dining options were going to be limited. So, I figured I would take a couple of cooking classes and learn to make authentic Vietnamese food at home, discovering and tweaking recipes to avoid the 2 taboo ingredients.
There is no shortage of cooking classes in HCMC. There’s a really popular one in the heart of the city that looked good but then I came across the Ho Chi Minh Cooking Class on TripAdvisor. Not only was it rated #1, it offered something very unique! Unlike most cooking classes were I merely visit a fruit/vegetable market, the HCM Cooking Class offered the opportunity to pick my own vegetables and herbs from their organic farm. I was sold! I registered for the class and eagerly awaited it!
Chef Xuyen (my teacher for the day, who I’ll talk more about in a minute) explained to me that when the owner, Chef Luong Viet Tan, opened the HCM Cooking Class in 2012 on the farm outside the city, people thought he was crazy. See the Vietnam people, like many Asians do not have an interest in organic farming our farming in general. They want to live in the city and do not see the benefits of organic since it only raises the price on their vegetables. I told Xuyen that this will change and I see this change slowly taking place in China. She smiled and said that a transformation will take longer in her country. Anyways, in their first year, they had 3 couples come in. The school invited travel agents to come to the farm in hopes they would tell tourists to visit as well, but it had the opposite effect. Agents gawked at the location, the fact that it was outside with no air conditioning and the idea of making people pick their own vegetables on a farm. Undeterred they kept pushing their dream and slowly HCM Cooking Class became more popular as happy students left glowing reviews on TripAdvisor (313 excellent reviews out of 350!!). They’ve even been featured on television shows in Vietnam and Japan.
Okay so the class took place on a farm outside the city about 90 minutes away. A bit far but it’s a farm! Where could I expect it to take place lol?! The ride there was lovely. Pocketed with street vendors, farms and glimpses of Vietnamese life that is often hidden from the hustle and bustle of city tourists the drive was so worth it!!
When I arrived I looked around for other students but was surprised to see that I was alone. It seemed like a fluke because on their Facebook page most pictures include small groups of 3-5 people. But I sure wasn’t going to complain! A one-on-one session?! Awesome! There was another group doing a day long class where they would learn 10 dishes. They were from Northern Europe and planned on opening a restaurant. A lot of their students are restauranteurs who want to incorporate Vietnamese dishes on their menu. They get the random curious tourist like me but they admit that their location keeps away more tourists. (If you’re visiting HCMC and you plan on taking a cooking class PLEASE do not allow the location to deter you! In fact they also offer tours of the Cu Cui Tunnels after the class. Wish I knew that! We went there the next day but it was 15 minute from the farm. Could have easily killed two birds with one stone that day!)
The first part of my class was a tour of their extensive organic farm. They use manure (hence the cows roaming the field) as fertilizer and handpick the herbs and vegetables once they are perfectly ripened. It’s amazing how every herb not only enhances flavor and aroma of Vietnamese dishes but they all have a medicinal purpose as well. I smelled, picked and nibbled on dozens of different herbs. Each one was more flavorful than the other and had it’s own distinct taste. After my farming I was able to pick out the herbs in dishes that I tried throughout our trip.
Below is a list of just a few of the herbs that I tried:
Vietnamese Basil:This is one of the most important herbs in Vietnamese cooking, used in the recipe as well as a garnish. Slows the aging process, protects against depression, prevents some cancers and is a natural diuretic. Do not confuse Italian Basil for Vietnamese basil. Italian is sweeter, while the Vietnamese has a slight peppery or licorice taste.
Perillo or Shiso Leaves: My guide told me that should I cut my fingers while slicing, place a piece of Shiso leaf on it and the bleeding will stop. (Lol… she must have sensed that I cut myself a lot in cooking). Shiso leaves are eaten raw in salads and Vietnamese Rolls and has a mint/basil taste.
Betel Leaves: Used to treat upset stomach and vomiting, headaches, toothaches and osteoarthritis pain.
