I mean, who knew cooking class could be so much FUN!! Seriously, we just got done with what is officially known as the HCM Cooking Class and I had no idea that learning a bit about how some of this yummy Vietnamese food we’ve been eating is prepared. And Chef Tan – TV personality, YouTube channel maven, owner of multiple businesses including two restaurants in the United States as well as one in Australia, and educated in many fields beyond cooking… this is one passionate man and it comes through quite clearly!
Cooking, well we did quite a bit of that for sure but our day started with a trip to a local market where we got to explore where the average local picks up their food for the.day. And yes, for a lot of families daily shopping is almost a necessity because they don’t have refrigerators. For DJ and I, having spent some time in Mekong Delta on a previous tour this particular stop wasn’t a big deal but it was still fun.
After that we arrived at what I’ll simply call the Tan Compound. Mr. Tan, I mean Chef Tan, as I said is very passionate about food (among other things) and that extends to the ingredients that go into his cooking. And what better way to know the quality of your ingredients than to grow them yourself! The Tan Compound is truly a working farm and grows a lot of the vegetables, fruits, fungi, beef, and pork that is used here. So during the first hour after our arrival our guide led us around the farm and introduced us to some familiar, and not so familiar, crops. A number of these, including the mushrooms whose cultivating process I found fascinating, made their way into our own dishes as we harvested a number of items as we went. Besides the mushrooms we picked lemongrass, carrots, various mints, basil, and more.
And then, after a brief bio break and opportunity to wash our hands we had a quick little shared fruit plate with tea. From there we hit our cooking stations and that was where the fun really began! This was where we were introduced to Chef Tan (a.k.a. Mr. Luong Viet Tan) and what a charismatic personality!! He’s had quite a bit of time in front of TV cameras and really knows how to work a crowd. But today, lucky us, the crowd was only ourselves and another couple from Minnesota – Jack and Marcia. And, as we learned, Chef Tan was going to be our personal instructor for the day, how freaking cool is that!!!
Once we got into the cooking I must admit things became a bit of a blur, we went through quite a few dishes! Having said that DJ and I both have the hands-on practical that will, hopefully, make recreating some of these yummy dishes back in states much easier. With that in mind I won’t try to cover the details of each dish here, we have a printed recap of everything we cooked for the day, but I will jot down some takeaways from the day.
Vietnamese food is some of the healthiest on the planet. And he had a point, you really don’t see a lot of overweight Vietnamese folk and it’s not because they don’t eat!
BALANCE is the key. Chef Tan emphasized a lot early on that you must have a good balance between flavors and almost all sauces/dressing can be created with five base ingredients. Not only is balance necessary for flavors but it is also key to keep your body from craving more food than it really needs. For the typical dipping sauce we used:
- Sweet (sugar, honey)
- Sour (mangos)
- Salt/Fish sauce (40-60 % anchovies)/soy sauce
- Spicy (his own concoction but sriracha or similar)
- Pinch garlic
- pinch peppers for aesthetics.
The Salad dressing we made a little later was the same, just without the water component.
Almost any dish can, with a little practice and having the info in your head of course, be prepared in five minutes or less. And Chef Tan does have a point when you think about it. In all the hawker stalls and street food places we’ve eaten the freshly prepared food comes out amazingly fast! Oh, and it’s all down by one cook as opposed to traditional western cooking where you have many components… chef, line cook, prep people, etc.
What goes into the dish – specifically the cut or kind of meat, which vegetables – isn’t nearly important as are the spices and the BALANCE.
In Vietnam they don’t have ‘cuts of meat’. It’s simply lean, fatty, or bone.
I could go on but I realize at this point what I’m really doing is making notes for myself and that’s better done elsewhere. Let me just end this post by saying that DJ and I both had a great time and we’re looking to recreate the experience in Thailand, perhaps with a more leisurely paced multi-day class. In the meantime we’re contemplating an Airbnb in the near future with kitchen so we can perhaps try out our newly learned skills!