Cooking in Hoi An
Joshua and I booked a hands-on class at the Hai Scout CafÃ© that’s given with the Red Bridge Cooking School and, like so much on this trip, we got more than we expected. We began the day – and it was pretty much a full day (10 to almost 5) – walking through the market with a guide from the cafÃ©. The market, like others we’d seen in Southeast Asia, was crowded and noisy and seemingly a mish-mash of stalls, vendors, cooks and customers, but in reality, it was quite organized, with the meat sellers in one place, the vegetable vendors in another, and the fishmongers in this riverside town getting pride of place.
We then boarded a boat for a ride up the river to the Red Bridge School, where the outdoor classroom was beautifully arranged for us to watch the English-speaking instructor and then follow his lead at our own cooking stations.
On the menu was:
Fresh Rice Paper Rolls
Hoi An Pancakes
Seafood Salad in Pineapple
Vietnamese Eggplant in Clay Pot
Sweet & Sour Sauce
But it was making our own rice paper that was the highlight and best take-away for me. Like making butter or ketchup, rice paper is the kind of thing you think can only be made by magic or a major food company, and so making it yourself is both a revelation and a giggle.
To be honest, we didn’t really make it all ourselves, since the rice had been soaked way ahead of time for us and whirred like mad in a blender until it was smooth and perfectly suited for crepes, which is what rice paper really is. However, instead of using a crepe pan, which is what we used to make the Hoi An Pancakes, we used an ingenious set-up: a large casserole filled with water and covered with a piece of very fine cotton (we were told we could use a linen towel or even a few layers of cheesecloth) that was pulled taut and held taut with an elastic, so that it was a combination steamer and pan.
We poured a ladleful of the batter into the center of the cloth and used the back of the ladle to spread the batter out from the center in a spiral motion. When the batter was set just a little, we covered the casserole and allowed the rice paper to steam briefly. Then, using a shaved piece of bamboo, the equivalent of the wooden spatula crepemakers use in their little stalls all over France, we lifted the pancakes up and onto plates, wet side up, filled them with shredded vegetables, noodles and shrimp, rolled them up and ate them immediately with both pride and gusto. Were they the best summer/spring rolls I’ve ever tasted? Of course, they were – and it was the fresh rice paper that made all the difference.
Not surprisingly, neither the batter for the rice paper nor the rice paper itself is a one-trick treat. After we added curcuma (turmeric) to the rice batter, we used it to make this beautiful and so, so delicious Hoi An Pancake that was filled with shrimp and pork and topped with bean sprouts (similar to pancakes we’d had in Vietnam)
This was the dish we used the crepe pan for, and when we turned the pancake out of the pan, we turned it onto a semi-dry rice paper crepe and used the paper to roll and wrap it. The effect was terrific – it made the pancake easy to eat and it also gave it a little crispness:
While we ate most of what we made soon after we made it, we had the eggplant stewed in the clay pot and the fish dish as lunch after the class, and with them came a surprise – rice paper in another form: sun-dried, studded with sesame seeds and as crunchy and crackly as thick potato chips. I wish I had a picture of these, but like potato chips, they were gone in a flash.
I know I’ll be making the fresh rice paper rolls and I’d love to make the rice paper crackers, but by the time I get back to New York, there’ll be snow on the ground. Until the seasons change, it’ll have to be oven-baked for me – they won’t be the same, but at least I won’t have to fight the pigeons for them.