Sunday, June 04, 2006

Bridge or Dock...the name didn't matter

We're on a roll again in Vietnam, a spring roll that is...

The rice paper-wrapped goodies are native to Vietnam and we're finding them on every menu, in every form -- fresh, fried and hand-rolled. They're delicious, organic, and interactive. It's pure genius to serve 'only-seconds-ago' grilled meats and vegetables with homemade rice noodles, fresh rice flour pancakes and the biggest pile of fresh herbs you've laid eyes upon outside of your local farmer's market. Mint, basil, lemon basil, cilantro, horseradish leaves, mustard greens and lettuce crowd cucumbers and bean sprouts on stainless steel platters, and once these items are plunked down, you roll with abandon, dip in nuoc cham with anticipation and chomp with satisfaction.

But, as far as we're concerned, spring rolls the high point of local cuisine.

Honestly, we've been disappointed by the food here in Vietnam, each of us in different ways.~> read more (with lots more fun and photos!)

  I'm freaked out by the fact pork is the salt of Vietnam! I mean it's everywhere, in everything -- even in items on the "vegetarian" section of the menu -- and the dishes I order without MSG (bad for the migraines, as I quickly learned here) aren't flavorful and I'm now salting my food, shall we say liberally, by opening the shaker and sprinkling grams of grains on food with my fingers! Andy is dismayed by the copious uses of fish sauce, a common herb that tastes of fish, another that tastes of soap, oyster sauce, pork bellies and non-spicy stir frys that stem from China's deep roots in the history of Vietnam. Perhaps our palates are completely shot from their spoiling in Thailand? Or we've gone soft (like our middles) after months of traveling and can no longer taste the nuances? Regardless, we're just not connecting as passionately as we hoped with the cuisine.

Fortunately, one thing in the realm of cooking did not disappoint: our lovely, atmospheric class at the Red Bridge Cooking School in Hoi An. It started at the Hoi An "wet" market, wet because it has a water-slicked cement floor from the baskets of just-caught fish and freshly-washed vegetables that leak on to the floor. A colorful mayhem bustling with ladies in cotton pajama outfits and conical hats who preside over fruits, vegetables, fragrant spices, raw meat and smelly fish, our guide Phi lead us through Hoi An's market maze and taught us about Vietnam's key ingredients. Fluffy piles of herbs and lettuces, electric orange pumpkins and royal purple eggplants, clear amber fish sauce, bushels of rice grains in ten different shapes, dripping wet white noodles in sizes from bedsheets to toothpicks...and meats. I tried to be tough, but the blood of pork, beef and chicken, and fish drying in the heat did me in. This part of a market officially makes me weak in the knees and I was dry heaving something fierce, so away I went to chill out by the basils. Andy enjoyed the rest of the tour unaffected. Lucky!!!

(our guide holding fresh squid in the market. See any fridges? Check out how long his nails are too.)

From the market, we boarded a large wooden sampan and sailed up the busy blue river that breathes life into Hoi An with shipping, trading and fishing. As the car motor powering the boat putt-putted gently, we watched the residents of Hoi An go about their day: hauling up giant nets of fish, driving longtail boats laden with rattan, dredging by hand the ever-flooding river before monsoon season. Wooden shophouses washed in watercolor-like paint, graceful colonial hotels and serene verandahs with oversized rattan furniture drifted by us. Andy and I sat under the sampan's wooden cover absorbing Hoi An's simple charm as a whispering breeze cooled us and rustled the riverbank's grassy reeds. Soon we spied a bright, Chinese red...dock (not bridge??? I guess the red dock cooking school sounded less romantic?)in the distance which floated next to a grassy knoll where cushions and grass mats beckoned you to sit for a glass of lotus tea. An enchanting open air pavilion with a pagoda styled roof, dangling fabric lanterns and 12 work stations with gas burners and bamboo bowls lay to the left...and that's where we were headed to learn about and make Vietnamese cuisine!

As we stepped on to the red DOCK, the afternoon unfolded into four hours of lovely learning, delicious laughter, artful cooking and gastronomic indulgence. Our chef was an animated man in his mid-twenties who gestured madly with his hands, even when they contained a cooking utensil, who'd learned to speak English from the movies. He cracked jokes about his lack of a girlfriend, his overbearing mother and love of cooking in a voice that blended Cary Grant's delivery and Billy Crystal's "you look mahvelous" pronunciation. As our Aluminum Chef (what the Vietnamese woks are made of) chopped away on lemongrass, he warned for us to careful when cutting up herbs as the food would no longer be vegetarian if a finger fell in! And, as he carefully turned a ripe red tomato into a beautiful lotus blossom, our chef confided in us that this trick helps him get the girls, but they never stay long enough to make him mother happy. It was hilarious! Andy and I looked at each other over our recipes numerous times, laughing so hard at this Vietnamese twist on comedy.

After Aluminum Chef's opening monologues, Andy, the other students and I were assigned to our cooking stations for real life learning. We dripped rice batter, flipped rice pancakes and steamed our own rice paper. We chopped the potpourri of herbs that make Vietnam's spring rolls so uniquely delicious and hollowed out pineapple boats in which to serve our slightly sweet, slightly sour squid salad. The best dish came in a surprising form and we never found it again on menus in Vietnam, so I'm glad we got to try it! Iron Chef showed us how to simmer lemongrass in a rich fresh tomato puree, then cook eggplant and other light spices in it for a lovely ragout that tastes rich but with the slightest scent of citronella perfume. My most favorite part was learning how to make fruit and vegetable garnishes as Aluminum Chef believes presentation and plate decoration are very important. We slivered cucumbers and spread them into an Asian fan shape, made roses of carrot skin and even learned how to turn a tomato into a lotus! Andy, master of the knives in our kitchen, proved to be quite a whiz too -- check out his designs in the photos!

And all the while, we cooked and learned along the water's edge. A gentle breeze from the Hoi An river drifted through the pavilion, ruffling palm and banana fronds, and cooling some of the sweat that rolled down our necks as we fried up the goodies for fresh spring rolls over a hot flame. The Red Bridge staff plied us with cold ginger juice and lotus tea -- and even a mocktail of their own making called the Red Bridge Breeze involving orange, lemon and pineapple -- and Aluminum Chef inspected our works (and woks!) of art in progress.

In the end, as I licked my fingers of the juice from fresh dragonfruit, I knew our meal was excellent...though both Andy and I still missed the zesty heat chilies and salted our food. I guess we're just fit to be Thaied, wherever we eat. But, for that day it didn't matter. Even if the red bridge never materialized, the slogan that adorns the Red Bridge Cooking School and Restaurant's menus and recipes is dead on. A "charming oasis of gourmet delights", indeed!

We have a few more photos from this episode on offer here:


Blogger jskalet said...

tiffany and andy, this sounded like a really fun day for both of you. love you and miss you john/dad

8:13 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I LOVED your awesome cucumber garnishes. Where are you guys going to open up your restaurant or bed and breakfast?! :o) We are all dying to try your food! Love, Wendy

7:20 PM  

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