Cooking tours offer visitors a deeper experience with Vietnamese culture
It's an unusual sight, but it doesn't raise eyebrows among vendors at Hanoi's Hang Be Market.
Since it has been happening for nearly seven years now, the vendors are used to seeing a plump, elderly Vietnamese woman accompany groups of foreign tourists to the market without buying any clothes or souvenirs.
All they buy are herbs and other ingredients like meat, fish and condiments needed to cook traditional Vietnamese dishes.
Going to the market to buy fresh ingredients is the first step in a cooking tour that 60-year-old Pham Thi Tuyet, one of the city's well-known culinary artisans, offers foreign visitors.
Madame Tuyet became famous both locally and internationally when her Anh Tuyet Restaurant was visited in 2002 by American chef Anthony Bourdain, the host of Travel Channel's No Reservations show, to shoot A Cook's Tour program.
At the market, Tuyet began by showing visitors how to choose and distinguish between different kinds of herbs and test their freshness by smelling them.
Then she told them how to "balance" the Yin and Yang qualities of the herbs.
To prepare ca kho nghe (braised fish with saffron), the group moved to the fish stalls.
Laura Melchor from San Francisco said, "I'm familiar with both fish and saffron, but I didn't know how to combine the two together like the Vietnamese."
The group then returned to Tuyet's restaurant, which is actually a typical traditional house on Ma May Street in the Old Quarter.
"Cooking inside a Vietnamese family kitchen can make a deep impression on foreigners," Tuyet said.
COOK UP A STORM
The cooking classes run for about an hour and a half to two hours
Tourists can select 3-6 dishes per class
Book your tour at least one week before the class
Each class requires a minimum of 2 persons
Apart from ca kho nghe, on the menu for the day was cha gio (spring rolls) made of pork, vermicelli and rice cake, that the students would learn to make by themselves.
Wrapping and rolling rice paper was not easy for the inexperienced, but it was a chore of joy for all. They broke into a sweat as they practiced seriously for almost two hours, but there were no complaints.
Tuyet, who won the Golden prize at a Culinary Festival held at the Hanoi Horison Hotel in 2001, also showed visitors how Hanoians change their staple menus for each season.
She said that in summer the locals like to eat che hat sen (sugar coated lotus seed soup) to reduce heat in the body, while in winter hot ginger and jasmine scented green teas are preferred.
Accordingly, the dishes featured in her cooking tour also change every season. However, the visitors can request their favorite dishes among more than 100 listed.
Anh Tuyet Restaurant
25 Ma May St., Hoan Kiem Dist.
Tel: (04) 3 825 8705; 090 326 9969
Sofitel Metropol Hotel
15 Ngo Quyen St., Hoan Kiem Dist.
Tel: (04) 3 826 6919; (04) 3 826 6920
Email: email@example.com www.sofitel.com
Highway 4 Restaurant
5 Hang Tre St., Hoan Kiem Dist.
Tel: (04) 3 926 0639; 2 210 8681
Vinh Hung 1 Restaurant
147B Tran Phu St., Hoi An Town, Quang Nam Province
Tel: (0510) 3 862 203
Vinh Thang Travel & Service Co., LTD
617 Hai Ba Trung St., Hoi An Town, Quang Nam Province
Tel: (0510) 3 862 333; 3 501 999
Saigontourist - Rex Hotel
141 Nguyen Hue Blvd.
Tel: (08) 3 829 2185 - Fax: (08) 3 829 6536
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com
132-134 Dong Khoi St., Dist. 1
Tel: (08) 3 829 9201
Asia Pacific Travel - Vietnam Hotels Reservation
127 Ban Co St., Dist. 3
Tel: (08) 3 833 4083
The preferences of visitors are also influenced by the climates and conditions they come from, she noted. Those coming from coastal areas like Australia often ask her to teach how to cook cha gio made of shrimp and crab, while the English want to learn how to cook pho bo (beef noodle soup).
Eating is always the most enjoyable part of the tour.
Tuyet said cooking tour was successful only when the visitors learnt to cook and enjoy the dishes properly.
"They should not be merely an audience, but become part of the local culture."
Don Dockery, the British manager of Hanoi's Highway 4 Restaurant, one of many cooking tour organizers in Hanoi, said the tours were popular among many tourists, especially food lovers.
"Food is a part of culture. These classes, unlike sightseeing tours, offer foreigners a great chance to discover the local culture and way of life in a deep way."
Dockery said that many foreign tourists who come to Vietnam want not only to enjoy local food and drinks but also take Vietnam's culinary art to their countries.
A tourist from Canada said, "Beautiful landscapes are still there, but it is not every time that you can learn how to cook local dishes with such an amazing artist like Tuyet."