Snakes, a Cooking School, and Ben Thanh Market

Cooking and eating snake! Yes, this was going to be a first.

I had been looking through the brochure from Saigon’s Vietnam Cookery Centre, where they list each days’ available dishes for the cooking class. I was immediately drawn to Monday, where they made mention of “snake” in two of the dishes.

Snake-head fish soup and caramel snake-head fish in clay pot. They both sounded delicious if not a little intriguing.

I’d never cooked with snake before so I was eager to try and to learn the process and see what tastes could be developed.

I booked the Monday lesson and noticed a little bonus came with the class.

Some of the morning cooking classes at the Vietnam Cookery Centre include an optional visit to Ben Thanh Market, which is Saigon’s central and best known market. I figured this would be a great opportunity to visit with an expert to obtain a closer and therefore deeper understanding of the food stalls.

I also hoped that by being with a guide, it would mean being able to wander the alleys without being hassled as much by the vendors, as often happens at Ben Thanh Market.

Ben Thanh Market – guided tour by the Vietnam Cookery Centre

The 8.30am Monday meeting spot with the guide was the “main entrance” to the market. Although I had visited the market a number of times during my visits to Saigon, I’d never really paid attention to which entrance was the “main” one.

You’ve probably already guessed that I chose the wrong one. Once 8.30am had passed, and with no “Vietnam Cookery Centre” sign in sight, I decided to try one of the other three entrances.

Of course, the “main” entrance was the last one I went to and there, in a Vietnam Cookery Centre shirt, was Ms. Cam, who was rather less than impressed with my tardiness.

It turned out that I was the only student for the day (the second time in a matter of months this had happened).

Ms. Cam started the tour by taking me through a number of the “dry” stalls. From the beginning, it was obvious this was going to be quite an extensive tour of the food section of the market, with Ms. Cam providing explanations of the different types of goods as well as patiently answering my questions as we moved through each section.

Dried Shrimps on display at Ben Thanh Market during the Vietnam Cookery Centre guided tour

Dried Shrimps

A complete range of noodles and other soup ingredients.

A complete range of noodles and other soup ingredients.

Different types of dried fish

Different types of dried fish

Once we hit the fruit and vegetable sections though, the tables were turned, and Ms. Cam started quizzing me on the names of the different fruits, vegetables, and herbs.

My strike rate was reasonable on the fruits and vegetables, but it was when I had to start picking out the differences in the herbs that the game entered a different level, with Ms. Cam almost chiding me when I named a particular herb incorrectly.

The final test for me was having to pick the heat of six different chillies, in order of mildest to hottest. I failed to line up the chillies in the correct order, getting three wrong, including a rogue yellow chilli that really didn’t “look” that hot. Back to chilli school for me!

Various vegetables on display at Ben Thanh market during a guided tour by Vietnam Cookery Centre

Various vegetables on display

Herbs are an essential part of a large majority of Vietnamese cooking - on display at Ben Thanh Market by Vietnam Cookery centre

Herbs are an essential part of a large majority of Vietnamese cooking

Garlic and the setting up of the chilli test - at Ben Thanh Market from the Vietnam Cookery Centre

Garlic and the setting up of the chilli test – notice the yellow chilli? Looks fairly tame right?

The final stop was the wet section of the market, where we looked at the “nose to tail” displays of meats and available seafood.

Meat on display - notice all cuts are present

Meat on display – notice all cuts are present

Small seafood display

Small seafood display

Nothing going to waste here

Nothing going to waste here

Fishmonger at work

Fishmonger at work

As we were about to leave, I asked Ms. Cam if we would be buying the snake for the cooking lesson from here before heading back to the classroom.

It was then that I learned that:

1) We wouldn’t be buying any snake or other live goods from here as the chef wanted to be sure of supply before the lessons, and
2) We would be cooking snake-head fish, not snake. So called because the head of the fish looks like a snake-head.

Right, so if the chilli challenge wasn’t embarrassing enough, not knowing what we were actually cooking for the day topped it off.

The Vietnam Cookery Centre

Arriving in the air conditioned classroom to a cup of ginger tea was a relief from the heat outside. The room was very spacious and it was easy to see how they are able to cater to the larger cooking classes they run.

One pleasing aspect was seeing plants lining the balcony, not only giving access to fresh herbs but also allowing for a cool breeze to flow through the room.

