After about a half dozen visits to Vietnam, and as many to Hanoi, I thought I was an expert on Vietnamese food. Now, I know that Vietnamese food is complicated and multi-layered, and I knew that I was not, in fact, an expert on Vietnamese cuisine. But I thought I had some knowledge on the topic. I understand the basics of pho and bun cha, and even know some food words in Vietnamese. The ingredients, and how to cook some of the most iconic Vietnamese foods, though, remained elusive. That is, until we attended a cooking class in Hanoi.
Learning Vietnamese at a Cooking Class in Hanoi
The Hanoi Cooking Centre is in an historic building, just north of the Old Quarter. With a cozy little patio out back, and a dining room upstairs, this colonial designed building became the scene for our attempt to try to learn how to cook Vietnamese food ourselves.
The Hanoi Cooking Centre offers several different options for their cooking classes. Ours was the Vietnamese Street Food menu, complete with beef noodle soup, or pho bo, which we sort of watched being prepared because of the effort it takes to actually cook. We also made BBQ pork two ways with rice noodles, or bun cha, fried pork spring rolls, or nem, and a green papaya salad.
One of my absolute favorite Vietnamese dishes, bun cha includes two types of pork. Any dish that includes two types of pork must be good, right? We mixed fish and oyster sauce, garlic, shallots, and sugar into a mixture to marinate both a ground pork and a sliced pork belly.
After allowing the pork mixtures to marinate, the Hanoi Cooking Centre staff actually grilled the meat for us, much to Eric’s dismay as I am sure he would have rather sit on a chair in the courtyard playing with the charcoal fire. This is one of the keys to the bun cha, it is the charcoal grilled flavor of the pork.
The other key to bun cha is the dipping sauce, something I have eaten plenty, but honestly was not entirely sure what was involved in making it. This is one of the reasons why I wanted to take a cooking class in Vietnam, to help me better understand some of the dishes I love so much.
The dipping sauce included sliced carrots and green papaya, salted to make them crunchy. The veggies were added to a mixture of fish sauce, vinegar, and sugar. That is what makes the bun cha sauce so sweet, so sweet that I often thought that there were apples in the mixture. It was a simple dipping sauce, but learning to make it was so informative.
We added the grilled pork into the dipping sauce and served it alongside fresh rice noodles and herbs. I like to dip the noodles into the sauce to soften them, and eat them wrapped inside the larger herbs, with bites of pork and vegetables. Oh my yum.
Fried Spring Rolls
Nem, or fried spring rolls, are another iconic Vietnamese dish we learned how to make in our cooking class in Hanoi. And, I was always curious what was inside. We chopped up wood ear mushrooms, shallots, cellophane noodles, and jicama, and mixed them with crab meat and shredded pork, before our real cooking skills were tested.
We had to roll the spring rolls ourselves, adding the mixture into delicate rice paper, and wrapping them up like Vietnamese burritos. And, despite all of my fajita rolling and burrito experience, this was a lot more difficult than I expected. The rice paper was brittle and delicate, making it a challenge to roll. Moreover, and not surprisingly, Eric and I had to make it a competition of who could roll the perfect spring roll.
In the end, neither of us did. The spring rolls tasted good, although I would have preferred them without the crabby tasting crab meat, but we couldn’t tell who rolled what. It was another example of a situation where I was happy to learn how to make a spring roll, particularly the inclusion of jicama, which was a surprise, but I am happy to leave it to the experts.
Green Papaya Salad
I love green papaya salad, and was very excited to learn how to make it. Made with bean shoots, fresh shallots, sliced chilis, garlic, peanuts, and herbs, all of the ingredients are mixed together with shredded green papaya. I got the honor of using a fancy little peeler to peel away the layers of the crisp, green papaya.
The sauce is simple, with sugar, lime juice, and fish sauce. It is the ideal blend of sour and sweet. What topped it off perfectly was the thinly sliced fried shallots. I am not an onion fan, but I could eat fried shallots all day long.
In the end, I think the food we prepared during the cooking class in Hanoi was good. But, I will leave the Vietnamese food to the experts, the street side vendors that excel in making the pho and the bun cha, and all of the Vietnamese dishes that I love.
We were supported by Buffalo Tours in this fabulous foodie experience and cooking class in Hanoi, but as always my opinions are my own. A cooking class in Hanoi with Buffalo Tours starts from around $75, not including transfers.
For more tips about eating in Vietnam, check out our Southeast Asia Food Guide.
Amber Hoffman, food and travel writer behind With Husband In Tow, is a recovering attorney and professional eater, with a passion for finding new food and drink destinations. She lives with her husband, Eric, in Girona, Catalonia, Spain. Together they have traveled to over 70 countries.