Like in Hanoi, I also booked a cooking class and this was with Morning Glory Cooking School (http://www.restaurant-hoian.com/). Again I had used TripAdvisor and Morning Glory was ranked no. 1 under things to do at Hoi An. I had initially booked for a class that combined a herb garden tour. Unfortunately there was not enough participants and we agreed to a class with wet market tour. It turned out we didn’t get to go visit the market because when we arrived in Hoi An town, I realized I left my wallet inside the villa safe!! My husband didn’t have any Vietnamese Dong on him. So he had to go to Morning Glory Cooking School to let them know of the situation while I returned to the villa to retrieve my wallet. He told me I just made the cab driver’s day with the takings from 3 trips; he could just take the day off. So by the time I got to the school, the group had long left for the market though my husband waited behind for me. Anyway turned out we didn’t miss much since the market is not much difference from the one in Hanoi, when we went to take a look the next day. In fact the Hanoi market has more interesting fresh produce.
Morning Glory Cooking School is located inside Morning Glory Restaurant, on the second floor. It’s operated by Ms Vy who now owns 4 restaurants including the Cargo cafe across the street and a hotel. Unlike our experience in Hanoi when we were the only participants, it was a bigger group here, around 12 people. The class was also much better conducted, with 4 people at each station bench, complete with stove and cooking utensils for each participant. The instructor is ms Lu, who has worked for Ms Vy since she was 14. She told us something interesting, they actually shop for ingredients 3 times a day from the market to ensure fresh food is served. As long as the market is opened the restaurant will open. If market is closed, they cannot open the restaurant. This goes to show how particular they are with quality. As you can see from the picture, there’s a mirror on top of the instructor’s bench which reflects what Ms Lu does.
We were taught 5 dishes altogether, the first was ‘Cabbage Leaf Parcels with Shrimp mousse in broth’. This is actually shrimp dumplings wrapped in cabbage leaf in vegetable broth. It’s not difficult to make and tasted pretty good.
The second dish was the famous Vietnamese Rice Paper Rolls. It’s actually not difficult but rolling the rice paper takes practice. Also the ingredients call for shredded morning glory stem and chrysanthemum leaves. I’m no idea where to get these in Singapore, so I think we have to substitute with something else.
The third dish was BBQ Chicken and lime Leaf. The marinade has Chinese influence because it includes five-spice. The marinading part is easy, it’s the threading the skewers through the chicken piece that’s a bit of a problem. Half of my chicken piece was hanging from the skewer, and it does look pretty unsightly. Goes to show there’s skill involved even in threading meat through skewer. We didn’t have to grill the meat ourselves, that was done by the Morning Glory staff, phew!
Next dish is a favorite of mine, Banh Xeo – Crispy Pancakes, Hoi An style. It’s not easy to make the pancake crispy and You also require a pretty small frying pan to cook the pancake. The Hoi An version seems a little thicker than the one I had in Hanoi. I’m pretty bad at frying food, because I’m afraid of the oil splattering on me. I was trying to follow Ms Lu’s instruction to tilt the frying pan away from me to drain out the excess oil, but I was struggling to handle the hot pan and the sizzling oil. My husband had to take over. He’s better at the cooking itself but he doesn’t like the prepping part like chopping vegetables. So it’s like he’s the chef and I’m the sous chef who has to prepare the stuff for him.
Final dish is also another Vietnamese favorite, Mango Salad. It’s pretty easy to make but judging from our experience (we’ve made the salad numerous times at home since we returned), preparation takes quite a bit of time, like at least 45 minutes. But that may due to us using various herbs like mint, basil and parsley, more than required in the recipe. We also add chopped roasted peanuts but we didn’t add roasted sesame seeds though. When we were taught this dish, we used this kitchen peeler which is very common in Vietnam. It turned out to be a pretty neat peeler, particularly for peeling mango and other fruits like papaya, to make salad. The fruit used tend to be slightly unripe so that it gives a crunchy texture. But we have discovered that a type of Thai mango has the same texture even when ripe and it doesn’t turn yellow even when ripe but is slightly sweet. We love this mango which is really good for salad and even eaten on its own. The problem is that it’s not easily available in Singapore and so far we’ve only found it in a Thai supermarket at Golden Mile Complex. (My husband thinks the place is eeky and if not for the mango, wouldn’t have stepped foot into the place. So we get in and out in double quick time.)
After the cooking was all done, we ate our own food. I must say my husband and I were pretty pleased with our effort, and honestly it tasted pretty good, not that we’re trying to blow our trumpets. It was quite a fun experience, though it didn’t look like everybody enjoyed it. The Caucasian couple next to us (think they are Brits) didn’t finish their food, and the guy didn’t seem to enjoy the cooking. In fact they left soon after lunch. Wonder why they joined the class then. There was a small Singaporean group, a mother with her daughter and a relation or friend. We didn’t interact with them. I don’t see the necessity of interacting with other Singaporeans just because we’re in the same foreign locale.
When class ended, all participants were given a gift, the fruit peeler which I find so useful for slicing mango. That was a pleasant surprise for me as I had thought of getting one from the market.
