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Food Tales

Farm-to-table Cooking Class in Vietnam

Mention Củ Chi, a suburban district of Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), and most people who have visited or intend to visit Vietnam think of the tunnels where the Viet Cong soldiers hid and funneled food, medical supplies and weapons during the Vietnam War.

Yes, we went to Củ Chi but we skipped the tunnels altogether. Instead, we spent a whole day there as students of the HCM Cooking School and Organic Farm. There were simultaneous classes that day but there were only three of us in our batch.

Alex and I were picked up at our apartment at 7.30 in the morning. In the car, we met Royce, a cooking enthusiast from Melbourne, Australia and the third student in our batch. Royce and I chatted all the way to Củ Chi; Alex slept for the most part.

Scenes from a local market

Our cooking lessons began with a tour of the local market in Củ Chi. Most of the seafood are ones you’d find in most Southeast Asian countries. The meat are a bit more exotic though.

Octopus, shrimps, frogs and duck at the Cu Chi market
Octopus, shrimps, frogs and duck at the Cu Chi market

I took time taking photos of the process of skinning the frogs. Alex was grossed out so I’m thinking the graphic images may be too much for the average reader so those photos will just stay in my private collection.

Some of the fruits and vegetables are among those that we eat and cook with at home.

Water apple in Vietnam is called tambis in the Philippines
In the foreground, water apples (tambis in the Philippines).
Top, right: small cooking bananas that are similar in texture to the saba bananas in the Philippines.
Pitanga (Brizilian cherry, Barbados cherry) in Vietnam market
We sampled a fruit called cherry.
I Googled it later; it is pitanga which is also known as Brazilian cherry and Barbados cherry, among others.
Watery, not too tart.
Lotus and squash flowers at a local market in Vietnam
Left, top to bottom: Lotus, a vegetable that looks like makahiya (Mimosa pudica) and a vegetable the name of which I can’t recall anymore. Right: squash blossoms.
Vietnamese banh tet: a cylindrical sticky rice cake popular during the Lunar New Year
I spied banh tet, sticky rice cakes traditionally consumed during Tet, the Vietnamese Lunar New Year.
We tried it, I loved it so I bought a piece which Alex and I enjoyed at the apartment later.

The cooking school’s organic farm

We reached the cooking school at around 10.00 a.m. We were served cold drinks. The water apples from the market were sliced and we snacked on them.

Picking vegetables at the HCM Cooking School and Organic Farm
Picking vegetables at the HCM Organic Farm.
Photo courtesy of the HCM Cooking School and Organic Farm.

A few minutes later, we were handed our baskets, scissors and hats. Time to pick vegetables and herbs (we would cook with them later) from the adjacent organic farm.

We cooked four dishes

And then, the cooking began. Four dishes. Between the cooking, we ate what we cooked.

Vietnamese dipping sauce
Vietnamese dipping sauce: salty, sweet, sour and spicy

Before the actual cooking commenced, we had to learn the formula for making the Vietnamese dipping sauce. It’s a building block, really, because marinades and sauces can be built up from it.

Shrimp and cilantro spring rolls
Shrimp and cilantro spring rolls

Appetizer was shrimp spring rolls. Alex consistently earned praises from the cooking instructor. Well, she’s the one who went to culinary school so that wasn’t so surprising, I suppose. Of course, I was every inch the proud mother.

Vegetable salad with pork barbecue

Next was the salad. Julienned vegetables and herbs tossed with dressing and topped with pork barbecue. Royce cooked the best looking pork barbecue.

Claypot chicken and oyster mushrooms
Claypot chicken and oyster mushrooms

The main dish was chicken and oyster mushrooms cooked in a claypot. We had it with rice. At that point, we were already full. We finished our chicken but no one finished the rice.

I was ready for my after-meal coffee by that time when the cooking instructor announced that we still have to cook our dessert. Oh, my. How was I ever going to fit dessert in my stomach? But, you know, when you have to cook your food, you burn enough calories to allow you to enjoy it afterwards. Or, at least, that was my excuse.

Banana spring rolls served with frozen coconut cream
Banana spring rolls served with frozen coconut cream

So, yes, we all finished our banana spring rolls. The filling was minced bananas mixed with a little sugar, peanuts and sesame seeds. Served with frozen coconut milk, the dish was stupendous. Delicious to the last bite.

Proof of our labor

Having completed the cooking class, we were presented with certificates.

Certificate of completion of cooking class at the HCM Cooking School and Organic Farm
Photo courtesy of HCM Cooking School and Organic Farm

Despite the heat, we had a great time. I think our amiable and patient cooking instructor, Huong, did not find us too clueless. I hope. We left HCM Cooking School and Organic Farm with a better understanding of Vietnamese cuisine and food.

If you’re planning on visiting Saigon, you might want to spend a day learning Vietnamese cooking at HCM Cooking School and Organic Farm. It’s quite an enriching experience.

Written By

I travel to eat, drink and learn new cuisines. Between trips, I write travel stories and share travel-inspired recipes. That is my idea of retirement with purpose.

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