Thursday 22 March 2012

Back to School: Leluu’s Vietnamese Cooking Class

Led Zeppelin ROCK. When it comes to the question of who the quintessential hard rock band of all time is – we have a clear winner. But sadly, many of my readers will be too young to know all about ‘the Zep’, as they are known. They will not know the joy of listening, at preferably high volume, the classic that is ‘Whole Lotta Love’. The fantastic guitar riff, the way the sound bounces from speaker to speaker (or headphone to headphone) and the crazy break in the middle. 

The outrageously confident opening begins: You need coolin', baby, I'm not foolin', I'm gonna send you back to schoolin'!” The song brings to mind my wonderful very recent experience of Uyen Luu’s (aka Leluu) Vietnamese cooking class. It was fascinating to be a student again, given that I teach for a living. Given my lack of knowledge of Vietnamese food, I really was being sent back to school!
Uyen runs her classes from her lovely Hackney flat. Spacious with a big kitchen, we all sat around a giant kitchen table to learn from someone who has Vietnamese food in her blood. Uyen has taught Jamie Oliver how to cook Vietnamese and is currently working on a book of traditional recipes. She and her mum provided us with a real insight, and confidence to recreate this vibrant and exciting food at home.

Ambitiously, Uyen decided to teach us 9 different dishes. They were:
Pho Bo – Beef Pho (Noodle soup in beef stock with sliced beef and garnishes)
Sai Gon Summer Rolls – Pork, prawn, rice noodle and herb filled rice paper parcels with dipping sauce
Bo La Lot – Beef marinated in chili and lemongrass, rolled and baked in Betel leaves
Chicken, Carrot and Banana Blossom Salad – a fresh and zingy flavoured salad with shredded poached chicken and Vietnamese herbs
Braised Pork Belly in Coconut and Pear Cider – an earthy, flavoursome stew with quail’s eggs
Baked Sea Bass – oven baked with lemon, garlic and ginger
Pan Fried Tilapia with Mango and Fish Sauce – crispy skinned fish served with an invigorating dressing and mango juliennes
Watercress Soup with Ginger – warming, sustaining brothy soup with tofu
Stir Fried Morning Glory – known as Ung Choi, stir fried with oyster sauce and garlic
Banana Fritters – wonderful dessert requiring no introduction
Vietnamese Frozen Yoghurt – healthy and tasty alternative to ice cream

On arrival at Uyen’s flat, we were greeted by her wonderful mother, cute dogs and our engaging host. The day, we were advised would be full of fun, food and drink, and immediately we found tea and basil seed drink ready for us.

The basil seed drink was quite a curiosity. I’ve had bubble teas and Indonesian Chendol (or Tchendol/ Jendol), so I have previously experienced the slightly chewy, sweet contents of south east Asian drinks. This was a surprise, since the basil seeds were just ordinary seeds soaked in water for around 10-15 minutes, yet somehow they rapidly created a gelatinous ooze which may sound terrible, but was actually delicious!

We started with Summer Rolls. I have previously made this at home on occasion, and always found them to be a right old faff. Thanks to Uyen, I have learnt the secret: buy the right type of rice paper (square) and to dip them very briefly in COLD water. This seems to make the assembly and rolling of the rolls all the easier. The square papers also allow you to enclose all of the ingredients in an envelope shape, meaning you don’t have all the contents spill out as you try to dip the roll in the dipping sauce.

Have a look, my efforts look so much more edible now, don’t they?

The Chicken, Carrot and Banana Blossom Salad was unlike any salad I’ve ever eaten. Served on perhaps the tastiest prawn crackers I have ever eaten (they actually tasted of prawns, rather than vaguely smell of them and no more), this salad had a unique combination of crunchy, chewy, sweet, sour and umami. It is this happy balance between all 5 flavours and textures which is the aim of Vietnamese food.
Next up were the preparations for Pho Bo. I’ve had this at various restaurants, both here and abroad. But I’ve never attempted making it from scratch. Although the authentic Pho is time consuming, Uyen has given me the confidence and knowhow to make this at home. The secret, it would appear, is to griddle roast an onion, some root ginger and boil up in a stock pot with some daikon, oxtail and beef. The result was such a pure tasting beefy broth, I am wondering where my next Pho fix will come from. If I weren’t so terribly busy at work, I’d be boiling up my own stock tomorrow!

Whilst the Pho was cooking, Uyen shown us around a local Vietnamese supermarket. She shown us the best ingredients to buy to recreate the dishes she demonstrated, knowledge which will be invaluable. Among her picks are the Bamboo brand square rice papers and the 3 Crabs brand fish sauce, superior products which assist in achieving amazing results.

The Bo La Lot was always going to be a dish I was going to be excited about making. I’ve had it in restaurants both on the Pho Mile in Kingsland Road, in the West End and the ‘mini Pho Mile’ of Deptford High Street (and environs). I’m so obsessed that I nearly always order it. Uyen’s recipe differs from the typical in that it used rump steak rather than mince, but that is all to the good. It was succulent, flavourful and the texture of the sliced steak with the cooked Betel leaf was superb.

Here are the prepared rolls before cooking.

After 12 minutes, the delicious little rolls were ready for devouring.

Of all the dishes, the Braised Pork Belly was the one I was most sceptical about. I have disliked eggs all my life (stemming from a mild allergy to them). However, what I tasted was a hearty Asian style stew which, if I can convince Him Indoors to eat quail’s eggs could become a Winter Warmer staple in our household. Score!

The fish dishes were very different, but both had that classic balance of eastern flavours. The Tilapia is a dish which would be great to share with others with salads and rice. The Sea Bass is a great simple supper dish which could be served with rice in the Vietnamese style, but equally could be teamed with steamed veg for a fusion twist.
Fried Tilapia with mango
Sea Bass baked in the oven

The vegetable dishes, particularly the Morning Glory, were achievable, simple yet tasty. Being someone who really could do with eating more veg (I’m a 2.5-3 a day person more so than a 5 a day girl), these are great ideas for having great tasting veggies with supper.

Stir fried Morning Glory
Watercress soup
 Somehow, after a day’s gluttony, I managed to find space for pudding. I don’t know where I put it all, but there was no way I was going to miss out on Banana Fritters! One of my favourite desserts (along with its sister, Pineapple Fritters), these are hard to get right. They need to be have a light and fluffy batter and cannot taste oily or the fruit flavours are ruined. Serving them with Vietnamese frozen yoghurt gave a sweet and sour tang to the dish rather than cloying the palate with too much sugar.

I had a great day learning about the philosophy of Vietnamese food and its balance of Yin and Yang. You can read an article by Uyen on her website about this here:

I also thoroughly enjoyed learning about new cooking techniques and ingredients. I hope to use my new knowledge to recreate some of these dishes at home. So thanks very much, Uyen, for sharing your kitchen, knowledge and skills with us, and it was a privilege to meet your lovely mum and to learn from her, too!

If you are interested in attending one of Uyen’s classes, they cost £75 and future classes will be held on the following dates: Apr 1, 7, 28; May 13, 20; Jun 3. You can contact Uyen at


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