The Red Bridge Cooking School
Trip Start Jun 01, 2010
24Trip End Jul 08, 2010
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Those who know me, know I like to cook. Back home I sometimes find my hands smelling faintly of garlic and it usually means the I've cooked something delicious the day before.
This morning while I was taking a shower, a similar thing happened. I caught the scent of garlic on my hands as I was washing my face and it took me a second to remember what it was from..."wait a second, we've been eating out every meal, what could that be fr...oh duh! Our fantastic day yesterday at the Red Bridge Cooking School."
We had signed up for the "deluxe" tour - a full day out, which involves a tour of a farm, a trip to the market to buy ingredients and a hands-on instructional session where you learn to make the dishes you'll be eating for lunch
After breakfast we met at the Hai Cafe in the Old Town. We were the first ones there and we didn't really know what to expect so we sat down under a fan and enjoyed an ice cold complimentary bottle of water. People soon trickled in though most of them ended up being on the half-day tour and were segregated to the other half of the cafe. Once all had arrived, there were about 20 people on the half-day side and only four of us on the deluxe side...we could feel their jealousy of our comfy padded chairs and small group size.
We met our guide/chef/teacher whose name I won't even attempt to spell and he guided us to an air conditioned Mercedes van which would take us to the organic farm a few miles outside of town. Along the way, we chatted with the other couple in our group - Elizabeth and Bruce from Austin, Texas - total foodies like us who were very cool and seemed like people we would totally get along with all day.
Before we got to the farm and I was expecting a few rows of herbs and a few beds of vegetables
We walked around the farm and our guide explained, in excellent English, what everything was and its purpose in Vietnamese cooking. At the end we had a sweet cold ginger and basil seed drink in the shade. Then it was back to the van for a trip to the market.
We'd been to a few markets already in Vietnam, but this trip was much more informative since we had a person actually telling us what things were. He pointed out all the different fruits and vegetables and selected the freshest ones to purchase and put into the shopping bags we carried.
Then it was time to travel to the cooking school to get started. The Red Bridge school is in a beautiful location along the river just outside Hoi An, off the road to the beach. It is shaded with palms and looks out onto the river. There is a beautiful pool that we were given free reign over. And yes, there is a red bridge that leads you there.
There were four cooking stations set up with knives and bowls of spices, a few burners, and a charcoal grill with a stockpot of boiling water on it. We had about a half hour to swim while the final preparations were made. Everything was very laid back and not rushed at all...it was up to us when we wanted to start and it was very relaxing.
We were given a recipe booklet with four main dishes and a few side dishes. We would make pho (the beef noodle soup that fuels the entire country), claypot fish, mango chicken salad, and shrimp in banana leaf. Then the cooking began.
Our instructor walked us through the basic preparations for slicing and dicing the vegetables and herbs for the pickled topping for the pho. Then it was time to make the noodles
The next few hours were spent with the remainder of our dishes. We made stock for the pho with beef bones and charcoal roasted vegetables. We ground spices, herbs and chilies with a wooden mortar and pestle. We grated vegetables into long beautiful strips using specialized tools. We grilled sesame rice paper until it was crispy and golden brown like a tortilla. We marinated the shrimp and learned how to wrap them neatly into a banana leaf package. Then we got back in the pool and drank free beer until we were hungry enough to eat this huge four-course meal
And it was fabulous. Probably the best meal we've had so far in Vietnam. The pho was incredible...rich broth, tender beef and just enough spice from the chili to make your nose run. The chicken salad was incredible...a light refreshing summer meal full of healthy vegetables, five-spice flavored grilled chicken, all served on the crispy rice cake and eaten like a plate of nachos. The claypot fish was perfectly cooked and the broth was spicy and colorful, full of fresh turmeric and Thai chili. And the shrimp were maybe the best thing of all...we unwrapped the banana leaf and were hit with the aroma of lemongrass and garlic and they tasted just as good as they smelled.
Feeling too full to move, we sat in the shade and enjoyed another complimentary beer while talking with our new friends about our trips, our lives back home, and rehashing the fantastic meal we'd just had, which was all the more satisfying because we'd cooked it ourselves.
Eventually we got on a boat and slowly puttered up the river back to Hoi An, passing fishing nets, sandbars, and people standing chest deep in the water harvesting shellfish. Along the way, Pam talked with our guide who revealed that he was a former street kid who had been sponsored by a foreigner and given the chance to attend a culinary school for underprivileged youth in Hanoi, where he learned English and cooking skills and has now made a successful life for himself
We eventually walked back to the hotel, our stomachs satisfied from the incredible meal we had and heads feeling great from the wine and good company...we've had some great times and seen some amazing things on this trip so far, but this day is going to be tough to top.
(If anyone out there stumbles on this wanting more information about the Red Bridge tour, my only advice is definitely choose the full day over half day option. Of course it's a bit more expensive but totally worth it. Our group size was four; the half-day was 20. We cooked our own lunch; they primarily made rice noodles and practiced food decoration. We got to swim as much as we wanted and drink free beer; they did not. Do it!)