Humble masters impart wisdom
From tips on mastering the art of Vietnamese cooking to insights into forgiveness, lessons learnt in this ancient city won’t be quickly forgotten, writes Cindy MacDonald
THE first lesson at the Red Bridge Restaurant and Cooking School near the historic Vietnamese city of Hoi An takes place nowhere near a gas stove or chopping board.
Our guide Lunar, as she’s dubbed herself in English, is taking us on a tour of the school’s herb garden. Pointing out the likes of sawtooth coriander, morning glory and Asian basil, she plucks various leaves, releases their fragrance by gently crushing them between her fingers and thumb, then holds them out for us to smell.
Some smell fishy, some smell minty and some smell just plain yummy. But when one of our group exclaims “Yummy!” aloud, Lunar reels back in embarrassment.
Recovering her composure she dares to half smile as she leans in towards a confused cluster of women.
“You must never use that word,” she says in a quiet but serious tone. “You can say just ‘yum’. But not ‘yummy’.” Conspiratorially she continues: “In Vietnamese it means . . . “– by now her voice is the faintest whisper – “. . . ‘horny’.”
We stifle our giggles and try to look suitably shocked out of respect for the grave look on Lunar’s face. It’s a lesson none of us plans to forget in a hurry, but with delicious food soon to be prepared before our eyes, it’s a hard one to learn. More than once, one of us utters the forbidden word, even prompting our cooking instructor and the restaurant’s head chef Nguyen Nhat Thanh to jokingly state that he’s becoming nervous.
Our cooking class began back in Hoi An’s Old Town, with Lunar taking us through the riverside market.
She points out various staples of Vietnamese cooking and explaining how to tell what is good to buy. Thankfully, Lunar has bought all we need for our session much earlier, before the heat and humidity drained the life out of everything and everyone.
Our energy is restored with a relaxing 20-minute boat ride up the Hoi An River to the school, and now with our herb garden faux pas behind us, it’s time for chef Thanh to show us some traditional Vietnamese dishes. First he expertly demonstrates what to do, then it’s time for the novices to try.
One pancake ends up in flames, our vegetable carvings are unappetising travesties compared with our teacher’s masterful creations and we’re reminded that we’re meant to be making delicate fresh spring rolls, not giant “burritos”.
But however short we fall of Thanh’s mark, when we sit down to eat the meal that we helped create, it’s with the satisfaction of knowing we were apprentice chefs for an afternoon.
The first course of our stay in Hoi An was actually served up the previous day, beginning with a one-hour drive south from Da Nang Airport.