One of the things I like best about travelling is having the chance to try new food, so I was thrilled to have an opportunity to learn how to make a few Vietnamese dishes at Mai Home, The Saigon Culinary Art Centre. First, one of the chefs took us through a local food market to pick the ingredients we would need for the class and to identify to us others that are core to the Vietnamese diet.
First and foremost comes rice.
The secret here is to never let the pot boil when you are making the stock - keep it at a simmer or the heat coagulates the juices in the bones preventing them from flowing into the water. The six hour simmering time yields a strong, nourishing stock and adding star anise gives it its special aroma.
However, only put the spice pouch in for the last twenty minutes of cooking otherwise they make the broth bitter. On the right above, we start to marinate the chicken.
One of the key ingredients in almost all of the dishes we made (including dipping sauces) is protein-rich fish sauce, produced primarily from fresh anchovies. Animal protein is used sparingly in most Asian cooking. While ducks and chickens are popular livestock (producing both meat and eggs), lamb and mutton are virtually non-existent and beef rare because cattle are working animals. Pork, however, is common.
Once the chicken was set aside to marinate we moved on to the Salad Rolls. "They must all be the same size," thundered chef Mai. "Use the grid lines on your woven mat to line up each of the edges exactly. And, don't wet your rice paper too much! Just a little swipe around the edges and then down the middle. Soft - not soggy!"
There are always rules!
Below right - my first attempt.
Photos: R. Marion
Coming up next: Into the Labyrinth.