We were up bright and (relatively) early this morning to go on a guided tour of one of Hoi An’s large markets. Our guide was a chef at a local cooking school where we would be taken to learn how to cook a few simple Vietnamese dishes. We’d be seeing where our ingredients came from – but what we’d be using in our cooking class had already been selected.
In countries like Vietnam and Cambodia the market is the equivalent of our supermarkets – except there are no fridges and no shopping trolleys. You can probably think of a few other differences yourself. People go to the markets twice a day to pick up items they haven’t grown at home. Meat isn’t presented in Styrofoam trays neatly sliced and covered in plastic. Pigs, cattle, and poultry are all slaughtered and butchered before dawn. You’ll see piles of meat on counters. Intestines, hearts, liver, a few pigs’ heads in a corner. Women plucking duck carcasses, others scaling and gutting fish. And rows and rows of vegetables, herbs, and fruit. By the way, there were no offensive odours, presumably because everything was fresh.
Our group of ten was divided into one group of four and one of six, each with its own guide. Ten was too many in a busy, crowded space. Even here we had to be aware of motorbikes driven by people doing their shopping. Our guide, Lihn, told us if you wanted the best produce you came to the market early. If you wanted the cheapest, you came late. Because there are no refrigerators, produce like meat isn’t kept overnight. It’s used for other purposes, such as feed for the fish farm. There were a lot of live fish and other seafood kept in tanks. They would be on sale tomorrow.
Apart from naming produce and showing us how to pick the best, Lihn told us a few of the tricks vendors used to trap the unwary. She compared two clever kitchen knives commonly used in preparing Vietnamese food. One was better quality than the other, if a bit more expensive. She showed us packets of coffee where the packaging made it easy to palm off the second-grade material as the first grade.
The market is situated on the river bank. When we’d finished our visit, we boarded a boat for the short trip to Red Bridge Cooking School for our cooking lesson. It’s a lovely location with several covered areas in beautiful tropical gardens set up to teach visitors like us how to cook – although there’s a limit to what you can learn in a couple of hours.
Our market guide, Lihn, was in fact a senior chef at the school and she conducted our lessons. Each of us had our own workspace with a small burner and each dish was demonstrated for us to copy. Our first creation was rice pancakes which would be made into fresh spring rolls. I confess I’ve always had a fairly limited view of Asian (Chinese) food. I expect a big bowl of steamed or fried rice accompanied by dishes like chicken and cashews and beef in black bean sauce. It’s the same sort of mindset that expects all Italian food to involve pasta. In Vietnam, steamed rice seemed to be an extra. They used the rice in the same way we use wheat – make it into rice flour which is then used to make noodles, pancakes and the like. I’ve included the recipe we were given to make pancakes because it’s fascinating. It’s quite a lot of work. Of course, you can buy rice paper pancakes at supermarkets for a pittance. Just add moisture to soften. Lihn said to put them between lettuce or palm leaves for a couple of hours to make then pliable.
All of us managed to create edible spring rolls and fresh rice noodles with chicken. It was lots of fun.
We were also taught how to make fruit and vegetable decorations. Presentation is a big part of any dish. We all did a fair job – although not as good as the chef’s.
The afternoon was ours to enjoy. Some went back to Hoi An old town to see the place in daylight. I’d developed a sore throat so we kept ourselves to ourselves.
Coming back from a short walk in the town we came across a number of saffron-robed monks in the lobby performing a ceremony involving chanting and incense. I thought it would be rude to take a picture. This was a Buddhist blessing which happened regularly in the hotel.
That evening we had dinner in the hotel. We’d noticed the restaurant manager was the same man who’d been manager at breakfast and took a chance to chat with him, the place not being very busy. He was a married man with two young children and he worked extra shifts when he could to earn more money. Although he was a manager his pay barely covered rent and living expenses. What he really wanted to do was get to Europe or Australia and work there for a few years. I felt sorry for him. This was a young man with skills, who spoke very good English – not an easy language for anyone to learn.
It was our last night in Hoi An. Tomorrow we’d head back to Da Nang and then further up the coast.