Cooking classroom

Plenty of space in the cooking classroom

Plenty of plants on the balcony

Plenty of plants on the balcony

Ms Cam running through the ingredients of the sour snake-head fish soup

Ms Cam running through the ingredients of the sour snake-head fish soup

Before long, the cooking class had begun with, as I’d mentioned earlier, me being the only student for the morning.

Fresh spring rolls (Goi Cuon) was the first dish we prepared.

For the sake of time, the preparation of this dish was more about assembly rather than cooking, with the ingredients already prepared and laid out on the table.

The chef gave a quick demonstration on how it was pulled together before it was my turn to complete the task.

After spreading a little bit of water over the rice paper, it was simply a matter of neatly placing shrimps, pork, fried egg, chives, lettuce, herbs, rice noodles, and a pinch of fried shallot on the rice paper before rolling it up into a healthy and delicious package, served with a peanut sauce.

Demonstrating the assembly of the fish spring roll

Demonstrating the assembly of the fish spring roll

Fresh spring roll completed! And yes, I made the others...

Fresh spring rolls completed! And yes, I made the others…

The next dish we prepared was the sour snake-head fish soup with vegetables (Canh Chua Ca Loc).

The first task for this dish is to fry off spring onions, then add tomato and pineapple and cook until the tomato turns to liquid. Add stock to the pan, then after the stock has boiled, add a mix of tamarind sauce, lemon juice, fish sauce, sugar, salt, and fish.

Once the liquid has come to the boil again, add lady’s finger, elephant ear plant, and bean sprouts to the pot.

There is certainly a sour taste to the soup through the tamarind, in particular, but it is very well balanced and was great soup for a hot day.

Sour fish soup with vegetables

Sour fish soup with vegetables

My favourite dish to prepare and eat was the caramel snake-head fish in a clay pot (Ca Loc Kho To).

The first step was to make a caramel sauce, which is usually simple enough, but when it came time for me to stir the sugar, a small crowd appeared to watch me, including Ms. Cam, who was probably itching to see me stir the sugar incorrectly. Only kidding, of course.

After successfully (phew!) making the caramel sauce, I added it to more ingredients including fish sauce, sugar, oil, salt, pepper, shallots, and chillies, to make a marinade for the fish.

After letting the fish marinate for half an hour, I then placed the fish in the clay pot, combined the marinade with some water, and proceeded to reduce the sauce at the same time the fish was cooking in it. It was a fine balance to make sure the fish wasn’t burning as the sauce was turning thick.

The caramelised sauce was sticky, sweet, and again very well balanced with a hint of heat from the chilli. It matched with the fish perfectly, and I could have eaten a second portion quite easily.

Caramelised fish

Caramelised fish

Accompanying rice

Accompanying rice

The last dish to prepare was a sautéed banana in coconut milk (Che Chuoi Xao Dua).

The sauce for this dish was made with coconut milk, tapioca pearls, sugar, and salt, which were boiled together until the tapioca pearls were tender. After this a little vanilla was added before being poured over the sliced bananas. It was then topped with toasted sesame seeds and peanuts.

It was a perfect dish to finish with. There was a little but of crunch, and a thick, sweet and well balanced sauce to accompany the bananas.

Banana with coconut sauce

Banana with coconut sauce

I was very impressed with the cooking class and took away a number of new skills. The guided tour of Ben Thanh Market was also a great chance to see and understand the workings of food stalls from a perspective not readily available.

I also learned yellow chillies can be particularly hot.

 

For more information on the cooking classes at The Vietnam Cookery Centre, click here

The main entrance to Ben Thanh Market is located on Le Loi Street.

 

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12 Comments

    1. Thanks Cam. Yes, I’d certainly recommend the class as a chance to learn how to cook some local dishes and gain an understanding of some flavour profiles of Vietnamese cooking (even if they aren’t snake!).

      Also, if you get the chance, I’d certainly recommend a guided tour of Ben Thanh market as offered. This market can get bad press due to the touristy nature and high level of hassling, however a tour like this will give a much greater appreciation for the market.

      Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment!

      1. No worries. My experience of Ben Thanh falls into the bad press category. Sounds like its worth a second chance, with some inside knowledge. Thanks for the heads up and insight.

    1. Thanks Steve. And yes, Ms Cam was quite the tough judge – it did, however, provide a great opportunity to learn and there was no chance my mind was going to drift off knowing she would be quizzing me at any moment……

  1. I really thought you are going to cook snake after seeing the title till I read the sentence “Snake-head fish soup and caramel snake-head fish in clay pot.”

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