Experience local hospitality while exploring Vietnam's rich culinary heritage in the southern metropolis of Ho Chi Minh City.
The boundaries between restaurants and residences are often blurred in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon), so it is only natural that some of the best cookery classes in town take place in the kitchens of homes. Among the programs you can choose from, a good option is one that brings together travelers seeking a gastronomic adventure off the beaten track, and Vietnamese home-cooks passionate about sharing their culture with others.
Each lesson begins at the local market early in the morning, when fruit, vegetables, seafood and meat are at their freshest. The heart and energy of a city is often found within its markets and this is certainly the case in Ho Chi Minh City. Students are steered around the market by a seasoned cook accompanied by an English-proficient university student, who serves as language translator and cultural guide. Whether it is ground meat for crispy spring rolls (cha gio) or saw-tooth herb to garnish beef noodle soups (pho bo), you learn about Vietnam's diversity of foods by helping to select the day's ingredients. With bounty in hand, you travel to the cook's home to prepare lunch.
Seeing and experiencing life at this level grants travelers a unique understanding of the customs and rhythms of Vietnamese life. Then, after a morning of chopping, measuring and tasting, you sit down with your teacher to savor the fruits of your labor.
When to go: Ho Chi Minh City is pleasant to visit year-round. During the rainy season, from May through November, there is guaranteed to be a daily dousing, so be sure to pack a poncho. Avoid going during Tet, the Lunar New Year (late January or early February), as stores and restaurants shut down for up to three weeks.
Planning: Connections Vietnam organizes cooking classes in private homes. The Vietnam Cookery Center runs courses in a classroom setting and the city's Caravelle Hotel offers a one-day program. You can also take classes in beach resorts, such as those around Nha Trang, northeast of Ho Chi Ming City.
Websites: www.connectionsvietnam.com, www.expat-services.com, www.caravellehotel.com
Fish Sauce: Inside the cupboards of any Vietnamese kitchen, there is sure to be a bottle of nuoc mam (fish sauce). This salty, caramel-colored, utterly pungent condiment is shaken and stirred into practically every dish, from fresh salads to noodle soups.
The best sauce is made from anchovies caught and fermented on the island of Phu Quoc.
Nuoc mam is most commonly used in nuoc mam cham (dipping sauce). To make this, pure fish sauce is mixed with water, lime juice, chopped chilies, minced garlic and sugar. The resulting sour and sweet sauce serves as a dressing for staples such as broken rice (rice in which the kernel has cracked) and vermicelli noodles.