That phrase is used so often that it is easy to become indifferent to such claims. Yet for myself and my wife, our recent holiday to Vietnam truly was such an experience as it opened us to a very different country, culture and, most importantly, cuisine.
And it was a singular event in that holiday that both broke down my preconceptions of, and ingited my passion for, cooking.
At the start of our trip, after a day in Hanoi, we embarked on a two day cruise in the tranquil paradise of Halong Bay in the north east of the country. It was there that we first encountered Vietnamese dishes, cooked directly in front of us and served up for immediate consumption. It was a sublime and welcome assault on the senses – all of these new colours, aromas and flavours that I had not experienced before. The food itself was absolutely delicious, I could taste all of the individual ingredients and how they combined together.
The following afternoon in a cooking class, we had the opportunity to make our own spring rolls. I packed in the shrimp, vermicelli, sliced carrot and cilantro, wrapping it up and then ate my very own creation. It was delicious. This was swiftly followed by going to back to make a second. And third. And a cheeky fourth when the host wasn’t looking.
Thus began the debunking of the notion that cooking was unattainable, at least to me. From that point onwards, wherever we went on the tour we insisted to our guide that we should eat in traditional Vietnamese restaurants and cafes (as opposed to the buffet-style western food in hotels that were part of the holiday package).
As a result of this, in our expedition from the north to the south of the country we discovered the delights of Bun Bo Hue (spicy beef noodle soup) in the imperial city of Hue, Com Ga (chicken rice) in the silk producing town of Hoi An and Cha Ca La Vong (tumeric fish with dill) in the bustling capital city of Hanoi, to name but a few.
At each restaurant, I would ask our tour guide about the dishes we were enjoying. It was these conversations, where our guide explained in simple steps how the meals were prepared, that continued to encourage the notion that cooking was a capability within my grasp. It also demonstrated how important food is to the country’s culture and history.
This was emphasised when myself and my wife met up with some Vietnamese work colleagues in Saigon as one of the first topics of conversation was where we had visited and what we had eaten. The team roundly approved of our tour guide’s choices.
So after a month in Vietnam (and Cambodia) we returned home, filled with resolve to explore this new world of cooking.
The rest, as they say, is history …