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Expatriates living in Hanoi now have the opportunity to learn to cook Vietnamese dishes for free. The brand new Ajinomoto Cooking Studio has been up and running since June 2017 on the south side of Hanoi, providing free cooking classes every week from Tuesday to Sunday, for different age groups.

Here is how it went last Saturday afternoon, when a group of 25 Japanese women mingled with Vietnamese families in a session of mooncake baking, just in time for the coming Mid-Autumn Festival.

The session started with demonstrations from chef Le Thi Hong Diep, who teaches at the Hanoi College of Tourism. The friendly chef showed her professional and elegant ways with shaping and decorating a mooncake using plastic moulds, and gave clear step-by-step instructions. The whole process was shown on three large screens around the room as well, so participants could easily follow the lesson from the screen.

The real deal, however, was when everybody started making their own mooncake from ingredients readily prepared on the tables. It was a bit chaotic at first, and the Japanese expats were still somewhat confused but eager to learn. The chef and sous chef went to each table to give assistance, and after a while, the participants started to catch on.

Everyone was happily immersed in what they were doing, especially the children. They might be creating quirky shapes from the flour and then proudly showing them to their parents, or playing with the plastic moulds unnoticed. The young women had fun creating different patterns for decoration, and some of them were really artistic.

With nine tables arranged in two circles, each family or group of friends had their own creative space. There was also a sense of competition as some groups tried to finish as quickly as they could, while other groups took their time. Surprisingly, it was the groups with young children that finished faster—perhaps they are used to the pressure of games and contests.

When everyone had been satisfied with their artwork, the mooncakes were put into the three ovens at the back of the class for 10 minutes. This was to be repeated three times before they were finally baked. Meanwhile, refreshments were served, and the chef demonstrated how to make the matcha and green bean fillings that had just been used to make the mooncakes.

As the fillings were being cooked in a pan, the kids gathered around to watch and smell the aroma, and even got to taste the hot fillings after that. Masumi, one of the Japanese ladies, happily explained, “We joined this class because we wanted to experience Mid-Autumn Festival in a different way. We also have mooncakes in Japan, but this is the first time I have ever tried making Vietnamese mooncakes!”

After the mooncakes were done, the participants went home with their own handmade mooncake and a gift bag from Ajinomoto with the recipe inside. They took photos with each other and for each other, and even exchanged emails. The smiles on their faces showed how much fun they had. It was really a good chance for the expats to immerse in local culture and get to know local people.

Those interested in learning more about culinary arts, especially Vietnamese cuisine, are welcome to join similar free sessions at Ajinomoto Cooking Studio. Class schedules can be found at its Facebook page. To register, you can either send an email with the code number of the class you want to join, your name, date of birth, and phone number to [email protected], or call during office hours, and the staff who can speak English will gladly assist you.

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