Hands-On or Off? For sure, the best learning happens when you try the recipes yourself. However, some people prefer to just watch a demonstration, especially when they're on vacation. And there are varying degrees of hands-on -- some schools will have all the vegetables and other prep done in advance, while other will have you chopping everything right down to the garlic cloves. In any case, most hands-on programs will offer a burner, cutting board and knife for each participant. This allows you to prepare the entire recipe and eat your own creation.
The Recipes? Most cooking schools have set programs and menus. Be sure to inquire in advance about the recipes. If you're interested in learning a particular recipe or technique, you may need to schedule the cooking class on a particular day. If the menu doesn't interest you, look for other options.
The Program? For sure, all programs involve some amount of cooking and eating. Some will offer a market tour as part of the program, others may offer a small section on ingredient identification or on the eating culture. The market tour can be especially interesting if you are unfamiliar with the open, central markets common around the world (except in the US). If you are new to a culture or cuisine, this also offers a great opportunity to become familiar with the more unusual ingredients.
Private or Group? The larger hotels and schools usually offer group classes for up to 16 guests. This can be a fun way to meet other travelers and hear about their adventures. A group class does not necessarily mean the class will be less "hands-on." The smaller restaurants usually offer private classes. Depending on the skill of the instructor this can also mean more opportunity for customization.
On my trip, I took two cooking classes, both of which were recommended by the Lonely Planet.
These classes are offered in a small cultural center outside the center of town. The class is led by a lovely woman (An) who learned how to cook from her mother and learned beautiful English from an Austrialian in university.
The program begins with an informal discussion of Vietnamese food culture and a video that shows how the locals cook -- with a small burner and a cutting board. No fancy equipment.
I chose the street food menu, which included the Bun Cha and Spring Rolls. In the kitchen, all the vegetables were washed, but nothing had been chopped. We chopped all the vegetables, seasoned all the meats, and rolled all the spring rolls. We started on the cooking of the spring rolls and the meatballs, and An had the assistants finish these tasks for us so we could move on. We also made roses out of tomato skins.
At the end of the class we received the recipes, beautifully wrapped in rice paper with a bow and cooking chopsticks in a little bamboo souvenir purse.
While An is a lovely and articulate woman, her cooking experience is limited. Her recipes, which are quite good, came from her mother. As such, if you have a lot of experience cooking, you may find her lessons a bit remedial. I would have preferred that we chopped less so that we'd have more time to prepare additional recipes. At $40/person, it offered mediocre value: the recipes are great and the gifts were lovely, but did not get added value from the personalized instruction.
Red Bridge Cooking School
This cooking school is located on the outskirts of Hoi An. I enrolled in the Classic Half Day Tour. The program meets at a restaurant in town, and begins with a market tour. Our group of 16 divided into smaller groups so that as we navigated the central market we could gather close enough to our tour guide. He identified many vegetables and gave us opportunities to taste some of the fresh, local fruit. We looked at the fish and fresh noodles. We were introduced to a vendor selling traditional vietnamese knives, and given a sales pitch.
After the tour, we boarded a boat to cruise down the scenic river to the cooking school.
When we arrived at the cooking school we were given a tour of the herb garden and then seated in an open air classroom around a cooking island. A large mirror was strategically placed so we could all see what was happening on the counter. The instructor was the chef at the adjoining restaurant. Behind the demonstration area were 16 cooking stations, so each participant could cook their own dish.
On the menu were 4 dishes: Seafood Salad, Fresh Rice Paper Rolls of Shrimp, Hoi An Pancakes (Banh Xeo) and Vietnamese Eggplant in Claypot. The demonstration was rapid fire, we had an opportunity to try our hand at making the fresh rice paper, the rice pancake and the eggplant. Much of the ingredients and sauces were prepared in advance, so the class focused on the highlights of each recipe.
We sampled the spring rolls and Banh Xeo as we cooked them. At the end of the lesson, we retired to the tastefully appointed, open air dining room. We each enjoyed our individually prepared eggplant. The staff served family style the seafood salad and a behind-the-scenes prepared steam fished.
This was an action packed afternoon, hitting all the key points, but not delving too deeply into any one. Unlike the Hidden Hanoi class, so much of the prep was done in advance that we missed learning how to make the batters for the rice paper and pancakes, as well as all the dipping sauces. But with the recipe hand-outs, I would likely be able to recreate them on my own. The chef was well versed culinarily, but did not allow opportunities for questions.
One of my top goals on this trip was to learn how to make rice paper. I had my opportunity to steam one sheet, remove it from the cotton sheet and roll my own spring roll. I would have liked to practice at least once more, but the pace of the class did not allow for it.
At $22USD per person, this class offered great value - a full meal, a boat tour, a market tour and cooking demonstration. The recipes were deceptively simple because all the prep work was done in advance; they were good, but not great. Some of my classmates commented that they were not likely to recreate the recipes because of all the chopping. I especially enjoyed meeting other travelers, and we had plenty of time to talk to each other.