Tuesday, August 8, 2017

August 7 – Let’s Cook Some Spring Rolls

Yesterday Stella and I booked a half day cooking course. The only regret I had from our previous trip to this region was not partaking in a cooking class, as they are very popular in all of the countries here, fairly cheap, and actually provide you with skills you can take home with you. Plus, I love Asian food, but have never learned to cook it. Stella has shown some interest in this style of cooking too, as shortly before we left home on the trip we went to a big book fair and she bought an instructional book on Asian cooking. Ana and Magnus were less interested in this so they spent the morning scouring the markets to pick up gifts for a few people back home.

We were met by our guide and she first took us to the market to pick up a few ingredients and also to see some of the fruits and vegetables that are only found in Vietnam. I wish I could remember the names of all the ones she showed to us, but there were a lot and we tried several of them. One of the local specialties must be cinnamon as every second vendor had buckets of huge chunks of cinnamon bark for sale. We saw many different types of noodles for sale in the market, as well as these huge tubs of this strange green jelly that our guide tried to explain, but I just couldn’t understand. Since we don’t have any cooking facilities there wasn’t much point in buying anything, except I did pick up a snack bag of these coconut chunks that are scorched and dusted with sugar as well as a small bag of dried lemongrass I will take home and use for cooking.

We then walked to the river and picked up a boat that took us upstream to an island where the Bamboo restaurant and cooking school was located. It turned out that Stella and I were the only ones in the class that day so we had the full attention of the chef instructor. She first led us over to a basin in which she had put water, sliced limes, lemongrass, and some other greens and asked us to wash our hands. The liquid smelled so fresh and citrusy and seemed a whole lot classier than washing with glowing green Costco Palmolive.

In the kitchen she had put out all the raw ingredients on the table – carrots, lemongrass, garlic, yellow and green onions, chilies, coriander, fish sauce, tomatoes, spices, dry noodles, a chicken breast, pork bones for stock and a small, nice looking cut of beef. We started out by doing all the chopping, mashing and slicing of the raw ingredients. Stella often helps out with this at home so had no trouble at all. The chef then guided us through assembly and cooking.

We did three dishes – fried pork spring rolls, Pho Bo (a classic Vietnamese beef noodle soup) and chicken curry. We prepared the spring rolls, learning how to create the filling and roll it into rice paper and then fry it in vegetable oil. By the time we were done there was a huge pile of them, many more than we could comfortably eat without ruining our appetite for the second and third courses. The chef brought out the completed spring rolls and we dug in – delicious, especially the dipping sauce we made. The one thing that surprised me was that we added sugar to most of the dishes, which seemed like a strange thing to add to fish sauce and citrus mixtures, but I guess that’s part of what makes Vietnamese food taste so good.

We then prepared the pho, and I finally learned that I’ve been pronouncing it wrong the whole time we’ve been in Vietnam. Instead of “Foh” it is pronounced more like “Fuh”, but any way you say it, this is my favourite dish here by far. It is actually quite simple to make and absolutely delicious. Pho is always served with a large plate of basil leaves, fresh coriander, chilies, lime wedges, chili sauce and soy sauce, and then you add whichever of those you like into your pho to “personalize” it. I plan to make this my signature dish when we get back to Canada so I will be looking for people to experiment on!

After the pho we were both stuffed, but we had one more to go. We returned to the kitchen and cooked up a flavourful curry using the fresh chicken, spices, coconut cream and vegetables. One interesting thing we did with the chopped vegetables was to deep fry them first, so that they would stay intact instead of turning to mush in the curry.

Stella and I returned to the outdoor dining table and force fed ourselves the curry dish, which was flavourful, fresh, and aromatic. I felt like I had been invited into the magician’s back room and shown all the secret tricks, and I was quite proud of the results of our work. Stella too loved all three of the meals and ate more than I have ever seen her consume at a single sitting.

After lunch we waddled out to the entrance and a man on a scooter handed us helmets and we hopped on for the ride back to the hotel. This island on which the school is located does not have any large roads so you can only get there by boat, scooter or bicycle. We took off and wound through some narrow, hedged pathways and at one point a brave chicken ran across the road, right in front of the bike, but reached the safety of the other side. I could hear Stella laughing.

