Tucked away in the quiet backstreets of the Tay Ho district of Hanoi, far from the frenetic world of the city’s Old Quarter, where moped-dodging is the main activity, sits Maison des Saveurs. On a leafy, idyllic road, the most beaufitul street in Hanoi, as I told our hostess, Lam, whose house also serves as a private restaurant, bases her cooking classes, which accommodate up to six people.
After some initial trouble finding the house, me and Lucy, my cooking buddy for the day, were greeted by Lam, a friendly and welcoming Vietnamese with fluent French and English, and her dog Hello. We got acquainted over artichoke tea, which was surprisingly good, and sesame biscuits, discussed the menu (spring rolls, green papaya salad, bun cha and minced pork in leaves) and headed to the local market, accompanied by stories about Vietnam and explanations about various food products.
Back at Maison des Saveurs, it was time to get going and Lam, aided by her very helpful team, laid chopping boards and knives out for us. After a quick demonstration, with Lam’s assistant grating the carrots and green papaya, and marinating them with salt, sugar and vinegar, it was our turn. First step, slicing pork shoulder for the bun cha (Grilled Pork with Vermicelli) and marinating with shallot, lemongrass, fish sauce, oyster sauce, honey, five spice, salt and pepper. Our pork slices were distinctly less pleasing to the eye than the demonstration, but they tasted just as good.
The spring rolls were no easier to make, but it was a fun process. Minced pork was mixed with sliced glass noodles, dried mushrooms, onion, bean sprouts, carrot, herbs, fish and oyster sauce and egg, then placed on precariously thin rice paper and folded into shape. My spring rolls would not have won any awards for presentation, and I almost sliced through my thumb in the process. Lucy’s were much better, a feat not unnoticed by our teachers, to my dismay. Finally, the rest of the minced pork was wrapped in leaves and we were good to go.
On a small charcoal grill on the patio, tended by another helper and Hello, the pork skewers slowly grilled. Meanwhile, we tried our hand at frying the spring rolls: lots of oil and constant turning, with chop sticks of course, and chatted to our hosts, who were all extremely hospitable.
Thirty minutes later we sat down to one of the best meals I’ve had in Asia. The bun cha was succulent and perfectly charred, especially flavoursome when dipped in the special sauce, and eaten with coriander and Thai basil. The wrapped pork was also a delight. The spring rolls, however, were the highlight, considering how much work, and pain, went into making them. And who’d have thought I’d enjoy a dish featuring such a heavy dose of mushroom?
For anyone visiting Hanoi and interested in food and cooking, a trip to Maison des Saveurs is a must. Lan left me inspired, both to eat Vietnamese food and to make it at home.
Several days later, a stop at Phong Nha national park and another unique, though more solemn experience. The national park is situated in central Vietnam, a 10-hour bus ride south of Hanoi and close to the border with Laos. Famous for its gigantic caves, including Paradise and Dark caves, which Matt and I visited, and Son Doong, the largest cave in the world, which is almost impossible to visit and extremely expensive, the park features endless motorbike rides through impressive jungle-covered mountains, housing wildlife such as tigers and elephants, which we sadly didn’t see.
A few kilometres down the road from the main town, however, down a dirt track, sits the quaintly-named Pub With Cold Beer, a family-run restaurant which serves chicken and, of course, cold beer. You don’t have to kill your own chicken, but you can, and we decided it was a unique chance to be completely in touch with our meal, something I had not experienced before. When we informed the waitress that we wanted to do it ourselves, she seemed happy and surprised, perhaps not many foreigners opt in. To be sure, the group who arrived at the same time as us weren’t able to go through with it.
The killing itself was not as difficult as I thought it would be, the hardest part being the loud squawking as she chose the bird. After that, as Matt held our chicken, it was quiet and seemingly peaceful, a slit of the neck draining it of blood without movement or a sound. It was by no means a nice or fun thing to do, and I do not necessarily subscribe to the view that one should be able to kill an animal to eat it, but it was a profound and sombre way to get closer to food than I’ve ever been before.
After 45 minutes, the chicken arrived, marinated in lime, chilli and herbs, served with morning glory, steamed rice, and the best peanut sauce I’ve tasted, all grown on the family’s land.