We saw winter out with a wonderful, relaxing holiday in Hoi An, Vietnam. A week or two before we set off we made sure to book in a couple of outings: one centred around bird watching (with an excellent lunch rolled in) and the other, a cooking class. There are numerous cooking classes around Hoi An, and my online reading suggested that Red Bridge Cooking School would suit us well.
Their half day tour (US$34 per person) took us and about a dozen fellow students through the central market to learn about ingredients and tools (it wasn't a veg*n class, so that included visiting the meat and [sometimes live] seafood). From the market, we took a boat along the Thu Bon river to the cooking school itself. The school has a lovely herb garden, and covered open areas to cook and eat.
The class is structured as a series of short demonstrations and do-it-yourself. We started with banh xeo, turmeric-tinted rice pancakes that I was already fond of. As we rolled our pancakes in rice paper, we learned that it's stored and softened in banana leaves rather than hydrated in a water bowl.
An even bigger revelation was to come, when we made our own fresh rice paper! It's formed from a simple batter, spread and steamed over boiling water for just one minute, before it's quickly but gently prised off the cotton sheet. We weren't good at the manoeuvre, but nevertheless we were rewarded with the freshest, most special rice paper rolls we've ever eaten. I'm not sure that we'll repeat this at home, but we'll keep this memory for a long time.
A short lesson in food decoration was fun but produced mixed results: I sliced my cucumber a little too thick for it to bend into the loops we were aiming for. Surprisingly, our tomato-skin roses turned out pretty well!
We also made a neat little tofu-mushroom claypot, and received tuition on papaya salad. While everyone else shared a steamed whole fish, Michael and I were treated to eggplant in a thick peanut sauce.
We had a great experience at Red Bridge Cooking School. They're very well organised, with lots of staff on hand to assist and ready to tidy around us. The tour guides and chefs were charming and upbeat, cracking plenty of jokes along the way. The pace was reasonably fast, and our contributions to the cooking were often more a brief practice of a technique (e.g. cooking ready-made batter and adding pre-chopped veges, julienning vegetables for the salad) rather than seeing a dish through from market to plate.
While we received many handy tips throughout the class, we weren't individually tutored on the techniques - the couple of times that I stumbled, the nearest assistant tended to just take over and keep things moving rather than coach me through an improved attempt. This is a small quibble, though - overall, the approach enabled us to try and eat many different dishes, and feel equipped to repeat them at home. I reckon the banh xeo is on the top of our to-make list, with the papaya salad a close second.