OTAO Kitchen is a Vietnamese cooking school run by Ha Nguyen and Ricky Hewton on Richmond’s Victoria street, which is well known for its Vietnamese restaurants and grocery stores. I was invited to attend one of the cooking classes late last year and keenly accepted, given my love to Vietnamese food and the country itself.
There were 6 of us in attendance on the night, with each class limited to a maximum of 10 people to ensure that there’s a certain level of intimacy with attendees getting ample time with Ha and Ricky both individually and as part of the group.
The cooking stations are set up really well, with there being ample space for each person to cook their dishes. There are a few different classes that are offered at OTAO Kitchen – I attended the “Street Foods of Saigon” class.
Chef Ha is clearly very passionate about Vietnamese food and this is evident throughout the class. To start, we went through the fresh herbs and spices that are most commonly used in Vietnamese cooking, with the purpose and flavour profiles of each ingredient explained.
Freshness is a hallmark of Vietnamese cooking however Ha was mindful of the realities of many of our lives and throughout the night would let us know of shortcuts that we could take if we were short of time when cooking. For example not everyone has the ability to source and make their own allspice mix so an off the shelf pre-ground allspice mix is perfectly acceptable. All the ingredients we used on the night however were fresh.
The first thing that we made was Nuoc Cham (Dipping Sauce). This was to be used with our next dish. We were given the basic recipe and told to tweak it to our own tastes. It was interesting to see which attendees preferred which flavours with this sauce that combines sweet, sour, salty and bitter sensations.
While nothing felt rushed, there were certain things that Ha showed us how to make or that he had pre-prepared due to time constraints. For example Ha showed us how to make pancake batter but we did not make our own.
What we did was prepare the fillings for the Banh Xeo (Saigon Pancake with Mung Bear, Pork & Seafood) as well as cooking the pancakes using the batter that Ha had prepared.
The finished product was delicious, especially when dipped in the Nuoc Cham.
Next we prepared Banh Ran (Deep Fried Sesame Balls with Yam Filling)
We actually used chocolate instead of yam to fill our Banh Ran. Ha explained how these are very common in Vietnam, with the filling changing depending on the season and occasion. I liked that we were given a bit of history about each dish and told about how it fits into everyday life in Vietnam. I also loved his anecdotes about growing up in Hanoi.
The next dish was Ga La Chuoi (Chicken in Banana Leaves) and involved the whole class getting together and using banana leaves to wrap up a chicken mixture that Ha had made in front of us.
Next was the dish which was probably my favourite of the night. Ca Kho To (Caramelised Fish in Claypot). Everyone in the class succeeded in making their caramel without burning it which was impressive.
The chicken we had prepared earlier was cooked traditionally over hot coals while the group sat outside and ate dinner, consisting of what we had cooked throughout the night. A good portion of the night was spent outside just eating and chatting and I had loads of fun getting to know everyone else in attendance as well as Ha and Ricky.
The Banh Ran post deep frying for dessert had a crunchy outside and a really gelatinous texture inside.
I really enjoyed the “Street Foods of Saigon” cooking class at OTAO Kitchen. The ingredients used were great quality and fresh, having been mostly sourced from the Vietnamese markets in Richmond and Footscray. I learned some new skills and realised just how easy it is to cook certain Vietnamese dishes which, despite my knowledge of Vietnamese food, is not something that I had attempted before.
Ha and Ricky are really down to earth guys and Ha’s passion for the food of his homeland really comes through in the class. Highly recommended for anyone with an interest in cooking and Vietnamese food.
360 Victoria Street