I tried my hand at Laos, Vietnamese and Thai cooking courses…
Southeast Asia is good for many things – beaches, parties and markets to name a few, and while I’m a fan of all three, there’s something I like even more. Eating.
I tend to try anything and everything – the more unusual the cuisine, the better. I may not jump out of planes or hire motorcycles but what I lack in adrenaline, I make up for at the local market.
Before travelling to Asia, I had a limited understanding of what Asian food entailed. Vague notions of Chinese and Indian takeaways were probably the closest I’d come, and it turns out bhunas and black bean chicken are more a creation by the West (packed full of extra cream and MSG to keep us coming back for more) than an authentic representation of what people in Asia eat on a daily basis.
I’d had the odd taste of Thai before, and enjoyed a green curry and portion of Pad Thai from time to time, but when it came to other Southeast Asian countries like Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, I was clueless (apart from having heard of a noodle soup called ‘Pho’). People have now informed me that actually London has a whole street in Shoreditch churning out Vietnamese cuisine, which I didn’t know about whilst I Iived there (isn’t that always the way?) – but it’s safe to say the smaller towns and cities in the country aren’t home to much of it.
So with only the most basic knowledge and an appetite to explore, I decided a range of cooking classes during my travels would be a great way to expand my horizons and satisfy my stomach.
I began my Southeast Asian adventure in Laos. Famed for its tubing and trekking, the cuisine takes a backseat. Like much of Asia, noodles and rice are at the base of many of the meals, but there are a few staple dishes native to Laos that are more than worth a try. I took to the kitchen at Tamnak Lao Cooking School where that particular evening I was the only person to sign up for the class – meaning I was tasked with eating all of the five dishes we prepared. A huge ask, but someone had to step up to the job.
The first dish I got to try my hand at creating was Larp – a traditional Laos dish which seems to pass as a salad without actually being heavy on anything healthy (my favourite type of salad). Made mainly with cooked pork; a generous helping of lime juice and a mixture of spices are added for flavour, and the dish is served on a bed of lettuce. The rich taste of the pork contrasts against the tangy citrus for a tasty starter or main meal (or one of your five dinners if you are me).
I also took advantage of the milder flavours used in Laos cooking (none of the tear-inducing Thai food that leaves your tongue on fire) and made a chicken and coconut curry with fresh coconut milk and plenty of veggies. Next, I experienced the country’s love of fish sauce (even if you aren’t aware it’s there, it will be hiding in most of the meals you’re served in Laos for extra flavour) as the chefs helped me whip up a fish soup: generous chunks of fish in a light, water-based broth which was full of flavour thanks to leftover limes and spices – ingredients I was learning were key in Laos cooking.
Chili paste was another of my tasked dishes to create – and I was surprised that the one we made was flavoursome without actually being spicy. Curry and chili paste are the bases for many dishes in Southeast Asia and are usually made with a Pestle and Mortar, combining garlic, spices, nuts and chili to make a thick paste, which can be served by itself as a dip, or combined with coconut milk or any other thin sauce to expand into the type of curry sauce we know and love. Our paste was bright red and both sweet and salty thanks to a scattering of sugar to counterbalance the saltiness of yet more fish sauce and, as we’d already made a curry earlier, served by itself as an accompaniment to the rest of our food.
I couldn’t quite manage everything myself, so my leftovers were donated to the monastery; something I felt good about as the monk’s needs were probably greater than mine (I had had five dinner so most people’s needs were greater than mine). So what was the verdict on Laos cooking? It may not be the world’s most distinctive but with its salty and sweet contrasting flavours, reliance on creamy textures and sharp seasoning, its something I’d eat again. Saying that, there’s one Laos dish – papaya salad – which is quite unlike its milder sister dishes. I ordered it in a restaurant in expectation of a light, healthy dinner and was surprised to end up abandoning the plate, tears streaming from my eyes. For unsuspecting visitors to Laos – papaya salad is very spicy. Be warned.
