Monday, 15 April 2013

Review - The Junk Food Cooking School, Docklands, Melbourne

A couple of weeks ago I had the pleasure of being asked to join my friend Tanya in a Vietnamese cooking class on a Chinese junk (formerly a brothel moored in Footscray, now casually moored in the harbour at Docklands). Tan's husband, you see, had quite obligingly suffered a bout of gout that week and so I was chosen as the person who would most appreciate it. And boy, did I appreciate his pain. Thanks, Mark! :)
The Junk Food Cooking School is run by a lovely woman named Hazel, and there are classes on various cuisines available throughout the year. I wanted to attend the Mexican class quite badly, but I'm being moved to a FIFO roster at work and am not sure which weekends I will be available to fly back to Melbourne, so I guess I'll have to let that one slide for now. Boo :(

In the meantime, I have done the Good Morning, Vietnam! cooking class and discovered just how simple (and healthy) Vietnamese food is. Because it's been a while since I posted a recipe I'll post my favourite one, but if you want the rest of them you'll jolly well have to attend the class ;) I don't have any qualms in posting this as similar recipes are widely available on the internet and so there are no trade secrets being given away, but I do encourage you to go along to a class. You'll be glad you did.

Two things struck me about the food we cooked: One, even though we made seven different dishes (including dessert), I wasn't completely stuffed full - the food was light, and not at all greasy; and two, the same ingredients were used again and again - chilli, lemongrass, fish sauce, sugar, salt, pepper, vinegar. So it's really not one of those cuisines where you need lots of fiddly things. I don't know about the rest of you, but I already have all of those things in one form or another in regular circulation in my pantry. Now all I need is a garden with some herbs in and I'll be set.

The classes were well-run, and Hazel was open to questions about dietary requirements etc. She has herself been recently diagnosed as caeliac, so I do know that at least the cooking class I did was gluten free and I wouldn't be at all surprised if some of the others were, too.
Our class had around ten people in it, and there was a cooking/prep work/demo table at one end of the junk and a dining table and chairs at the other. We were also given a choice of bubbles, wine or beer to drink (plus water, coffee and tea) with our meal, which I didn't expect and which I thought was a nice touch. You could participate as much or as little as you liked, with everyone standing around the demonstration table and Hazel getting people to participate in various ways. As the class wore on we found that the group naturally involved itself and took it in turns, so Hazel didn't have to do too much directing. I guess we had a good group dynamic.
The class lasted four or five hours, including eating the meal and checking out laughing at the buck's night (well, day) boats going in and out of the harbour. You should wear closed-toe, comfortable shoes because you are on your feet for a lot of that time (that, and you don't want to drop a knife or hot oil on your bare foot), but I imagine you could just as easily sit back and watch if you wished. Personally, I'm a more hands-on sort of gal, especially in the kitchen.

Chilli and Lemongrass Curry - The Junk Food Cooking School.
500g chicken Marylands, chopped into 3 pieces and excess fat and skin removed
1tsp sugar
1/2tsp salt and 1tsp black pepper
2tbsp fish sauce
2tbsp vegetable oil
2 lemongrass stems, white part only finely chopped and pounded, bash remaining ends
2 garlic cloves, crushed
3 birds eye chillies, thinly sliced
90mL water
2 spring onions, sliced on the diagonal
1 bunch Chinese broccoli or other Asian greens
2 birds eye chillis, sliced, to garnish
1/2 bunch coriander leaves, to garnish.

Combine fish sauce with sugar, salt and black pepper. Stir to dissolve sugar.

Add chicken pieces, stir to coat then cover and chill for half an hour.

Meanwhile pound lemongrass in mortar and pestle until it goes powdery. Fry on medium heat until golden.

Pound garlic and add to wok with chilli and cook until fragrant.

Add chicken and marinade and stir-fry for around 10 minutes until coloured. Chicken does not need to be cooked through at this stage. Add water and bashed lemongrass ends and bring to the boil then reduce heat and cook, with lid on, for approx. 20 minutes until the chicken is cooked through.

Just before serving add greens and spring onions and cook a further 2 minutes then serve garnished with chillis and coriander.

It won't look pretty, but you'll be surprised at how rich and flavoursome it is!

We made seven dishes in all - a variation on a rice paper roll, with a prawn and pork sausage in the middle along with herbs, rice noodles and a peanut sauce; sugar cane prawns; pork spareribs braised in coconut water; chicken, chilli and lemongrass curry; coconut rice; green mango salad; and sticky rice to finish off. Today I have shared with you the chicken, chilli and lemongrass curry because it packed such a flavour punch, and also because I was downright shocked that it didn't contain coconut milk - the sauce was just so creamy. It's definitely one going on regular rotation in my kitchen!

Besides the curry we made sugarcane prawns (seen here sitting on a green mango salad)

Pork spareribs braised in coconut water

 Coconut rice

Rice paper rolls with a prawn and pork sausage 

And sticky rice with banana for dessert.
What a feast!

 In addition to plenty of food, drinks and a cooking lesson you also get a snazzy red apron as part of your ticket price. Which is just as well because I get an apron grubby just about every time I use it, so multiple aprons are a must in my life!
 I get the impression the classes do book out fairly quickly, so if you want to book several places then plan well in advance. Hazel does run private classes, though, which could be an option for a hen's night or a work function. I'm not sure whether the price is any different, but it would definitely be worth a look. Included in the normal price is the class, the (multi-course) meal, a drink or two, an apron and a booklet of recipes (I assume that applies across the board for all classes), which I think makes it very good value for money. All in all I recommend the Junk Food Cooking School for a nice day out with friends, or as a gift for someone.


  1. This sounds amazing! Vietnamese food is one of my favourites - I did a cooking class in Vietnam when I was there and looking at this really reminds me of that. What a great day you must have had!

    1. Perfect weather, too! I couldn't have asked for a better day. I did a cooking class in Thailand and was surprised by how quick and easy it was, but I think Vietnamese is easier still. Guess I'll have to book a holiday to confirm that!

  2. Your title got me! I thought, Junk Food lessons?! I absolutely love the idea of running the classes on a junk, a former brothel, no less! That's an amazing idea, I run my classes in my kitchen, a boat would be soo good! And yes, isn't Vietnamese too delicious?!

    1. It tricked me, too! I can't wait to branch out a bit and try more recipes :)

  3. Oh I can almost smell that delicious meal! You definitely rock that apron! Now I am going to troll the internets for some cooking classes!

    1. Haha thanks, Em! Definitely give a class a go, particularly a class for Asian food. I did a Thai class when I was in Thailand, and same as the Vietnamese, I couldn't believe how many things you could make out of the same few ingredients. Plus Asian food is mostly quite healthy (except the deep fried bits and the things swimming in coconut milk!).

  4. Hi, Vanessa: looks amazing and what a great post and a fun day!

    1. It truly was a lot of fun, Carole. I highly recommend it (or, location being an issue, I'm sure there are others like it around the world)!

  5. Awesome post! All the dishes looks yummy. The Junk Food Cooking School is one the best Cooking School in Melbourne. The images of the dishes is mouth watering. Thanks for sharing this valuable post with us.


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