Lemon Grass: Stimulates digestion, reduces bad breath and also for treating the flu.
Here I am with my basket of goodies!
The key to tasty Vietnamese dressing and dipping sauce is kumquats, but they are not readily available in the USA. I can find them in China on occasion but not always. Here’s how to achieve that flavor without kumquats:
80% Lemon or Lime and 20% Orange Juice or Mandarin Juice
You’ll also notice that Vietnamese recipes are very simple. Measurements are either big spoon (tablespoon) or small spoon (teaspoon). It doesn’t matter the size of the spoon as long as the flavors are balanced. The flavors become balanced when using equal measurements. So for the Kumquat Dipping Sauce it’s:
- 4T Kumquat Juice
- 4T Sugar
- 4T Fish Sauce
- 1/2T Garlic
- 1/2T Chopped Red Chili
See? Balanced. Equal spoonfuls. All of the recipes are this way and I love it! You might remember my Baklava, Ka’ak, Ma’moul, Harissa, OH MY! blog where I was frustrated with my moms recipes calling for a spoon of this and a spoon of that. Arabic sweets need precision. Vietnamese food does not and I LOVED that!
I made 4 dishes in the next 2 hours with Chef Xuyen. She was so sweet and possesses an intense passion for organic faring. She truly loves what shedoes and takes pride in her knowledge and expertise in Vietnamese cooking. She also spoke perfect English.
HCM Cooking Class give you the option to pick from dozens of dishes per course and picking which ones I would learn that day was the hardest part of the class! So many tasty options but I learned that there is lots of similarities in dishes and you can substitute mango or apple for the papaya in the Papaya Salad. You can use beef instead of the shrimp in the spring roll.
Everything I made was absolutely delicious! I learned so much about the medicinal value of the different herbs and vegetables. All of the staff was really friendly and the location was so relaxing after a couple of bustling days in the big city. Eating outside facing the farm, looking at the cows roaming the land, workers picking vegetables and taking in the natural aromas surrounding me was the highlight of my time in Vietnam. If Nadia was a little older, this would have been a great activity for my whole family. If you have older kids, take them with you! They’ll learn so much about organic farming and herb picking. As great as the staff was with me, I’m sure they would have been exceptionally wonderful with children as well.
I would highly recommend this class for anyone visiting HCMC. I loved that they followed me with a camera and took pictures of my day! I got some really nice pictures out of that! They also sent me all of the recipes, even the ones that I didn’t make. I cannot wait to invite over some friends and show off my Vietnamese cooking skills! Who’s first?
Feel free to leave a comment in the comment section if you have any questions of Vietnamese food. I’m happy to answer what I can from what I’ve learned! If you would like a recipe for a favorite dish I’m happy to check the file they sent me for an authentic recipe for you!
(I received no compensation for my post. All thoughts are my own. I had permission to include the recipes in the post)
Mustard Leaf Roll with Crunchy Vegetables & Shrimp (makes 8 rolls)
Sweet and Sour Fish Sauce Dipping and Dressing Sauce
- 4T of Kumquat juice (“nước tắc”)
- 4T of Sugar
- 4T Fish Sauce
- 1/2T Chopped Garlic
- 1/2T Chopped Red Chili
- Mix all ingredients until sugar is dissolved add then add the chopped garlic and chili and
- Divided into 2 small Bowls
- 8 Prawns, skewered
- 50g Cucumber, julienned
- 50g Papaya, julienned
- 50g Carrot, julienned
- 40g Onion, finely sliced
- 30g Minced Fresh Mint
- 30g Minced Fresh Vietnamese Basil
- 30g Vietnamese Mints
- 30g Spearmints
- 30g Shiso Leaves
- 8 Mustard Leaves
- 8 Long Spring Onions
- Boil the prawns in salted water and then peel and set aside.
- Mix well all remaining ingredients together with 1 bowl of dressing sauce.
