Our arrival at La Residence came in mid afternoon. The hotel has been redone in Mod style to give it the feeling of an era long since passed. The bar is stylish with red deco chairs and old time tunes. We booked an afternoon spa, dinner reservations for 8:30 and headed to the reception desk to ask where to get a good banh mi pate jambon sandwich. The girls behind the counter buzzed at our request, surprised that we were asking to go and get some real deal Vietnamese street fare. After a long discussion between them and a few bellboys we stepped out into the city armed with our map.
As it seems to go for us here, when we arrived at the bakery, banh mi time was already over. Slightly disappointed, yet still excited about our new city we walked for a while until blood sugar levels were dangerously low and the 80% humidity sent us into Asian heat exhaustion. Lack of acceptable street food vendors led us back to the hotel where we had a delicious pizza and a glass of Rose to prepare us for a rub down. The massage and salt and honey exfoliation was delightful.
Dinner was at the highly reviewed hotel restaurant, Le Parfum. To start, we had Caesar salad and bouillabaisse. Ryan’s seafood soup was quite delicious. Light silky seafood broth with prawns and fish. The Caesar was a bit heavy – a little lemon would have done it a world of good, but alas, there aren’t lemons in Vietnam. I attempted to order some but instead I got Vietnamese lemons, which are actually limes. Next up, Ry had a surf and turf. The prawns were full on shelled with heads, decent. I had some noodles with steak that were delicious, but nothing to write home about. Once again we were saved by wine, good bread and some amazing chocolate almond soufflé…not to mention good company!
The next morning we opted into our first cooking class. Instruction started with a bicycle taxi ride to the local outdoor market. The chef from the hotel restaurant took us through every section, schooling us on the names of the local produce and awesomely stinky fish.
The hotel doesn’t do their buying at the market, but we bought a “fig”, which we think might have been a lotus flower (tasted like a very bitter endive with an apple’s texture) and headed back to the patio of Le Residence to learn how to cook the following: Pho Ga (Chicken pho soup), Banh Xeo (delicious crepes stuffed with shrimp, pork, and veggies, fried) and Veitnamese chicken curry with lemongrass.
Ryan did the cooking and I photographed food. The mis en place was beautiful. Already chopped were scallions, garlic, pork, chicken, lemongrass, carrots mushrooms, spring onion and a variety of spices. There were a few burners and Ryan and Huong got straight to the task of cooking lunch. I will now turn you over to Ry for his account of the cooking experience…
I’ve taken two stabs at Pho back home. One went over well, the second, not so much. The broth and noodles just didn’t taste right. I really wanted to do Pho Bo (beef) this time, but Pho Ga would suffice. Huong said it’s the same technique, minus the stock and meat. We started with a very light chicken stock. . He said they just boil some chicken wings with mire a poix to get that. I tasted it and it wasn’t salty at all – the salty flavor came later. We started by sautéing some shallot. We then added the broth, a hunk of cinnamon, ginger, cardamom pod, one star anise, and an onion – all of which had been charred on a grill beforehand. Also added fish sauce and what they call chicken powder in lieu of salt and a bit of black pepper. Chicken powder is basically chicken broth granules, which taste a lot like powdered Lipton chicken soup from yore. They seem to put it in everything…
We boiled it for about 15 minutes then added some thinly sliced chicken breast. Let that get opaque, then took it off the heat. Some beautiful vermicelli rice noodles, the chicken, and spring onions were added to the serving bowl while the stock rested a bit. In all cases, seasoning is not added to anything until liquid is introduced. It took every ounce of my will not to salt that chicken.
Here’s the finished product with some Vietnamese basil. Simple and delicious.
Next up was Banh Xeo, Hue style. Our first Banh Xeo came in Saigon, where they make ‘em as big as your head. In central Vietnam they are made about the size of an omlette and include more vegetables.
We started with the filling. A mixture of shallot, garlic, carrot, mushrooms, spring onions, white cabbage, bean sprouts, chicken, and shrimp is stir fried over high heat. Fish Sauce and chicken powder followed. We set it aside and let it rest.
The batter is simple – rice flour, water, egg, coconut milk, and tumeric. It’s strained and ready for crepe-ifying. I took a cooking class long ago in France where we did crepes, so I was marginally confident that I could pull it off. They came out great, though I did have some trouble using chopsticks to flip them. Once flipped, the filling was added and the crepe flipped. Then we added a bunch of oil to the pan and deep fried them to crispy perfection. They were excellent served with a warm peanut sauce.
Last up was Vietnamese Lemongrass Curry with Chicken. This is a quick stir fry/braise. Shallots, Ginger, Garlic and Lemongrass start in a hot pan. Then in goes the chicken This dish needs fat, as it ends up cooking for a bit, so we used cubed pieces of chicken leg meat. Last came chicken broth, sugar, caramel sauce (basically a carmelized simple syrup), fish sauce, cashew nut oil (adds a bright red tint to things), pepper, the every present ubiquitous fish sauce and yep – chicken powder! Let that braise for 20 minutes and you get this:
Very good with some sticky rice and a Huda.
It was a really fun class – this food is relatively simple to make, despite all the ingredients. It’s all about technique and timing (and chicken powder) to get it to taste just right. Next up, Hanoi and Halong Bay!