A Vietnamese Cookery Course with Uyen Lelu

Bought as a surprise for a friend’s birthday and not one to miss out on learning how to cook different types of cuisine, I thought it only fair to take myself along as well.  I’ve heard a lot of good stuff about Lelu – not just the cookery course she runs but her supper club adventures and recent encounters with Jamie Oliver in his quest to discover missionaries of Vietnamese food in Britain.

The course is held a couple of times a month from her home in London Fields for 6 or 7 guests at a suggested donation of £75 per person, a very humble amount I thought.

After a disastrous journey taking over 2 hours to get from Brixton to London Fields with the shoddy Sunday tube service, I arrived fashionably late, but thankfully just in time for a steaming bowl of Beef Pho.  Whilst tucking into the Pho I had a chance to introduce myself to the other guests and absorb my surroundings.  As expected there were a mixture of guests, some with Vietnamese heritage looking to recreate dishes they were already familiar with, others with less experience but a vested interest nonetheless.

Uyen took time to explain the fundamentals of Vietnamese cuisine, balancing yin and yang or hot and cold for overall well-being and health.  This doesn’t just refer to the temperature or spiciness of a particular food, each type of food has a particular characteristic and can be blended together to provide the optimum balance or used to redress an imbalance when you’re feeling low or have over indulged.  This leads onto the freshness and vibrancy of Vietnamese food, abundant with fragrant herbs – I never feel overly full when I’ve eaten Vietnamese food yet the flavours are strong and satisfying.

There is plenty of participation in the dishes that are made, we all mucked in to make the Saigon Summer Rolls and Bo La Lot, and Uyen’s mother frequently came to the table to give us a closer look at the various dressings for the salad and fish dishes.  It is important to get the balance of sweet, sour and salty just right, tasting as you go and adjusting as necessary.

We break for a trip to the conveniently located Vietnamese/Asian supermarket near Uyen’s house and are shown some of the key ingredients – Three Crabs Fish Sauce, Rice Paper, La Lot leaves and the best Instant Pho stock cubes for when you don’t have time to make that delicious broth from scratch.  Time even for a pint at the local before we head back for the second half of the day and commence the remaining dishes.

We were given a ‘goodie bag’ at the end of the day – containing some of the leftovers that we had prepared, some fresh ho fun noodles and a large bottle of the holy grail Beef Pho stock which I devoured within a couple of days.

All in all, I was very pleased with the course, we covered a lot in one day and I left understanding the essence of balancing sweetness, saltiness and sourness.  There are no print outs of the recipes but they are captured on Lelu’s website (see blogroll for link) so this really wasn’t necessary.

Saigon Summer Rolls – I’ve made these many times before with lots of different ingredients.  They always impress and are so quick to make, although I did learn a few tips for presentation by arranging the mint leaves on the underside before rolling and allowing a strand or two of chinese chive to peek out the end.  Served with a spicy hoisin and peanut sauce.

The Chicken Salad was really zingy and fresh (the recipe on Lelu’s website uses Prawn instead which I imagine works equally well).  Julienned carrots, sharp unripened green mango, shallots, hot mint, chilli and banana blossom are mixed together thoroughly (to break down the texture of the raw carrots and onion a little) and dressed with a mixture of cider vinegar, fish sauce, soy, sugar, garlic chilli and peanuts.  This was the first time I had tried banana blossom (or at least was aware of what is was) and it didn’t taste of much but added a nice slightly crunchy texture and was good for absorbing the dressing.  The salad was served with crunchy Vietnamese Prawn Crackers which had a slight chilli kick to them.

For me the highlight of the day was definitely Thit Heo Kho Trung (Braised Pork Belly in Pear Cider and Coconut Juice).  This reminded me of a dish my mother makes with plump shitake mushrooms rather than eggs, spiced with ginger and star anise and slow cooked for several hours.  The eggs in this dish, a mixture of hen and quail, take on a different texture when slow cooked with the yolks becoming smooth and buttery. Uyen explained that traditionally this dish (before the days of fridges) would be left on the stove and reheated twice a day to kill any bacteria.  I made it about a week after the course and whilst I did keep it in the fridge, it tasted even better after a day or so and not a single drop of that deliciously rich sauce was wasted.

