Food Day in Hoi An, Vietnam

Today was all about food. We arranged for a biking tour plus cooking class at the Lighthouse restaurant on Cam Nam island just across a short bridge from Hoi An. While every second restaurant in town offers cooking classes (when something works everyone has to get in on it), the Lighthouse operation, run by a Dutch expat Hans and his Vietnamese wife Linh, is exceptional for their attention to detail and enthusiasm.

We met Hans at 8:00AM and he took on a leisurely bike ride around the island. While small and basic, the bikes were serviceable and comfortable for easy riding. Hans, who has been living in Vietnam for ten years and in Hoi An for the past seven, stopped frequently to talk about life in Vietnam. He has a sympathetic yet pragmatic viewpoint, recognizing the problems that the Vietnamese face – poverty, corruption, shortages of resources, and he realizes that there are no easy answers. He feels that in our global economy the overconsumption by developed Western nations strips the developing world’s natural resources. We all need to use less, he says.

The pretty narrow lanes, lined with houses and shops, are similar to those we saw in the Mekong Delta. The poor and rich live side by side; with some homes not much more than a dirt-floored shack and others tall-columned brightly painted structures with attractive courtyards. Many have small gardens in the front, lots of lettuce, cabbage and other greens. As we get further from town the road becomes more peaceful and we pass fields of corn and peanuts.

Our first stop of note was at small cemetery where Hans explains the Vietnamese tradition of honoring one’s ancestors. Making sure your ancestors are well tended brings fortune and prosperity to future generation. Tombs are well tended and offerings of food, fake money, rice wine and whatever else the ancestors’ spirit might need in the next world are placed at altars.

At the next stop we walk 100 meters past a taro patch and corn field to a river channel.  It’s quiet here. The setting is poetic with small fishing boats dotting the shoreline and giant Chinese fishing nets gracing the calm waters. Hans explains that during the night the nets are winched down into the water. A light attracts the fish which are then pulled back to the surface. There aren’t a lot of river fish anymore, but when people are hungry they continue to fish.

We head back to town where we meet Linh at the market. Linh has a warm bubbly personality and is eager to share what she knows about ingredients, Vietnamese culture and cooking. Leading us through the market we stop in each section where she explains unusual ingredients, how they are used and how to determine the best quality. Her passion for food shines through with every description. We learn about beans, rice, aromatics, greens, fruits, meats and fish. Beans in Vietnam are more frequently used in sweet rather than savory dishes. She has us taste a sweetened iced bean drink that the women treat themselves to when they have finished their shopping. An acquired taste I think.

Back at the Lighthouse restaurant we are given a refreshing glass of kumquat juice. Sour like lemonade it’s made with a bit of sugar. In a small room upstairs with a view of Hoi An just across the river we start the cooking part our day. We will make four dishes, fried shrimp spring rolls, fish cooked in a clay pot with caramel sauce, stuffed squid and stir-fried water spinach. Lihn demonstrates and explains how things are prepared, but we are to do the cooking. She likes to quiz you. “Why do we sear the fish first before it is simmered?” An interactive Western style of teaching that is more engaging that the typical Asian lecture style. Although in typical Asian fashion she does not let us make mistakes, watching us closely and correcting imperfections. Details are important to her.  The shrimp must be placed in the spring roll with just one centimeter of the tail inside the roll while the rest hangs out like a little handle.  From the care she puts into her cooking, the quality of ingredients she uses and her general enthusiasm for food it is easy to see why this restaurant is one of the best in Hoi An.

After about two hours of cooking we take our creations to the small restaurant dining room, an open air room, simply decorated, with the same great views as the cooking classroom. All the dishes are tasty and well prepared of course. We fried the spring rolls last so that they would still be fresh hot and crispy. The squid stuffed with pork and glass noodles was served with a flavorful coconut milk based sauce. The fish was spicier and much more flavorful than the other clay pot dishes we have tried here, but quite similar to the recipe we used back home. The biggest difference being the addition of a tablespoon of coconut cream which added a nice richness to the sauce. If I do say so myself, one of the best meals we’ve had here in Vietnam.

It’s pleasant walking the streets of Hoi An after dark when the tour buses have taken the day trippers back to their hotels. Only the piped music blaring just a bit too loud detracts from the quaint pedestrian-only streets.

Mackerel Cooked in a Banana Leaf

For dinner we stopped at Morning Glory in one of the charming old buildings of this section. Rated on Tripadvisor as the best restaurant in Hoi An it did not disappoint. The high ceilinged open dining room is decorated with faded painted walls and dark furniture.  We ordered the sugar cane shrimp skewers, mackerel cooked in a banana leaf, 5-spice barbeque chicken and stir-fried bitter melon with egg.  The shrimp really a shrimp paste sausage cooked on sugar cane skewers.  Before eating them you cut the meat off the cane and roll them in rice paper with aromatic greens and slices of green banana. A fun and tasty dish. The mackerel in a banana leaf was equally impressive, with chunks of fish mixed with an interesting and unidentifiable combination of herbs and spices and cooked in a banana leaf. Our favorite dishes of the trip. The five-spice barbeque chicken was tasty and moist and served with coconut sticky rice garnished with pickled green onion. Bitter melon really is bitter. One of those things that I’m not sure I really like but keep tasting to be sure, and before you know it I’ve eaten the entire plate. For once I thoroughly agree with the Tripadvisor reviews and would highly recommend this restaurant.

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