Cooking Class and Tunnels

“Papa Rui” really enjoys the leaves you use to wrap spring rolls

One of the things I love to do while traveling is to take cooking classes and I wanted to visit the Cu Chi Tunnels to get the Vietnamese perspective on the war, so I found a tour that did both.

I wasn’t sure who wanted to go on the tour with us, but I knew I had a few people interested. Once I booked the tour and confirmed logistics though, the whole group wanted to join.

The day started with a four course cooking class. I got to choose the menu so we obviously made Pho. We also had some spring rolls, a lemongrass chicken clay pot, and a banana coconut milk dessert. It was a true Farm to Table experience. We first toured the farm and cut our own herbs. Our guide was formerly on Masterchef Australia and was a wealth of knowledge. Especially about things that Fernanda, who is 5 months pregnant, should and shouldn’t eat. We all learned a lot, but who knows how much of it will stick. In any case it was fun to wear the conical hats and walk around the gardens seeing things like how peanuts grow (on the whole plant).

It was particularly interesting to see how the oyster mushrooms grow. Ho Chi Minh Cooking School is one of the largest producers of these mushrooms and they are very cheap in Vietnam. The grow from dirt in plastic bottles in a shed. They are fairly temperamental when it comes to temperature, but one bottle can produce a huge amount of mushrooms. They grow right out of the neck!

My hat was apparently crooked the whole time..

Our chef kept telling us that I had chosen some of the best, but most ingredient heavy menus so it was time to get cooking. We got the broth going on our pho by putting ginger, onions, and bones in boiling water. We also created an herb blend to place in the pho. Apparently the real secret to good pho is having the right ratio of these spices and water.

Then it was time to move on to the spring rolls. Mr. Tan told us if we paid attention, the same five ingredient categories could produce everything we needed. Sour, salty, sweet, water and spicy. We all tried to keep up as he shuffled ingredients and what we would be using them for before making a dipping sauce.

We then had the pleasure of beating our meat into submission so we could place it in our spring rolls. Rolling the spring rolls also proved to be a bit of a challenge. Most of us had spring rolls open up in the frying pan, but they were delicious. We not only fried them, but we wrapped them in Mustard Leaves and other herbs (including basil) and dipped it in our own sauce.

Back to the cooking stations after we had enjoyed our spring roll course, and it was time to make the lemongrass chicken clay pot. The clay pots here are delicious, it is like your very own cast iron skillet for your food. This dish was easier and faster and just as delicious. I love oyster mushrooms and they had such a nice flavor with the chicken and lemongrass.

While we were all full, we had two more courses to go. For the pho, we fished all the bones out of the broth and put in our greens, onions, chilis, and noodles. It was delicious and gratifying to have made our own. I still prefer the pho across the street from the hotel, but I’ll definitely try and replicate this at home!

The final dish was a fried banana and coconut dish. While I don’t think I did it 100% correctly, it was delicious and I’m now on a mission to find it in Vietnam again.

With our full bellies, it was time to start sightseeing. Our guide, Tan, took us to a farm across the street where he raises Dairy and Meat cows, chickens and pigs. One of the pigs had just had piglets! We felt privileged, usually this stop wasn’t on the tour.

After the farm, we got to see how Rice Paper is made. We were surprised to find out there is no rice involved, and it is actually tapioca. The Vietnamese word translates to “skinny paper” so who knows where we got rice paper from! This process was mechanized in some ways, but it still seemed extremely manual and it was interesting to learn how they sort through the quality and the end-to-end process.

The tapioca is processed, and poured into a fine layer on bamboo matts by a machine. Then humans pull it off the matt (which is what gives it its texture) and stack them up. Another person puts it through the cutter, creating the circular shape and throws them in baskets. The final person on the line sorts through each sheet for quality and packages them.

Next stop on the tour was driving through a rubber tree plantation. We moved fast enough I didn’t get a good picture, but the carefully laid lines of trees were beautiful.

Yes, those are bats

The final stop was the Cu Chi Tunnels. These tunnels were used by the Northern Vietnamese during the American War. I wanted to see them and get a different perspective on the war and it was fascinating. It wasn’t anti-American so much as matter of fact in the way the events were described.

Some of us crawled through the tunnels and the 10 feet we went was more than enough. Underground, the tunnels were dug to be confusing and if you take a wrong turn, you can end up crawling for an hour.

There were also a bunch of places where the traps that were used to harm or kill the Americans were on display and a captured US Army tank. Before Cuba, I’d never really seen the other side of a war from the American version and here I felt much the same that I did there, unsure of how to interpret the results, but interested in learning more. Its so easy to distance ourselves from war, it was strange to envision what life would have been like if you never knew where the enemy was and knew they were only a few feet below you.

The tour overall was a huge success, we learned to cook, got to see some off the beaten path factories and learned about the Vietnamese perspective on the American War.

The next day, some of us went to Ho Chi Minh City to shop. Corey and I were very interested in old maps and some others had souvenir lists. We were extremely successful in finding everything we were looking for and then came back and went Ceramic shopping.

I can’t believe it was our last weekend before we all part ways. It was very surreal. Hopefully we all finish our final presentations in time to enjoy one last group activity before we head back to Ho Chi Minh.