I’ve cooked whole fish many times before but in a more Chinese style, with soy, ginger and spring onions.  I really enjoyed the freshness of the green mango and chilli that accompanied the fried Brill, and the steamed Trout was a tasty reminder of a fish I overlook too often these days.

To cleanse the palate we finished up with a traditional Tofu and Watercress soup.  The recipe for this isn’t on the website although I’m sure it consists solely of a light chicken or vegetable stock, with chunks of silken tofu and finished with watercress just before serving.

VerdictThumbs Up.  Really good value for money, this course is a relaxed and informal introduction to some of the basics of Vietnamese cuisine.  The goodie bags to take home are an additional treat, especially given the quantity of food on offer throughout the day.  If you book be sure to skip breakfast! 

Hashi Cooking

I first came to hear of Reiko Hashimoto through a glowing review by The London Foodie.  Convinced that this would be the introduction to authentic Japanese cuisine that I was looking for, I signed myself up for the 4 week Gourmet Cookery course in Jan/Feb this year.

I eat Japanese food on a fairly regular basis – and apart from the odd occasion have to admit that up until now, it invariably consisted of sushi take outs from the various chains or quick stop lunches from independent sushi bars about London.  Whilst there’s nothing wrong with this, I have always been aware that there is far more to Japanese cuisine than the atypical sashimi, sushi rolls and tempura that so many of us believe Japanese food to be. Eating (good) Japanese food in London tends to leave you with a much lighter wallet – of course the freshest fish and seafood comes at a premium, which I am prepared to pay, but I also wanted to create authentic Japanese flavours at home using some of the more modest staples available everyday.

With this in mind, I descended on a very cold winters night to Reiko’s home in Wimbledon for the first session.  Immediately introduced to everyone and presented with a warming green tea, I noticed that the kitchen was perfectly designed for the occasion, with a central island that the guests (no more than 6) gather around, allowing optimum viewpoint and interaction with Reiko as she teaches and preps the dishes in front of you.  It was a friendly group of people of all ages and backgrounds. A shout out to the amiable Reg, a retired photographer whose wife had bought him vouchers for one of Reiko’s courses some time ago and he hasn’t looked back since.  He kept the group well entertained with his stories (and me entertained on the walk back to the station – week 1: chives stuck to his chin; week 2: sushi rice stuck to his cheek.  I didn’t have the heart to tell him on either occasion).

We were given print outs of all the recipes, aswell as the basics such as Dashi stock and the perfect Sushi Rice – all Reiko’s recipes are written with attention to detail with any hints and tips already included.

Each session lasts just over 2 hours and the majority of prep is already done, allowing for plenty of discussion on the intricacies of each dish, general tips and advice on how to source or prepare the right ingredients (or substitutes where feasible).  Throughout the sessions, we supped on prosecco, wine and sake (not all at once!).

Before I move on to the dishes (which may take some time since there were so many and they were SO good!), I’d like to add that I couldn’t recommend Hashi Cooking enough.  I have been to quite a few courses, and this is up there with the best of them.  I’ve sometimes found home based courses a little squashed or awkward, maybe lacking a little in finesse.  On the contrary, Reiko provides a beautiful environment to impart her knowledge of Japanese food and culture, effortlessly making the group feel at ease with her informative yet relaxed style of teaching.  The dishes are mouth-watering, and since the course I have recreated many of the dishes at home with relative ease.

And so, onto to the best bit – the FOOD.

Week 1

Grilled Scallops on Sushi Rice with Creamy Spicy Sauce

This is Reiko’s signature dish.  It’s so tasty!  A bed of delicate sushi rice dotted with shreds of Nori and Flying Fish Roe (an absolute must for this dish as it brings a colour, texture and savouriness that no other substitute could offer), generously topped with hunks of sweet scallops and finished with a creamy sauce spiced with chinese Toh Ban Jan.

