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Cooking classes on a (spring) roll in tourist's Vietnam

Thursday, June 27, 2002

By Woodene Merriman, Post-Gazette Senior Editor

In this second of two parts about her food fact-finding trip to Vietnam, Woodene Merriman shares her cooking class experiences.
HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam -- I passed! One spring roll fell apart, bean sprouts tumbled through a hole in another, but executive chef Gary Rosen is a kind and patient man.

Dan Marsula, Post-Gazette

Related article:
All the world's a kitchen for the curious cook

Previous article:
In the vanguard of tourists, food writers explore Vietnamese cuisine

Like everyone else in our cooking class at the Omni Saigon Hotel, I got a diploma to take back home and frame.

Truth be told, no one becomes an expert in the making of transparent spring rolls or grilling beef in fragrant leaves in one class. What we -- and other tourists who take the class -- get is a better understanding of Vietnamese specialties, plus a trip to the market led by hotel chefs before the class and lunch after the mini graduation ceremony.

It was 8:30 a.m. that day when our group of food writers and friends left for the big Ben Thanh Market. Chef Tran Thi Hoa, one of Rosen's assistants, and other chefs from the hotel led small groups of us through the crowded market, trying to dodge motor bikes and women balancing baskets of food from bamboo rods in the narrow aisles. On either side of us were frogs (live), huge bags of pig rind, vats of fresh fish, piles of exotic fruits, century-old eggs (two varieties) and bags of fresh noodles.

Vietnamese markets are a good place to heed the traveler's warning, "When looking, don't walk; when walking, don't look."

Chef Hoa bought pumpkin leaf branches for our class and answered the constant barrage of questions from her students: What's that? How do you eat it? How do you spell it?

Back at the Omni Saigon, our individual work stations were set up, ready for us to cut, chop, season, roll and mix. First lesson: The making of Lotus Root and Prawn Salad. Nothing to it, we learned, if you peel the long lotus stem and soak it in vinegar for 30 minutes so it doesn't discolor. Then the stem is sliced and mixed with sliced laxa leaves, pickle leeks, pork belly, prawns, prawn crackers and other ingredients. Interesting, but not a recipe I'm likely to make again; my neighborhood supermarket at home doesn't stock laxa leaves, pickle leeks or lotus stems.

Moving right along, we mixed minced beef and pork neck, seasoned it with lemon grass, garlic and fried shallots, put a small amount in the middle of a "fragrant" or "King Henry" leaf and wrapped it up, ready for sauteing. "You could use a fresh grape leaf," Rosen said.

Transparent spring rolls were even trickier, although much of the hard work (boiling, peeling and slicing prawns, and soaking the rice paper between banana leaves for eight hours) was done for us ahead of time. The rice paper has to be dampened a little, but not too much, bean sprouts tucked inside compactly, sliced prawns placed with the pretty rounded side showing, chives inserted so a third of the branch sticks outside the roll.

Rosen, a native of Israel who has worked extensively in Asia, Hoa and two other chefs paced past our work stations, each one stopping at my spot to offer advice.

"Too fat. ... Too loose," they said, referring, of course, to the spring rolls.

We mixed sauces, garnished dishes, took pictures of each other in our cooking class aprons and paper chef hats, asked questions and stood in line to get our "Certificate of 100 Percent Attendance" before going downstairs to the hotel restaurant to eat what we had prepared and several other dishes.

I don't think my transparent spring rolls made the cut; there were no overly fat or loose rolls served. None had holes in the rice paper wrappers, either.

We came away with a greater appreciation of the colorful, flavorful southern Vietnamese dishes, as well as full tummies. Serious cooking students, incidentally, could sign up for additional classes.

The Sofitel Metropole Hotel in Hanoi offers similar cooking classes -- a chef-guided trip to the market, class and lunch. But these are demonstration classes, possibly better suited to more inhibited students. We sat, watched, took pictures and notes and sampled the north Vietnamese specialties, deep-fried spring rolls, grilled chicken skewers with lemon leaves, marinated pork grilled in bamboo and banana flower salad made by the chefs.

Lunch followed in the hotel's Spices Garden restaurant, which shifted from an Asian restaurant with a strong Vietnamese flavor to a 100 percent Vietnamese restaurant just two years ago. The idea came from Didier Corlou, a French chef and son-in-law of an old Hanoi family. Now at lunch and dinner, almost 40 dishes are offered, including some from the central and southern regions of the country.

No experience is needed for the hotel cooking classes, set up for guests at the hotels. They've been especially popular with Japanese guests, we were told.

"Students" are asked to register for the class before leaving their home country, through agencies that arrange their Vietnamese travel. Expect to pay about $25 for the class, plus lunch.

At home, I will never make the recipes we followed in class. Some of the ingredients are too difficult to get. But every time I eat a transparent spring roll in a Vietnamese restaurant, I'll remember that class and admire the artful way the bean sprouts were tucked into the folded rice wrapper, the sliced pink shrimp placed just so and the whole thing rolled so perfectly it doesn't fall apart.

It's also possible to experiment with Vietnamese dishes in your own kitchen with Mai Pham's authentic cookbook, "Pleasures of the Vietnamese Table." Pham is the owner of the Lemon Grass restaurant in Sacramento, Calif., a regular guest chef instructor at the Culinary Institute of America and a native of Vietnam.

The book has reminiscences of her years in Vietnam as a child, as well as stories from her recent visits there. Wherever possible, she gives an easier-to-find alternative for hard-to-find items but also includes sources for Vietnamese ingredients.

Very fresh lemon grass, available in Asian markets and the herb section of many large supermarkets, is essential to the recipe above, a favorite from her childhood:

Stir-Fried Chicken With Lemon Grass And Chilies

2 teaspoons cornstarch
1 tablespoon water
2/3 pound boneless, skinless chicken thighs or chicken breast, cut into thin, bite-sized strips
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 cloves garlic, chopped
2 teaspoons chopped fresh chilies or dried chili flakes
2 lemon grass stalks, bottom white part only, finely chopped (about 1/4 cup)
1 yellow onion, thinly sliced lengthwise (about 1 cup)
1/2 cup fresh or store-bought low-sodium chicken broth
1 tablespoon fish sauce
1 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon light brown sugar
5 sprigs cilantro, cut into 2-inch lengths

Combine the cornstarch, water and chicken in a bowl. Toss to coat the meat evenly. Set aside to marinate for 15 minutes.

Heat 1 1/2 tablespoons of the oil in a skillet over high heat. Add the chicken and stir until the edges turn white, about 3 minutes. Transfer to a plate and keep warm.

Wipe the pan clean. Add the remaining 1 1/2 tablespoons oil and heat over moderate heat. Add the garlic, chilies and half of the lemon grass and stir until fragrant, about 10 seconds. Add the onion and chicken stock and cook until the onion is soft, about 10 minutes.

Stir in the chicken, remaining lemon grass, fish sauce and sugars and cook until the chicken is cooked through, about 3 to 4 minutes. Transfer to a plate, garnish with cilantro and serve immediately. Serves 4.

Adapted from "Pleasures of the Vietnamese Table" by Mai Pham

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