We met up with Ana and Magnus at the hotel and shared stories about the morning’s activities and then went for a swim in the wonderfully refreshing pool. I went for my afternoon beer visit to Mrs. Ha and then wandered down the street with Ana and the kids and had another one from a mini-market that also had tables out front (but I didn’t let Mrs. Ha catch me cheating on her). We really enjoyed sitting outside, watching the working boats drifting up and down the river, seeing the scooters going by, and listening to all the sounds of things happening in the nearby streets, but mostly we enjoyed just hanging out on a beautiful day. Of course, since this is SE Asia, and we were in the middle of monsoon season, the dark clouds started gathering and before long the hot, clear, sunny day had turned into a tropical storm with the heavens unleashing buckets of water. We escaped into the hotel lobby and enjoyed watching the storm giving Hoi An the daily douche.

After a chill out session in the room we returned downstairs and caught up with Rooster again for a short chat, and then saddled up and rode back into town, in search of the night market that eluded us the previous night. For some reason Magnus had this desperate look about him, as if this were his last 30 minutes in Vietnam and he had to spend the rest of his cash before leaving. Instead of pulling my usual trick of sitting down at the nearest beer-serving venue and letting the rest of the gang pound the market, I bought a tin of Saigon and trailed behind them. Magnus found a guy selling these crazy bird toys where you wind up an elastic (just like the old airplanes where you wound the prop), and let it go and the damn thing flaps its wings and actually flies up into the sky! He negotiated the guy down to two bucks which seemed like a pretty good buy, except that I had no idea how this flimsy bird was going to survive being jammed into a backpack.

The market actually wasn’t too big, so I followed them through the whole thing, at one point hiding behind a food cart to snap a picture of a bunch of local dudes sitting on plastic chairs around a plastic table with their shirts off laughing, smoking and drinking. I felt like joining them, but didn’t want to intrude, nor be ostracized by my family.

Ana and the kids bought ice creams and as they were walking along, Magnus’s ice cream suddenly slid off the stick and splattered onto the ground. I looked down at it, and then looked up at him and said, “Did you just drop your ice cream?”

“Yes. It was poorly made,” he explained.

“I have never seen you mishandle an ice cream in your entire life. I can’t believe it.”

“It was a poorly constructed ice cream.”

“I’d say it was some sloppy mishandling of a poorly constructed ice cream.”

I think he was a little pissed because he didn’t even want to get a replacement one. The poor, sugar-loving boy must be losing his edge.

Because Ana and Magnus hadn’t eaten a three course lunch like Stella and I, they were getting a little peckish, so we walked back to our bikes and started riding back to the hotel. We stopped at one of the riverside restaurants and sat down for drinks. As we sat there discussing plans for the rest of our trip, we could hear the sounds of a bad lounge singer, and we looked up the river to see this weathered beast of a boat slowly passing by. On the top deck was a live band and half a dozen tables full of people eating dinner, laughing, drinking and having a grand old time. How could we have missed the booze cruise?? We added this to the list of things to do the next time we found ourselves in Hoi An.

One of the tasks we have to do when we get home is to write an album worth of original songs all about backpacking in SE Asia. We’ve been slowly adding to our base material, and tonight we came up with some lyrics for a song called, “No Mo Pho”, which is a great addition to our current roster of songs that includes “Tuk Tukking It”, “Frog Porridge”, “Asian Ass Sweats”, “Hot Duck Eggs”, “Bad English Signs”, and “Spitballing Cheechucks”. It is going to be friggin epic.

After the beers in the market and the beers at the restaurant I was feeling a little buzzed when we arrived back at the hotel room. I thought it would be a good idea to wind up Magnus’s toy bird and see how she flew in the hotel room. So I wound it up to maximum, released it, and it flapped all the way around the room and made a textbook landing right in Ana’s hair. It was all pretty funny at first, because the bird hanging off her hair made her look like she was getting ready for a fancy English wedding, but then I walked over to see how it was so firmly lodged in place and noticed that those twisted elastics had buried themselves into her bun and were completely wound up with hair. I laughed nervously. She said what? I said I think we have a little problem. When I mentioned getting my credit card knife she immediately grasped the gravity of the situation and said there was no damn way I was going to cut it out. So I started taking the bird apart, removing the wings and tail feathers, until all I was left with was a wad of elastic buried in her hair and a bunch of bird parts lying on the floor. I started yanking on it and she started screaming and I yanked harder and finally it somehow unspun and released itself. I was a hero!

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