Hum­ble mas­ters im­part wis­dom

The Sunday Mail (Queensland) - Escape - - LIFE LESSONS -

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.

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