Sad to say goodbye to Cambodia, our group bus-ed from Phnom Penh to Ho Chi Minh City. You have lots of options for this route, but we chose the Mekong Express. At ~$13 for a one-way ticket, it's the most expensive bus option but the reliability and relative comfort was worth it. Plus, 13 buckeroos buys you an on-board TV, featuring 6 straight hours of dubbed 80's love ballads. If only I was feeling well enough to rally for a good round of karaoke. On our last day in Phnom Penh, my stomach staged a revolt and I was struggling to enjoy myself. If my cocktail of 7Up, white rice, Cipro, & Pepto Bismol didn't work, I'd get better by sheer willpower. Something was working because, by the next day, I was feeling marginally better. This was good timing, as we had a day full of food on the docket! Leaving the chaos of the city behind, we headed out to the Cu Chi district for Chef Tan's HCM Cooking Class.
Mr. Tan (founder/head chef) greeted us warmly and took us on a thorough tour of his small farm. We trekked through the fields and gardens, learning about the various vegetables and roots.
He sure was a jokester, telling us that various Vietnamese herbs could help us improve our love lives. ;) He also proudly showed off his mushroom house. I learned how to distinguish between the different kinds of mushrooms, and how to grow them in a house like this one:
After an hour or two of touring the farm as students, Mr. Tan became "serious". He handed each of us a basket and jokingly barked orders about which herbs and vegetables we needed for our meal. He ran a tight ship, challenging our choices to make sure we had been paying attention earlier ("Are you sure what's in your hand is Thai basil?!").
Once we had passed Mr. Tan's little tests and gathered all of the ingredients, we headed to the veranda to get cooking! Mr. Tan's assistant took charge of washing our freshly-picked ingredients, while Mr. Tan introduced us to our little cooking stations.
Each dish that we prepared was simple, but rich in flavor. There were some common elements throughout:
- Fish sauce is to the Vietnamese as olive oil is to the Italians...it's included in nearly every recipe.
- In terms of herbs, lemongrass, Vietnamese mint, and basil were the mainstays
- Cooking methods are simple. We cooked on a stove reminiscent of my family's old Colman's camping stove. No elaborate whipping, basting, or baking--we cut, chopped, and occasionally simmered. Totally my style.
The first course was a seafood mushroom soup, followed by a water spinach salad with prawns and pork. The salad was my favorite dish - full of fresh herbs and vegetables that were finely chopped and shredded--delicious! The main course was chicken thigh stew cooked in a clay pot and for dessert we made banana spring rolls with coconut ice cream. In case you're wondering, coconut ice cream will change your life.
After cooking each dish, we enjoyed the fruits of our labor. After the completing all four courses, our favorite comedian/chef staged a little graduation ceremony, and we were awarded with certificates of completion! Watch out, Giada! I'm coming for ya!