- Divided the vegetables in 8 parts.
- On a plate place a spring onion under the mustard leaf, and then add 1 part of the vegetable mix, and roll.
- Top each roll with a prawn and tie the roll securely with a spring onion.
- Serve fresh with a bowl of sweet and sour fish sauce as a dipping sauce
Vietnamese Green Papaya Salad with BBQ Shrimp
Sweet and Sour Kumquat Dressing:
- 4T Kumquat Juice
- 4T Sugar
- 4T Fish Sauce
- 2t Minced Garlic
- 4t Minced Red Long Chili (medium spicy)
- A pinch of salt
- 280g Papaya
- 200g Onion, julienned
- 120g Carrot cut in fancy julienned
- 4 stems of Vietnamese basil, julienned
- 20g Fried Sliced Garlic
- 40g Fried Shallots
- 40g Roasted Peanuts
- In a bowl add Kumquat juice, sugar and fish sauce. Whisk until the sugar is completely dissolved
- Then add about 2 teaspoons of garlic and 3 to 4 teaspoons of chopped chili. Taste it first, and adjust with salt, chili as your convenience. (If the taste is too strong add 1 tablespoon of water).
- Peel the papaya. Using a decorative knife, thinly slice the papaya into matchsticks.
- Combine all salad ingredients prepared as above, and mix well.
- Add the salad dressing and toss gently.
- Arrange the salad on a serving plate. Sprinkle with the crushed peanuts, fried shallots and garlic and serve immediately.
- 1T minced Lemongrass
- 1T minced Ginger
- 1t Sugar
- 1t Fish Sauce
- 1t Oyster Sauce
- 1t Black Pepper
- 1t Chili Sauce
- 1t minced Garlic
- 200g Shrimps, cleaned and butterflied
- 1t Ten Spicy Powder (a mix of dried chili, cumin, anise star, cassia, cloves, nutmeg, lemongrass, coriander seed, fennel seed, perilla leaves, black pepper, sugar and salt)
- 1T Oil
- Mix well all ingredients together then add 1 tbsp oil in the Last Minutes. Let marinade for 15 minutes.
- Saute until golden brown in a saucepan or on the BBQ.
Stew Chicken with Chili and Lemongrass on the Clay Pot
- Chicken Thigh without Bone: 1Pcs/ whole fish 1pcs /200gr Pork Spare Rib
- 2 Large Elephant Mushrooms
- 1/2T Minced Ginger
- 1/2T Minced Lemongrass
- 1/2t Minced Garlic
- 1/2t Minced Chilli
- 1/2t Minced Chilli
- 2 pinches Black Pepper
- 1T Fish Sauce
- 1T Oyster sauce
- 2t Sugar
- 6 Leaves Vietnamese Basil
- 1 Pinch of Ten Spicy Powder (a mix of dried chili, cumin, anise star, cassia, cloves, nutmeg, lemongrass, coriander seed, fennel seed, perilla leaves, black pepper, sugar and salt)
- In a clay pot, saute garlic, shallot, ginger, lemongrass and sugar until the color turns golden brown.
- Then add chicken thigh. Stir until the color darkens of the sauce darkens and the thigh is cooked through.
- Add fish sauce and oyster sauce. Stir well.
- Add water cover. Bring to boil and simmer for 30 Minutes.
- Taste and add more salt or pepper.
- Garnish with pepper and Vietnamese Basil on The Top
- Serve with Jasmine rice
Banana Spring Roll with Coconut Cream
- Mung Bean Rice Paper
- 1 ripened Banana
- 1t Roasted Sesame Seeds
- 1t Roasted Peanuts
- 1t Sugar
- Cube banana
- Mix banana, sesame, peanuts and sugar. Mix well.
- Rolled up like a Spring roll, sealing the edges.
- Deep fry in 180 degree oil for 2 Minutes or until golden brown
- Serve with Coconut Cream