I took a cooking class in up in the beautiful town of Sapa, located in the Hoàng Liên Son Mountains of northwest Vietnam. Mostly because I had no idea what people from that region ate, and the cooking class promised to teach me a few local, traditional dishes. Sapa is a trekkers town and there are lots of different types of restaurants catering to western cuisine. What kind of food was unique to Sapa? I had tasted a few dishes but I wanted to cook some for myself. The Black H’mong people of Sapa immigrated from China approximately 300 years ago and live in villages surrounding Sapa, making it easy for groups to organize visits to check out their famous embroidery and jewelry. But what did they eat?
Luckily for me, or maybe it was fate, our guesthouse was very close to The Hill Station, a restaurant run by two Europeans that employed a H’mong cook from one of the hillside villages- and they not only offered local dishes, but they also had a cooking class available. I did have a peek around the town and there was one other cooking class available that I considered going with, but we’d had 2 solid meals at The Hill Station so I decided to book a class with them.
My 3 hour cooking class included 5 dishes, a trip to the market, and a local wine tasting along with getting to eat what we created at the end of our class.
Smoked buffalo with local pickled vegetable
Traditional homemade tofu served two ways
Chicken with wild ginger
Ash baked trout wrapped in banana leaf
Traditional h’mong style black pudding
Now I knew from a previous tour that buffalo was something eaten for special occasions but that didn’t mean I couldn’t learn how to prepare it. We started at 9am on a cold, windy, rainy day. The weather fluctuates wildly in November, one day it’s hot and sunny, the next day is rainy and cold. And windy. We hopped into a taxi with our instructor and headed towards the market.
I always like going to wet markets because you can really feel the life of a place there. Literally, everyone around the world eats food and this is always the best place to see what they are eating.
We gathered our ingredients (blood, intestine lining, buffalo, fish) and headed back to the restaurant to cook.
Highlights of what I learned that day:
-Tofu is not like the tofu in the US, it is simply boiled but left with the consistency of cottage cheese, and actually tasted quite good
-Buffalo is eaten for special occasions such as weddings or funerals or gatherings. It is not an everyday meal as the buffalo are used in the fields for work.
-Some ingenuity was involved when it came to getting the blood inside of the black pudding (which is a blood sausage) using the plastic top of a juice bottle is genius. Somebody get this Chef a funnel
-When you mix fresh pig blood with garlic and herbs it can taste pretty interesting. Also, when cooking blood sausages, halfway through the cooking process you must take them out and pierce them with a toothpick or they could burst (and essentially be ruined.) When you are piercing the sausage, hot blood may squirt on you and burn you, so you have to be careful.
-For whatever reason, I thought we were actually going to make a sweet pudding dessert so was kind of shocked to realize it was the British term for blood sausage and not some kind of tasty cake. Insert sad face here.
-The seasonings were basic in the sense that garlic, ginger, lemongrass and chile were the foundation of most of the dishes. It’s not a bad thing, I was just hoping for more creativity.
The only dish we didn’t eat that we made was the buffalo because that requires an overnight curing high in the wood fire so, we just pulled the one that had been curing from the day before and finished preparing it by slicing it, cooking it with garlic, and obviously eating it! The saltiness I loved, it was delicious. Here is our finished product!
I’m not a huge sushi fan so the trout that we cooked over the fire in the banana leaf was a bit too under cooked for my liking, so I left it to my companion to devour. It was just the two of us, there was no way to finish all of this food ourselves so we called in Michael for reinforcements! He was more than happy to join in our tasting lunch. As we were visiting Sapa during the winter season, there were less people than say, the busier summer season so I appreciated that the cooking class did not count on attendance to happen. If it was just me, or 2 people, they would still run it. That is pretty nice as some places will only do it with say, a minimum of 4+ people or so.
The Hill Station also runs a boutique hotel on site and it did look beautiful, however our budget only allowed for 1 cooking class. The food here is definitely more expensive than other places in town but again it was so close to our guest house that we were more than happy to eat there. Also, Thanksgiving was a splurge when I wanted to eat something fancy. Ok, fried chicken might not be fancy, but you know what I mean.
Would I recommend this cooking class? The price was more or less the same as the other cooking class on offer in town. And to be fair, I did see the menu of what we’d be making before I booked it, so not like there were any surprises. In the future I might try the other school. The food was delicious and the tasting was great, as was the local wine. It was a perfectly acceptable rainy day activity. So what do locals eat in Sapa? I’m not sure I’ll ever know all of it- but I got a tiny idea of the main dishes from my cooking class, which is more than I knew before.
Want to learn more? Click anywhere in the orange box below to head to the Hill Station website.
Have you ever taken a cooking class? Where was it? Let us know in the comments!