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Cooking with class: Plain, spicy or sweet in Vietnam

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Is it possible to get a D in spring rolls? I also flunked tomato rose-making.

``No, no,'' said an exasperated Nguyen Thai Binh, executive chef, showing how the knife tip should slide under the outer peel as delicately as a heart surgeon's scalpel.


Luckily, my Nuoc mam cham dipping fish sauce and Canh ca chua trung tomato soup turned out brilliantly, if I do say so myself.

The certificate proves it: ``The Socialist Republic of Vietnam -- Independence -- Freedom -- Happiness -- The Saigon Culinary Art Centre Certifies Ms. Ellen Creager has attended successfully to Vietnamese Introductory Culinary Course -- Approved by Mr. Nguyen Thai Binh Executive Chef.''

Lighter than Chinese, less spicy than Thai and with a touch of French flair, Vietnamese cuisine has a delicate touch and the freshest ingredients.

From haute to home style, culinary classes are offered throughout the country. A tour operator can set one up, or book your own in advance.

It's also fun to take more than one cooking class to sample regional differences. Cuisine from the north is plain. Central is spicy. South is sweet.

Depending on your taste, you may prefer one over another, says Nguyen Thanh Van, sous chef at the Sofitel Metropole Hanoi, which offers culinary classes through the Metropole Cooking School (e-mail conciergesofitelhanoi.vnn.vn).

``We can say Hanoi food is a symbol of how we live -- it is very simple, based on natural products,'' says Thanh Van. ``When we cook a prawn, it still tastes like a prawn. We do not bury it in curry or chili to make its taste disappear. It is a more pure way to cook.

``We cook beef with rice. We cook fish with beer. From the French, we kept creme caramel, ice cream and French bread. Saigon food is a little bit sweet for my taste, but people there think it is very nice.''

The Saigon Culinary Arts Center in Ho Chi Minh City opened in 2007. It offers half-day, three-hour classes.

I added an extra hour to shop at the huge Central Ben Thanh market with Chef Binh (eels, anyone?), then cooked a five-element meal -- tofu, spring rolls, soup, Thit kho to (caramelized pork) and steamed rice.

Near the central Vietnam city of Hoi An, I took a slightly different type of class. At Tra Que Vegetable Village, tourists can learn how the garden grows at a 500-year-old farm, which uses a special algae-seaweed as fertilizer.

The specialty there is rau hung, a kind of spearmint used in cooking, but all kinds of vegetables grow. Tourists hoe, rake, fertilize and water with huge watering cans carried on a stick.

Then comes a home-style cooking class focused on fried savory pancakes called Banh Xeo and other dishes.

Since I felt like a humongous lurching giant among the slim, short Vietnamese, I also ate sparely on the trip and consumed almost no junk food. I came home four pounds lighter.

BY ELLEN CREAGER
Detroit Free Press

Related to Vietnamese foods.
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