Hanoi: Our Vietnamese Cooking Class with Apron Up

I feel like I’m writing a LOT of blog posts about our foodie experiences in Vietnam! Vietnamese cuisine is definitely a favourite of mine thanks to its fresh, fragrant flavours and I was so excited to try cooking some of my own during our holiday.

I spent quite a bit of time researching cooking classes across Vietnam, particularly in Hoi An and Hanoi which are both known for their great food. I decided to book a private class with Apron Up Cooking School in Hanoi. Doing a private class obviously cost a bit more than joining a group class, but it meant that we could decide on exactly what we wanted to cook from a much longer list than the group classes, we could decide on exactly the time we wanted to start, and importantly we could have 100% of our teacher’s attention during the class…not that I’m needy or anything!

Dong Xuan Market

Our teacher, Nhi, met us at our hotel in the old quarter at 9am and we headed straight to Dong Xuan market to pick up ingredients. As is fairly typical of markets in that part of the world, there were plenty of vendors selling meat uncovered on big metal tables which is VERY different to the way meat is handled and sold back home! We saw huge displays of herbs, vegetables and more as we made our way around the market and I was introduced to yet more new ingredients like jicama, pomelo, and silkworms. We didn’t buy any of the latter though.

Cooking

Once we had our ingredients we walked back to the cooking school and got our aprons on and hands washed ready to start.

Pho

Pho must be the best-known Vietnamese dish throughout the world and so it was top of my list when choosing the dishes we wanted to learn in our class. The clear, spiced beef broth is normally simmered for 6 to 8 hours, regularly skimming of the scum that forms at the surface, to get the beautiful flavour. We obviously didn’t have that kind of time and so our teacher taught us how to grill the bones to kick-start that release of flavour. We also charred some shallot, onion and ginger, and toasted the vital spices to add to the pot with the beef bones and brisket: star anise, coriander seeds, cinnamon, and black cardamom. I’d never come across black cardamom before, but one sniff and I was in love. The pods are dark and much bigger than their green counterparts, about an inch in length, and have the familiar fragrance of cardamom but with a real smoky depth as well. I actually bought some from a lovely little spice shop in the Old Quarter called Viet Aroma so I can experiment with it back at home, and I’m sure it can be found in UK spice shops too for when I run out. We left the broth simmering away under the watchful eyes of the other kitchen staff while we moved on to our other dishes.

Bun cha

Bun cha is probably my favourite Vietnamese dish and one I was really looking forward to making in this class. The bun cha typical of Hanoi consists of pork slices and pork meatballs served with vermicelli noodles, nuoc cham dipping sauce made primarily with fish sauce, sugar, and lime juice, and a mountain of fresh herbs. Everything is generally served separately, but sometimes the pork is served already in the dipping sauce, and then you add noodles and herbs to your taste to eat. We learned the ingredients that go into the pork meatballs and the technique of forming the meatballs to force out as much air as possible so that they don’t fall apart during grilling. Once made, the meatballs were whisked away by the staff to be grilled.

Banh xeo

Banh xeo is a crispy yellow Vietnamese pancake named after the sizzling sound it makes during cooking. The main difference to other pancake batters is the incorporation of rice flower and turmeric which obviously gives the batter its colour. The biggest surprise was the amount of oil that goes into cooking the pancake to make it crispy. A little was added to the pan to begin with as you’d expect, but more was added at regular intervals while the pancake was cooking. The filling of meat, tiny shrimp and beansprouts were added during the cooking and the pancake was folded over and turned until it was super crisp.

Spring rolls

You can’t go far in Vietnam without coming across a rice paper roll of some description, whether that’s a fresh summer roll or a crispy fried one. We couldn’t do a cooking class without learning to make at least one type! Fried spring rolls felt like the most tricky (although none of them are that difficult to make) so I chose those. First we stirred together the ingredients for the filling including pork, wood ear mushrooms, carrots, jicama, black pepper and more, and then Nhi taught us how to add even more flavour to the rice paper by wetting it with a mixture of water and soy sauce. We then learned how to fold the traditional cylinder shapes as well as less conventional triangles. We ended up with a huge plateful of them! The rolls were fried twice, once to heat them through and then they were taken out of the oil so that the residual heat could keep cooking the filling without making them too oily. They were fried again to finish them off and get them really crispy – definitely a theme!

Pomelo salad

I don’t think I’d tried pomelo before our class. I loved that it wasn’t too bitter but instead had a beautiful clean, not-too-sweet flavour and was nice and juicy. I have to confess I ate a fair amount of it before it even made it into the salad! We removed the skins from the pomelo segments and tore each one into fairly big pieces so that their flavour and texture wouldn’t get lost. The other ingredients were then combined alongside a lovely sweet, tart dressing and everything was mixed together.

Eating

I am so glad that we decided to skip breakfast in the morning because at the end of our class we sat down to an absolute feast of Vietnamese dishes. We had a whole bowl of pho each which had more flavour than I thought would be possible in such a short time of cooking it. Grilling the bones really made a difference and I will definitely be trying this at home. Few dishes are as versatile as pho: a warm spicy broth for winter; a clear, light, fragrant broth for summer; flavour and nutrients for when you’re ill.

I found the bun cha to be quite sweet and personally would also give it a bit more char on the grill next time around, but I loved the bite-sized meatballs with the noodles, dressing and herbs. This is another one that I’ll be looking forward to making at home, particularly if we have good enough weather to get the barbecue out this summer!

Our teacher served our banh xeo with the obligatory pile of herbs, but also with strips of pineapple and rice paper to wrap everything up in. The sweet, juicy pineapple was a revelation to me and perfectly complemented the crispy, rich pancake. The banh xeo itself could have been a bit crispier for me, but altogether with the accompaniments it was still enjoyable.

Our huge plateful of spring rolls felt like the elephant in the room, with both Mark and I unable to fathom how we were expected to eat them all! They were delicious and just like the spring rolls we’d bought from street sellers, except even better because we made them ourselves! I love the kick of black pepper in a lot of Vietnamese food that I think is altered for western tastes when you get Vietnamese food at home. Another reason to make our own!

Given that we had a fair amount of rich food, the pomelo salad was a perfect accompaniment. The freshness from the pomelo gave a welcome contrast with the other foods, and the dressing had a yummy sweet, savoury, slightly funky flavour. I also loved how the staff served our salad in the pomelo peel and topped with a little carrot decoration. I’d love to try making this at home as well and experiment with pomelos in the UK and see how they compare in terms of bitterness vs freshness and sweetness.

Thankfully we were provided with take-away boxes so we didn’t have to finish everything. We made sure we ate the things that wouldn’t keep like pho and bun cha, and packed up some of the spring rolls, banh xeo and pomelo salad to have for dinner.

I had an awesome time cooking with Nhi and Apron Up and learned so much that I will definitely be using at home. We left the class with very full tummies, a lot of leftovers and a lovely handwritten certificate and recipe book. I can’t wait to try cooking these recipes again!

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