The Vietnam Cookery Center

Posted by on December 30, 2009 in Travel | 0 comments

The Vietnam Cookery Center


In 2008 I visited Vietnam with my artist friend Caroline and we were interviewed by Tracey Teo a freelance travel writer. The article was later published and I want to share it with you. Tracey is currently working on a documentary about the Smoky Mountains in the US. You can follow Tracey on Twitter.

Asian cruise lets foodies learn to cook Vietnamese cuisine

By Tracey Teo 

Special to the Herald-LeaderTracey Teo

The Vietnam Cookery Center in Ho Chi Minh City


Susan Stockton Koss and ­Caroline Orner are on a gastronomic odyssey, eating their way through Vietnam as the cruise ship Rhapsody of the Seas sails down the country’s coastline. But Ho Chi Minh City is what the friends have their hearts and palates set on.

Orner lives in Hagerstown, Md., which has no ­Vietnamese restaurants, so to satisfy her craving for those sweet, salty and sour flavors unique to Vietnamese food, she wants to learn to cook it herself.

That’s why she’s at the Vietnam Cookery Center. For her, this is the highlight of a new Asian itinerary offered by Royal Caribbean’s during a 12-day cruise that originates in Hong Kong, includes stops in Vietnam, Thailand and Cambodia, and ends in Singapore.

Vietnamese is my favorite Asian food, Orner says. If you don’t live in a big city like New York, it’s hard to find. After today, I’ll be able to make Vietnamese food by myself and won’t have to search for it.

Stockton Koss lives in Phoenix, where Vietnamese food is more readily available, but she also is determined to master the culinary arts of Vietnam.

About 20 other passengers of various nationalities have chosen this shore excursion from the numerous Ho Chi Minh City tours offered.

The students are seated in pairs at small bamboo tables, each with a miniature gas stove. Orner and Stockton Koss are trying to identify ingredients inside the delicate blue and white bowls. After their “field trip to the market this morning, they think they should know what’s what, but after some discussion, they can’t agree.

During the visit to Ben Thanh Market, the group was introduced to foods common to Vietnamese cuisine. Vegetables like elephant ear and morning glory the vegetable, not the flower are as ordinary to a Vietnamese cooks as iceberg lettuce and spinach to an American homemaker, but quite extraordinary to most Westerners.

The market has many varieties of fresh fish, sometimes really fresh: alive and swimming in the tank. If you want fish in Vietnam, simply look for the conical hats. Under those hats are fishmongers, sitting on stools so low they appear to be squatting on the ground. Point to the fish you want, and what was swimming in the ocean that morning will be on your dinner table that night.

When chef Nguyen Thai Binh announces (through a translator) that it’s time to make the first course, lotus stem salad with pork and shrimp, ­Orner and Stockton Koss are all studious attention. Don’t worry, he says. If you can’t find lotus stems at home, you can substitute cucumbers or other vegetables.

With the patience of Buddha, the chef guides his culinary disciples through basic Vietnamese cooking techniques for the next hour. He encourages students to eat with all five senses, incorporating colorful presentation, contrasting textures, and a variety of scents and flavors into every dish.

It wouldn’t be Vietnamese food without a healthy dose of nuoc mam, or fish sauce that is made of fermented anchovies and is notorious for its pungent odor. A Canadian in the group holds her teaspoon of fish sauce at arm’s length and turns her face as she pours it into the salad dressing. After much cajoling, her husband persuades her to taste it. She discovers that when the sauce is properly mixed with sugar and lime juice, the odor disappears, and the result is a delicious, slightly salty, slightly sweet salad dressing that is naturally fat-free. The flavors are as carefully balanced as rice baskets on the shoulder poles of Vietnamese farmers.

Much more than “pho’

By the end of the class, everyone has successfully completed a three-course meal: lotus stem salad, sour fish soup and caramel fish in a clay pot. Orner and Stockton Koss savor their Vietnamese feast as well as the companionship of their fellow foodies. They marvel that there is a whole world of Vietnamese food that goes well beyond pho (pronounced “fuh-UH”), the ubiquitous beef-and-noodle soup that’s so popular in American Vietnamese restaurants.

One thing that makes Vietnamese food so attractive to Orner and Stockton Koss is that it is flavorful without artery-clogging fat and excess calories. Many dishes have been influenced by Vietnam’s neighbor to the north, China, but they are usually not batter-coated and deep-fried.

Stockton-Koss, a seasoned traveler who has taken cooking classes around the world, says this was one of the most memorable.

“I have been to cooking schools at the Ritz in Paris and the Oriental Hotel in Bangkok, Stockton- Koss says. This was by far the most individualized and interactive, quaint almost, even with translators.

As the group boards the bus that will take them back to the cruise ship, the talk turns to how everyone will try out their new recipes when they return home.

Orner is planning an elaborate Vietnamese dinner party.

I’m going to wear my ao dai that I had made in Nha Trang, she said, referring to the traditional Vietnamese dress.

And I’m going to make this dinner for my family and friends, she says with the confidence gained from having just earned a cooking certificate from an authentic Vietnamese chef.

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