Cooking with the Moon

Sometimes when one of your friend’s bike’s breaks down it turns out to be the best thing that could possibly happen.  On a quick drive to the beach with our new Argentine friends, Florencia and Jime (Flor and Jime are two of the coolest, most fun-loving people I’ve met on my trip so far.  They are comprising stories of young adults in Asia on their website  Check it out, if you don’t read Spanish the pages are also available in English by clicking on the flag in the top right corner), Jeff’s chain snapped because the teeth in his gears had become worn down and were no longer catching the chain.  So we pulled into the local mechanic shop next to a huge rice patty field.  Looking past the chain linked fence we noticed an herb garden extending indefinitely into the distance, hidden from the view of the main road.  An old lady, recognizing the interest on our faces, opened up the gate and motioned for us to come take a stroll through the garden.

Martin and Jime learning about herbs from the local farmers.

Martin and Jime learning about herbs from the local farmers.

The aromas permeating from the garden changed with each cool breeze; shifting from spearmint to spicy cilantro to fresh lavender.  As we walked around, we joined in with the local workers in picking weeds as they told us about themselves and the herbs that they spend the majority of every day taking care of.  The oldest lady in the garden, a grandmother who must have been in her 80’s, did not speak a word of English but her impeccable smile, completely genuine, was more expressive than any words could have been.  She laughed and smiled with us, picking an assortment of herbs and offering them to us to smell and taste.  After spending an hour in the garden, Jeff’s bike was repaired and we took a roundabout walk back to the mechanic.

On the left side of the road hung a sign for Baby Mustard Restaurant, advertising daily cooking classes.  It seemed like fate after being in the garden all day and we decided to check it out.  The restaurant is brand new and set in the open air underneath a large bamboo hut.  Here, a 23 year old business graduate named Moon greeted us in perfect English and told us all about the new restaurant.  Looking through the menu it was very difficult to pick out three dishes to cook the next day.  Eventually we settled on a calamari salad, mackerel grilled in banana leaves, and banh xeo (Vietnamese pancakes).

Straight cheffin.

Straight cheffin.

So we woke up early the next morning and made the quick drive to Baby Mustard where an array of fresh ingredients awaited us, neatly laid out in tiny bowls.  After donning our chef’s hats and aprons, we took up our positions behind the cutting boards and gas stoves where we would work our culinary skills under Moon’s tutelage for the next few hours.  Grilling seafood by wrapping it in banana leaves and placing it over a small fire fueled by wood chips was certainly a first for me, and the banana leaves help the meats to retain moisture as they cook through.

Grilling calamari the traditional way.

Grilling calamari the traditional way.

This was followed by a lot of slicing and dicing herbs and vegetables for the calamari salad and creating different sauces and marinades.  One sauce in particular blew all of our minds, which we wound up putting on the calamari salad and dipping our pancakes into.  Here’s the simple recipe:

1.5 big spoons of Sugar

1.5 big spoons of lemon juice

1 tsp chopped red chili peppers

1 big spoon of fish sauce

1 tsp of chopped garlic

A pinch of salt

After a while, the smells of all the dishes coming together were making me ravenous.  So when we got to the pancakes and my first two stuck to the pan and wound up looking more like scrambled eggs, I wasted no time in destroying the evidence of my poor pancake-making skills.  Flor and I laughed whenever we looked down at our mutilated pancakes and watched Jime, Martin, and Jeff flipping their pancakes like pros.  (Moon told us that we could attribute the pancakes sticking to our pans because they were new, but I doubt that they would have looked much prettier if the pan were worn in.)  After all of the dishes were finished, Moon added a little sophisticated flair to our salads by teaching us how to peel a tomato and roll it to resemble a rose.  With all of our food laid out on the table looking sexy (except for Flor and my pancakes) we snapped some pictures, washed up, and enjoyed one of the best meals I’ve ever had.

Jeff  the chef ready to feast in the Far East.

Jeff the chef ready to feast in the Far East.

The calamari salad was a perfect blend of pineapple, herbs, vegetables, and chilis.  The mackerel was moist, smoky, and delicious.  And the pancakes turned out much better than expected.  To eat the pancakes, we dipped rice paper into warm water, placed the pancakes and an assembly of herbs on the paper, and rolled them into giant spring rolls.  Then, we dipped the rolls into the fish sauce mix we made for the calamari salad and savored the blending of beef, shrimp, herbs and sauce.  (Well all of us except for Jime who accidentally rolled everything up on her first attempt and then dipped it into the water, presumably making for a very soggy pancake.)

Moon's smile sums up how awesome of a teacher and person she is.

Moon’s smile sums up how awesome of a teacher and person she is.

I couldn’t have asked for a better instructor than Moon, better company, better food, or a better overall experience.  Afterwards, Moon let us sample some more dishes traditional to her village (such as a sweet corn based dessert) and we spent the next couple hours in conversation with her.  After learning a great deal about everyday life in Vietnam, we left the Baby Mustard restaurant with a greater understanding of life in this beautiful country, and of course, full bellies.