“Stop slurping!” Carmen scolds at me.
But it’s hard to stop this newly-found habit I picked up in Asia from creeping onto other parts of my culinary life.
Asian food is of course starkly different in its use of flavours, ingredients and techniques compared to the Western stuff I usually eat back home in Australia.
But the real stand out difference for me is the way it’s eaten.
The British comedian Spike Milligan once said, “Chopsticks are one of the reasons the Chinese never invented custard,” and no matter how often I use them I still can’t get the proper hang of them. But the locals handle their chopsticks with all the dexterity of a classical pianist or a brain surgeon.
But the precision and refinement ends there.
You can slurp your noodles and pick up the bowl to drink the soup or use the chopsticks to pitchfork food into your mouth. People chew noisily with their mouths open to show their appreciation for the food and pretty much do whatever they like.
Compare that with the surgical layout of an average dinner in the west. Start from the outside and work your way in with the cutlery, keep your elbows off the table, rip the bread instead of cutting it, tilt the soup bowl away when take a spoonful – and whatever you do don’t slurp!
So much of western food and cooking is governed by iron rules that were invented in previous centuries by toffs in wigs and ladies in bodices. We are all supposed to eat like aristocrats, even when it’s brunch at a pub. Not everyone does, sure, but most of the time we eat with quite a few behavioural restrictions.
Eating the Vietnamese way
In our travels across Vietnam, I ate a staggeringly wide variety of new foods and flavours and thoroughly enjoyed them, slurping and burping and chewing with the abandon of a dog let off a leash down the park. And the biggest new experience I had was with the crunch.
The Vietnamese are obsessed with crunch. It’s in everything they eat, from fresh herbs in Pho Bo soup for breakfast, to carrots and cucumber in a Bahn Mi sandwich for lunch to peanuts scattered on top of a baked fish for dinner.
When it comes to the crunch, the Vietnamese always include something that will give a dish a good mouth feeling – something I think is often overlooked in western cooking, which emphasises flavor, and these days, the intricate history of each and every ingredient in the dish.
The Vietnamese reckon a dish without crunch is boring. Crunch means you can really get stuck into the food and show your appreciation.
So since I’m down with all of the slurping and crunching, I figured it was time to learn a few of the tricks of Vietnamese cooking so I can preach this new gospel at home. Carmen and I took a cooking class in Bali so we can cook our families a Balinese feast, so we decided a Vietnamese sequel would be a great way to go.
The elegant old city of Hoi An on Vietnam’s central coast is a magnet for foodies and some of its best restaurants are owned by one woman, Madam Vy, who opened up one of the very first places catering to tourists back in the 1990s with patrons teaching her how to make western style food.
But her Vietnamese roots came back to the fore, and one place grew to two and then three and now four in Hoi An – Mermaid, Cargo, Morning Glory and Vy’s Market, with a new restaurant just opened in Melbourne, Australia.
And Madame Vy’s growing culinary empire includes a cooking school where you can learn the basics of Vietnamese cuisine or hone your skills to a professional edge. We took the middle road – a class where we could taste a wide range of foods and cook a few dishes too.
Cooking Vietnamese style
We reported to Miss Vy’s School of Cooking at Vy’s Market around eleven o’clock in the morning, having skipped a big breakfast to make sure we were hungry. It was a good move. The restaurant does what it says on the tin – it’s arranged like an old school market with individual stalls preparing different dishes of street food, and we were going to try them all.
We started by learning to make rice noodles, which are a staple of Vietnamese cooking and serve as an ubiquitous base for lots of dishes. They are made from a paste of very finely crushed and ground rice then fed into a device that looks like a torture machine, which rains a dozen strands of noodle from its spout.
You then wave your hand left to right beneath it, catching the noodles on the outside of your palm then lay them down on a tray – rinse and repeat until you have a brace of noodles ready for the pot. We all had a go at making them – Carmen’s were great but mine were definitely factory seconds!
I was getting hungry, and the interactive element of our next stops was simply to eat. We began with some jelly like spring rolls, where gluggy rice coats crunchy vegetables and meats like pork and chicken. It was delicious, and made a perfect entrée for the pork belly Bahn Mi sandwiches we munched down, fatty meat, noodles, salad and crunch baguette.
The real Vietnamese crunch
A counter full of shall we say ‘exotic’ foods stretched before us. Snails, pig offal, fried brains, and the party piece of the lot – duck fetus eggs. We were encouraged to try them all, but I could only manage the cow brains – nutty, kind of like pate.
Carmen tried the lot. Even the duck egg fetus, which has a horror story behind it. You incubate a duck egg until the fetus grows large enough, then you boil it up and eat it. The best have crunchy little duck bones apparently, though Carmen said hers was quite smooth!
By now our stomachs were well and truly torn between taking in more food and vacating what was there, so we headed over to some work stations where we could be doing some Vietnamese cooking of our own – a nice distraction from the thought of chewing on a duck’s foetus!
We gathered around a stonework table that was set with square cut bamboo leaves. One by one we spooned a spoonful of gluggy rice mixture onto the leaves, then smeared a paste of sticky pork and wrapped the whole thing up like a parcel. This would go into a steamer for us to eat later.
Next up, we mixed up rice flour with corn flour into a batter and made Hoi An Crispy Pancakes. Dollop vegetable oil into a pan and sizzle up a piece of marinated pork and a few prawns, then pour a good measure of the batter over the top. When it’s had a minute in the heat add a handful of crunchy vegetables, cook it a bit longer, then fold it like an omelet.
So, with all of our taste testing completed and our basic cookery done, it was time for the Vietnamese feast, and it didn’t disappoint. Our pancakes were served with rice paper and herbs, the idea being you make a kind of spring roll, with the omelets as the filling. It was crunchy and slippery and tasty, the perfect balance of Vietnamese flavours and feelings.
Carmen and I are going home to Australia for the summer and we’ll be cooking up some Vietnamese treats for our families. And who knows, when it comes to the crunch, maybe we can convince them to do away with the strict table manners for a change…
What you need to know
Where: Miss Vy’s School of Cooking is located at Madame Vy’s Market Restaurant, at 106 Nguyen Thai Hoc Street, Hoi An, Vietnam.
Cost: VND 555,000 per person = US$25
When to go: We travelled to Hoi An in September when the weather is a good mix of hot and mild. The cooking classes are held most days and the tasting class, which is the one we did, is one of the most popular choices.