(I’ve been using that to peel mango for the salad since.) Anyway we found out from Ms Lu that Ms Vy has just published her cook book, Taste Vietnam: A Morning Glory Cookbook. A few of us bought the book which has pictures of the various herbs and condiments used in Vietnamese cooking (very useful). It’s very nicely put together, very professional done like that of the Michelin-starred chefs. She also told part of the life story in the book, on how she came to open her first restaurant, Mermaid. She is a very gutsy entrepreneur, who succeeds at the right place and right time. Hoi An is a heritage town and it’s very difficult for new businesses to enter, other than taking over existing shops. There’s also a steady stream of tourists particularly after Vietnam opened up. The cooking class at Morning Glory is cheaper than the one at Hanoi Cooking School, at US$25 per person. We think it’s much more worth it. The cookbook is US$39.95.
We also decided to give Morning Glory restaurant a try the next day for lunch. We ordered the Morning Glory salad (something which we don’t get in Singapore), Banh Xeo, grilled prawn in bamboo skewers, rice dumpling dish and a stir-fried bitter melon with egg. We thought the food live up to the reputation, that it was pretty well done. Naturally the Banh Xeo were better than what we made the day before. We also tried the home made Vietnamese ice cream which is like frozen yoghurt, which my husband loves but I’m not crazy over it. We had also tried another Ms Vy’s restaurant, Cargo, diagonally opposite Morning Glory. We went there for ice cream dessert after the cooking lesson. Ms Lu had recommended that we go there for home made Lemongrass ice cream. We tried that together with the cinnamon ice cream and we agreed that the latter was better.
Anyway on the 3rd and last night, we decided to go to Hoi An town for dinner since we had been having it in the hotel for 2 consecutive nights. We wanted to try one restaurant recommended by Nam Hai resort, but after we found the place, it was closed! So guess what? We ended up going back to Morning Glory because my husband didn’t like the fact that there were few customers in other restaurants. Morning Glory was the most popular. This time we tried some new dishes like smoked duck salad and roast beef salad. My husband also gave the Bun Cha a try and I got myself a seaweed soup. He loves the bun Cha and realizes that it was a Vietnamese interpretation of the Japanese cold noodle. I find the duck and beef a little chewy but overall the salads are well done. We love it that the Vietnamese put so much emphasis on vegetable dishes like salad. This could be an influence from the French since salad is not part of Asian cuisine. As for the seaweed soup, it was tasty but not awesome.
I’m leaving the best food reviews for last. Yes, there is a restaurant better than Morning Glory. Actually two restaurants but they are within the same location, Nam Hai resort. We had dinner at The Restaurant, which doesn’t serve Vietnamese food but western and North Indian cuisines. My husband ordered Tandoori, naan, dhal, while I went for a grilled fish western style. I’ve to admit even though the fish was good, the Indian cuisine was even better. But I’ve a beef with the restaurant. It’s a little too dim for my liking. The menu comes with reading light but still I prefer to have a clearer look at what I’m eating.
The next night, we went to the beach restaurant to give it one more chance since the Vietnamese chef is back at work. Unlike in the day time when it was pretty warm, it was a pretty pleasant experience to dine at night with a wonderful breeze blowing through. There was a pretty girl playing on this traditional musical instrument at the entrance to the open kitchen. We like how the al fresco dining area was lighted by the green traditional lanterns. It was really beautiful!
We ordered a street food platter consisting of meat skewers and various spring rolls, a clam soup, grilled Grouper with tamarind sauce, mixed vegetables in claypot and finally Vietnamese sticky rice balls in sesame/peanut soup for dessert. I can say honestly the chef is awesome!!! This is the first time we had fine dining Vietnamese food and it was absolutely fabulous. The skill of the chef is several notches above those in Morning Glory. He was able to balance the flavors so well. My husband thinks the clam soup was sublime, the sweetness of the clams was evident and the taste is subtle. The street food platter was so yummy, the freshness of the fish could be tasted despite the grilling, and the mixed vegetables was flavorful. We also love the various rice crisps that were served to diners (in place of bread). The wait staff also let the diners choose their chopsticks, which are really fancy. To me this meal was the highlight of the trip, though for my husband it was the second highlight (after the dinky pho place in Hanoi). Honestly the pictures don’t do justice to the beautiful night setting and the fantastic food.
After dinner, I went to the kitchen to talk to the chef, who looks pretty young. When the waitstaff called for him, he came over me with a cautious look on his face. He looked happy and relieved when he realized that I was actually there to congratulate him on his fabulous dishes. Poor guy!! We recommended to the GM of the hotel that the young chef should be sent to Cordon Bleu for training in western cooking techniques so as to infuse a modern twist to the Vietnamese food (ala Naam in Bangkok).
Another thing I wanna mention is that the breakfast at the Nam Hai is for champion! I love the cereal selection, the tropical fruits, and smoothies. Another signature of GHM resorts are their home-made jams which are fabulous. Have you heard of watermelon jam? I haven’t until I stayed at their resorts. But the staff don’t prepare the pancakes or the hash brown well. I think they’re not well trained in western cooking techniques.