Location: Sapa, Vietnam
The Hill Station runs a great series of cooking demos, though we’d hesitate to label it a cooking class since the hands on time is limited to basic chopping. Still, it's a very cool experience and if you're willing to put in the effort you can take some new techniques back home.
Who should attend:
Ambitious home cooks who like to play with fire, and anyone looking to kill some extra time in Sapa with an interesting and engaging activity.
Banana Flower Salad
The most interesting part of this Southeast Asian staple is that there was no sugar!
Smoked Water Buffalo
The buffalo is marinated in lemongrass, garlic, ginger, chili and fish sauce then smoked for six hours. It can then be eaten as a delicious snack dipped in fish sauce, or stir fried with garlic and served with pickled veg.
This tofu came out with the consistency of soft-scrambled eggs and was served with plenty of green onions. Super tasty with simple ingredients but a little technical.
Trout Baked in a Banana Leaf
Aromatic and simple, this trout is a quick and easy dish.
Fried Chicken with Crispy Ginger
The fried chicken is super simple: deep fried chicken with julienned ginger that's also crisped up for a great flavourful garnish.
The class at the Hill Station was a pleasant surprise. We had gone to Sapa without a clear plan in mind and quickly realized that we had an extra day. We were flipping through Lonely Planet when we saw a cooking class in town, so we looked up the menu and quickly signed up.
We really loved taking this class, but fair warning: unless you're willing to build a wood fire and set up a cooking grate above it, then monitor the fire for six hours while you smoke some meat, you may not take many useful skills away from the class. For us though, the rustic menu of smoked water buffalo, banana leaf wrapped trout cooked on coals, homemade tofu and fried chicken was a huge draw. It's the type of class that leaves you with more inspiration and ideas than exact instruction. You are unlikely to recreate any of these dishes back home, except maybe the banana flower salad or fried chicken, but that doesn't mean it isn't worthwhile.
The instruction for this class was fairly average and at times it felt more like a demonstration than a class. Most of our hands on time was devoted to chopping garlic, lemongrass and chilies, rather than actual cooking, and when we put the water buffalo on the fire to smoke, our teacher pulled an Art Attack and simply brought out a finished piece of meat. This theme continued with each menu item. The homemade tofu was not entrusted to us because it's a fairly technical process involving sensitive timing, and the trout was baked on the coals upstairs while we were watching the tofu cook, so we weren't involved at all in the process. The chicken was fried in front of us, which just leaves the banana flower salad as the sole example of real hands on "cooking" - it was served raw.
Despite the minor shortcomings, we still loved the class. We walked out with plans to set up our own meat-smoking apparatus over an open fire, dreams of making homemade tofu, and the wish that we had access to fresh banana leaves to cook with. It was a really interesting insight into how people cook in the mountains with the reminder of how important different preservation techniques are in a pre-refrigeration context. Without smoking the buffalo, it would be impossible to eat all the meat off an animal before it goes rancid and without drying soybeans there would be no way to finish the fresh ones in time.
What we learned:
Making homemade tofu is surprisingly simple: boil soybean powder and water with a little vinegar until curds form on top. In practice, it's much harder. The water boils over very easily so you need to keep a bowl of cold water handy to regulate the temperature - it's something that looks like it takes a lot of practice before it works out.
We ate the smoked buffalo two ways, but the most delicious was the simplest: toss a piece of meat into the ashes of a hot fire. Wait a couple minutes, pick it out of the fire, wrap it in paper and smash it with a rolling pin. When you unwrap it, the ashes stick to the paper and you can pull the meat apart with your fingers. Dip it in some fish sauce and enjoy!