Learning to Cook in Hoi An

I firmly believe the best way into a culture is through its food. That, however, doesn’t always mean simply eating as much as you can (although I do that as much as possible). Cooking classes can often give you a deeper look into the people somewhere—especially those that include market visits.  You’ll often learn about techniques and ingredients you otherwise would not have learned about, and get deeper insight into the food you’d otherwise only have eaten: where it comes from, who makes it, and how its made.  One of the best examples of this I’ve ever experienced was the Green Bamboo Cooking School in Hoi An, Vietnam.

The class, lead by Van for an extremely reasonable $45, begins at 8:00am with a pickup at your hotel. While in the car picking up the other participants, you’ll be given a list of 50 or so dishes, and everyone in the class gets to pick one.  By the time you arrive at the market, Van has a list of dishes that will be made that day and knows which ingredients to pick up.  You’ll start with fresh herbs and vegetables, before going into the fish market to get any ingredients you may need there, through the meat section, and ending with the most important ingredient: the noodles (including the legendary local cao lao noodles).

Markets traversed, ingredients amassed, and knowledge imparted, you’ll next stop for a quick Vietnamese coffee to get your energy up before your marathon cooking experience.  Van, with two helpers, will take you back to her house and gather you around, setting up the menu and who will cook when to make a reasonable facsimile of a meal (ie, if you picked an appetizer, you’ll be cooking near the beginning). Some of the dishes, like summer rolls, everyone gets to try their hands at.  Otherwise, everyone is given their prep instructions, a selection of beer, and work gets underway.

When a dish is ready to be cooked, that person is called up to the stove and the cooking begins. After each dish is complete, it is divvied up so everyone in the class can taste it.  This makes for a day tasting a lot of food, but never quite too much—though, by the time class is over, you may not need dinner that night (and you may need a nap).  After class, everyone is given a cookbook of all the dishes along with a multi-use vegetable peeler perfect for papaya salad and a pair of long cooking chopsticks.  I was probably more excited about getting these than I should have been.

This was easily one of the standout days of our time in Vietnam, which is impressive because looking back it seems like they were all standout days.  The class, the food, and just being in a relaxed and beautiful town like Hoi An all contributed to the fun.  Van is an excellent teacher, and makes sure any questions are answered and everyone leaves satisfied.  It should be a must on any trip to Hoi An.

Easter Markets in Budapest & Prague

buda-eggFor whatever reason, when we did our Hungary – Slovakia – Prague trip over the week of Easter, it never occurred to me to be excited for the Easter markets.  I had marked the main one in Prague on a map for things to do, and I had the vague notion that the Catholic holidays were a big deal, but I guess when I was looking for places to drink beer and eat great local food, it had totally gone over my head to pay attention to these markets.

So it was with great glee when we happened to walk into an Easter market on our first night in Budapest.  My eyes were immediately drawn to one of the food vendors, and I couldn’t have been more excited—Eastern Europe is well known for its meat-heavy and vegetable-light food, which has never been a problem for me.  Add to that fact that I immediately saw a tray of stuffed cabbage, a food my family makes often and that I had been looking forward to trying in its natural habitat.

buda-food3The markets were pretty evenly split between food vendors and those with trinkets and souvenirs.  I didn’t worry about the latter, because I was there for the former.  We found huge buffets of local food, including full meals, snacks, desserts, and even people who had made their own beer for the occasion.  At the first market, I sat down with a beer and a huge piece of stuffed cabbage atop a potato latke, appropriately slathered with sour cream (which, if you’ve been to Hungary, you’ll know is the only way to eat anything).

The markets also offered local delicacies like langos (fried dough usually topped with sour cream and cheese, but those toppings can expand to include just about anything) and trdelnik, also known as chimney cakes.  The trdelnik quickly became our favorite snack, and involved dough being wrapped around a roller and rolled over hot coals until it was cooked, and then dipped in sugar, with the option to add nuts or Nutella.

buda-langos

The markets were incredibly pleasant—none of them were packed, and between the cool spring weather and the people enjoying themselves, it was a great time to sit outside and enjoy some food or a drink.  Especially the one we got to in Prague’s old town—while it was a bit chilly, the sun was out and the sky was blue; it was an ideal day to hang out.

The food was a tad different at the markets we hit in Prague, with much more focus on what you would consider typical German food – sausages, potato salad, and huge hocks of ham.  The attractions and the market itself was pretty similar, though.  They even had their own trdelnik, though that may have been surpassed snackwise by a ring of potato put on a stick and fried.  It was like a long, homemade potato chip.

prague-ham

With the two things that I need to enjoy myself—beer and food—the markets delivered.  They made for quality people-watching, and even better eating.  And while both cities may have been a tad more packed with tourists than they normally would be due to the holiday (we were told thousands of people travel to Prague around Easter), I would highly recommend visiting during this time of year, if only for the food.