Cha Soba (Green Tea Noodles) with Squid and Spicy Yakumi Sauce.

A really fresh and well balanced noodle dish, with the addition of minced pork adding a nice texture.  The squid was tender and the Yakumi dressing was light and flavoursome.

Tofu Steak with Japanese Mushrooms in Soy Butter Sauce.

This dish was a tasty marriage of east and west.  The firm tofu steaks are tossed in cornflour and Sansho pepper, then pan fried to give a slightly crispy edge.  The mushrooms were cooked with butter, anchovies, streaky bacon and white wine amongst other things.  This was my first encounter with Sansho pepper (derived from the prickly Ash tree), which had a tangy flavour and complemented the earthiness of the mushrooms and bacon nicely.

(as if that wasn’t enough….)

Duck Breast with Ginger and Apple Sauce

Another cracking dish.  Duck breast cooked to perfection and dressed with a pungent ginger and apple sauce and scorched baby leeks.

The sauce cut the richness of the duck meat really well.  I liked Reiko’s method of pan frying the breasts, partially covering the pan to quicken the cooking process and keep the meat moist, whilst ensuring that all important crispy skin.

Week 2

Spicy White Miso Soup with Prawn & Chicken Quenelles

A much welcomed start to an even colder evening of sub-zero temperatures, we begin with a spicy white miso soup with prawn and chicken quenelles.  Reiko used a mix of white miso and sweet white miso (which is harder to come by), and finished the dish with a little watercress and additional Toh Ban Jan for those of us who like a bit of extra heat.  Unfortunately no photo’s of the evenings dishes due to a memory card malfunction!  I’ve made this dish a couple of times since and friends have been very impressed, it was my favourite soup of the course.

Black Cod 2 Ways – Sake-Kasu and Miso

I love black cod.  It’s an expensive fish and can be hard to find so its something I’ve only eaten a handful of times.  The texture and flavour so unlike any other fish. Despite the name, it’s actually a type of sablefish rather than cod, rich in fat which gives its unctuous melt in the mouth texture.  I’ve read elsewhere that if you can’t find black cod, belly salmon would be the next best thing due to its higher fat content. Although purists may disagree!  The fillets are marinated for 2 days allowing the Miso and Sake flavours to permeate through.  Both marinades were delicious, the miso and sweet mirin marinade slightly caramelises under the grill and complements the black cod perfectly.  The Sake-Kasu marinade is far more subtle, allowing more of the delicate black cod flavour to come through.  Both were served with Hajikami pickled ginger stalks.

Beef & Vegetable Rolls

Al dente green beans, carrots and enoki mushrooms rolled in thin cut rib-eye steak and drizzled with teriyaki sesame dressing?  Yes please.  This dish looks more delicate than it tastes – beefy sesame soy flavours and beans still with some bite. We all had a go at these and most of us succumbed to the over/under filling of the rolls.  Reiko still managed to make them look pretty on the plate! (a little bit of post op re-stuffing never caused any harm).

Wild Mushroom Rice

Another fusion of flavours, it’s interesting to see how eastern and western flavours can be combined to create dishes with a twist on tradition. Cooked sushi rice is mixed with a concoction of japanese & western mushrooms (shitake, enoki, chestnut, shimeji, porcini) and flavoured with butter, anchovy, chilli, dashi, nori, white wine and leeks.  A really quick and tasty way to use up that leftover sushi rice.

Week 3

Ganmodoki Tofu Patti with Clear Broth

We learnt how to prepare Tofu properly.  Prior to this course I wasn’t aware that Tofu should be pressed to release excess water.  This is done for a couple of hours before hand.  Reiko then squeezed it by hand with a muslin cloth, before crumbling and mixing with wakame, carrot, soaked shitake and seasonings.  The patti’s were then deep fried in a very elegant tempura pot, and served with a light dashi ginger broth (normally thickened with cornflour but on this occasion Reiko forgot, I imagine Reg was causing a distraction!).