A couple of months down the line and I was preparing my frying pan once again, this time at Thuan Tinh Island Cooking Tour in Hoi An, Vietnam. One of the nicest things about Vietnam, I think, is how easy it is to get involved with the local culture. Especially in bustling Hanoi, there’s far less of a divide between pricey Western restaurants (when I say pricey, I mean a few pounds a meal, which isn’t bank-breaking but is a good five or six times the price of street food) and the local eateries. I sometimes find this divide a challenge – it’s all well and good to try and eat what the locals eat, but when the only menus you can understand, and the only venues with staff who can communicate with you, are the slightly more Western places, it’s so much easier and more convenient to eat at them. In Hanoi’s city centre, the Old Quarter, the street food is plentiful and hundreds of venues happily dole out pho (noodle soup), bun cha (pork with a broth and noodles to dip) and nem (cooked spring rolls, usually full of pork and fish sauce) to name just a few – and it couldn’t be easier to grab a chair and join in.
With this in mind, I was looking forward to learning what exactly goes in some of these dishes. The cooking class began with a trip to the local market where our local guide kitted us out with rice hats to shade us from the sun, and woven baskets to collect fresh ingredients. The word ‘fresh’ is thrown around pretty easily when describing food, but it really didn’t get any fresher than our market visit, especially when my basket was packed with live shrimp, still uncomfortably hopping about as we boarded our boat to Thuan Tinh Island to begin cooking.
We started by making a firm Vietnamese favourite of mine, fresh spring rolls. A healthy alternative to the fried spring rolls we associate with Chinese cooking, these sizable rolls are made by rolling prawns (my basket came to good use), cucumber strips, grated carrot and chunks of pork in a sheet of rice paper (a staple Vietnamese ingredient made by pressing grains of rice until they produce milk and cooking the pool of liquid until it solidifies to resemble a rounded sheet of paper).
Continuing the theme of fresh ingredients, for our next dish we threw together prawns, squid, curls of banana flower, cashews, carrot and salad leaves to make a seafood and banana flower salad. Much lighter than many hot and heavy meals around Asian, Vietnamese food is undoubtedly the healthiest, with many dishes boiled and served in broths, rather than fried in oil. A more healthy take on your usual maple syrup and bacon classic, we also made Vietnamese pancakes or ‘Xoi’. A crispy batter mix is folded over lettuce, prawns and pork (two of the most staple meats used in Vietnamese cooking) for a tasty meal that hits up most of the food groups. The one thing that didn’t change across cultures was the art of flipping the pancake – only one member of the class succeeded in completely missing the pan, but let’s not dwell on who that was.
My final attempt at becoming an Asian chef took place at Mama Noi Thai Cookery School in Chiang Mai, Northern Thailand. Thai food is probably Southeast Asia’s most famous, and for good reason. Plates of pad Thai for 50p and plentiful red, yellow and green curries are just the beginning, and during my time in Thailand I also came to love Malaysian-inspired Penang curry, creamy potato-based massaman curry and tangy tom yum prawn soup. My friend and I prepared six dishes between us following another market visit and practically had to be rolled home claiming we wouldn’t eat again all day (we did). Highlights included making my own Penang from a chili and garlic-infused curry paste, mixed with coconut milk, peanuts and cashews. I also enjoyed making tom yum – giant, juicy prawns mixed with chili, coconut milk and spices for a dish that’s ever so light and slightly creamy with a real kick to it. Khao soi noodles came towards the end of the class so were hard to make room for but still totally delicious – a classic combining the popular Thai flavour of peanut with crispy fried egg noodles, chicken, shallots and coconut milk.
It’s hard to pick a favourite from my three cooking classes as despite sharing rice and noodle-based roots, Southeast Asian food differs from country to country and has its own set of flavours and flair depending where you try it. Milder Laos cuisine, fresh and healthy Vietnamese cooking and spicy Thai food are all now on my list to seek out (or make myself with the cookbooks collected from each class) when I get home. I was feeling clued up on the cuisine by the time I arrived in Cambodia so attempted a cocktail-making class instead. There was gin, cucumber, rum, ginger, gin, juice, gin… Did I mention gin? My memory of this particular class is slightly hazy but its safe to say it was enjoyed by all. Cheers!