There are two things that Vietnam and Hoi An in particular, do really well. Obviously food and hand made silk clothes and tailoring.
And as I have found they go hand in hand – you eat too much, then just go and buy new clothes to fit.
Located in the Four Seasons the Nam Hai Cooking Academy is a must do half day experience and one that I will never forget.
Yesterday I was lucky enough to have the almost undivided attention of Hong, a stunning and lovely Vietnamese chef who took me on a journey of culinary delights from the farm to the table.
Our day started at 8am (hers started a whole lot earlier!) as we visited the renowned community herb farm Tra Que Green. It is a community farm on the outskirts of Hoi An, lovingly tended by the generations of farmers whose houses surround it.
Each family has a share in the garden and spends time caring for the plants and in return, a share of the proceeds. The shareholding is decided by the number of family members in each home. You can feel the sense of community in the air and the gardens are full of family members tending their little parts of it
The tour started with an incredible local drink of ginger, lemongrass, mint and basil seeds. It was amazing. Sweet and fragrant and incredibly refreshing.
The herbs here are grown in small plots, raked by hand, fertilised by river weed, and watered up to 4 times in a day, irrespective of how much rain there has been.
The soil is made up of about 50% sand, so watering is critical. More recently they installed irrigation but Mr Seven (as he is known) our guide and local farmer, told me that traditionally all watering was done by hand. Now only around half of it is.
As we toured the garden, I was put to work, raking, preparing, fertilising, watering and planting my own little crop of Vietnamese cabbage.
Each morning they start work at 4.30 or 5am harvesting herbs to sell at the local markets and to neighbouring hotels and restaurants. It is not easy work.
The watering cans especially are very heavy. In a normal day they are filled and dispensed 200-300 times by one person. I dispensed half a load and was ready for a cup of tea and a lie down. I can’t imagine repeating the exercise 300 times! Water is taken from wells which are kept clean by local river fish and the whole garden is raised to avoid the flooding which regularly occurs in October and November each year.
The smells, tastes and fragrances are incredible. And the herbs are for eating, medicinal and even berries that are grown for ink. Everything is grown here, from sesame seeds, mint, basil, cabbage, mustard, winter melon, papaya to tiny pineapples. The herbs are small and intense in flavour. They are famous for a reason and certainly pack a punch!
Then it was time for a cold green tea and traditional sticky rice cake before heading back to the hotel for our cooking lesson.
With just two of us in the class, we had the full attention of the chef as we leaned to make Vietnamese pancakes, Hoi An Chicken salad, pork noodles and crispy spring rolls.
The academy is incredibly well run. Each day there are different classes, with different dishes and a different culinary visit. Rice paddies, rice paper making, the herb garden and Hoi An market visits are just some of the options.
Over the course of a week it is possible to literally get a diploma in Vietnamese cooking tailored to your skill level and with a guarantee that you could whip up something spectacular any time in the future. I opted for a one day class called Chef Recommends – but afterwards was tempted to do many more. Hong kindly showed me how to substitute ingredients and make special dishes that the fussy in my family would happily eat. (Mr Chicken!)
The family got to arrive in time for lunch which we sat and down and shared together on site in the purpose build master chef kitchen. No dishes to clean. Great friendships made. A diploma awarded. Ingredients, apron’s and recipes to take home and recreate. A perfect day for a foodie like me.
It was an amazing morning and a highly recommended thing to do.
Of course – I am off to the tailor’s this afternoon to get those new dresses let out….
Highlights from Small Heights
Some of food produced was acceptable.