Sea Bream Rice

Despite this being one of the simplest dishes on the course it was one of my favourites.  Very few ingredients are needed, using staples which are always in the cupboard such as soy, sake, mirin and ginger.

A single sheet of kombu is placed on top of sushi rice in a japanese casserole dish (with a small outlet to let some, but not all steam escape during cooking), then layered with pieces of sea bream fillet and then the remaining ingredients added.  Lid goes on and straight in the oven – 30 minutes later (allowing 10 mins to rest) and the result is a flavoursome rice with a fishy aroma and moist pieces of sea bream.  A little fresh thinly sliced ginger and spring onion is served on top.

Seared Tuna with Ponzu & Sesame Dressing

A very elegant dish of seared tuna steak marinated in Ponzu dressing, which is a traditionally based on the Japanese lime but can be substituted with lime and lemon juice.  I had never actually seen a yuzu lime before and Reiko promptly defrosted one from the freezer (brought back from Japan), the smell was more akin to a satsuma or clementine.  I tucked into seconds it was so good.

Buta – Kakuni (Slow Cooked Pork Belly)

A really comforting and hearty dish, reminiscent of Uyen Leluu’s Vietnamese Thit Heo Kho Tring (Braised Pork Belly in Cider & Coconut Juice) in the sweetness and richness of the sauce which envelops the pork belly after slow cooking.  The pork was cooked with leeks along with the usual mirin, soy, sake, dashi, ginger and Japanese mustard.  Served with al dente green beans and a little fresh grated ginger for contrast.

Smoked Mackeral Kombu Rolls

Not on the itinerary for the evening, Reiko showed us a novel way of re-using leftover Kombu after making dashi stock.  Smoked Mackeral was simply rolled in pieces of Kombu and secured with lengths of spring onion, then simmered in a dashi, mirin and soy broth and served in bite size pieces.  The mackerel and kombu flavours worked really well.

Week 4

Chirashi Zushi – Salmon Special

Chirashi Zushi is typically known as an assortment of raw fish served on a bed of sushi rice.  Reiko’s offering included Salmon 3 ways – raw, cooked (using slightly salted Wild Alaskan Salmon) and Ikura (salmon roe) to create an eye-catching, fresh and delicate dish.  This rice is also interspersed with shiso mint, nori, avocado, shredded japanese omelette and sesame seeds.  I could eat this for breakfast, lunch and dinner.  

Mizore – Jiru – Cloudy Soup

‘Mizore’ translates as Sleet in Japanese, an apt name for this soup with the addition of grated daikon radish giving a sleety/snowy appearance and texture.  This soup was refreshing, with slices of deep fried tofu and julienned carrots and sliced spring onion.

Beef Tataki and Creamy Sesame Sauce

Another triumph, rare cooked fillet steak served with shredded sweet white onion, crispy garlic and an intense Sesame sauce.  The garlic added a depth of flavour and crunch to the dish whilst the sweet onions lifted and cleansed after the rich tahini sauce.

Monk Fish with Porcini and Citrus Ponzu Soy Butter

Hunks of monkfish are dusted in a little seasoned cornflour and pan fried and served with mixed mushrooms cooked in a similar fashion to the Tofu Steak and Japanese Mushrooms dish above.   The dish is lifted with a citrus ponzu sauce, Reiko used a bottled Yuzu lime juice which is handy to know.  This provided a nice zing which suited the meaty monkfish well.  Reiko also served this with a light watercress and apple salad.

Verdict – I thoroughly recommend Reiko’s Gourmet Cookery Course.  At £280 it doesn’t come cheap but the quality of ingredients, number of dishes taught and Reiko’s wealth of knowledge make it money well spent.  It won’t be long till I am signed up for the next course I’m sure.  Reiko sells a few specialist cookware items imported from Japan (not for profit) – I purchased a ginger grater and Tamago pan (for omelettes).  She has also released her cookbook this year ‘Hashi Cooking’ (pictured above) which contains all the recipes covered on the course plus many more.  I have it (gracefully signed by Reiko herself!), and it lives in the kitchen instead of the lounge bookshelf which says it all really.