French Vietnamese

The audio for my presentation with Fuchsia Dunlop at Asia House is June is up. Happily, it went well, with a lot of kind questions and comments from the audience, despite one of the menu items, lemongrass creme brûlée, having to be dropped at the last minute due to serving bowl supply issues.

Fuchsia was a very generous interviewer, and amongst my friends it was lovely to see Freya, who supported my project at Asia House last year, as well as my university tutor, Lara, and my editor at the F-word, Ania. It was also excellent to work with the very vital Betty Yao and Paul Bloomfield, an old friend of Yan Kit So’s, who donated his catering expertise on the night.

Since then I’ve been working on my book proposal, rooting and growing some of the herbs that I used at the event onto my new terrace, and planning another trip to Marseille at the end of August to visit some of my Vietnamese family (+ attending to life admin, of course).

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Vietnamese Bal, (Kinh giới) on the left, and Perilla ( Tía tô) on the right.

I’ve been thinking a lot about France since going to Vietnam last year. I spent 6 days in Paris in April, since a friend of a friend of a friend, Chloe, was kind enough to lend me and Luke her little student residence studio in Montreuil, while she was at home for the Easter holidays.

I’d never spent long in Paris, although my dad had told me stories of incredible Vietnamese restaurants he’d been taken to in Paris’ Chinatown by my mum’s taxi-driver brother, Gerard, tales of decadent feasts and the lightest shredded beef salads imaginable. We struggled to find Vietnamese restaurants that even served any Vegetarian dishes in Paris, which goes to show how much the French love their meat, more exclusively than the Vietnamese or the British.

We finally found a little place in Belleville called Cyclo that did a vegetarian version of Bun Cha Gio – spring rolls and fried tofu on a noodle salad bed. Although the spring rolls were a little bland, the tofu was soft and well coated in a thickened soy sauce, and the bowl was dressed with delicious shreds of soft, caramelised red onion. This was not the onion-free, vegan Buddhist cookery I encountered so often in Vietnam. The overall effect was richer, with deeper, more meat-like flavours and textures than in tofu you get in the UK and Vietnam, which tends to just be fried hard, not marinated and soft.

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On the dessert menu was further evidence of decadent style French/Vietnamese hybrid cooking: a luxuriant Mango Creme Brûlée. There was no mango flavour in the creme, it came simply as a piece of fresh mango grilled atop the sugar, and almost looked like a piece of caramelised Vietnamese style clapypot fish.

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The owner of Cyclo, hailing from the South of Vietnam, claimed his tofu dish was a regional speciality, a Cambodian hybrid. Since I’d eaten versions of this dish in parts of Northern Vietnam, I was quietly sceptical. Indeed, at another good Vietnamese restaurant we visited with Chloe in Paris – Au Vietnam going towards Chinatown – the owner also explained the origin of another innovative soft and fresh tofu dish, this one served in a light sauce with fresh mango and lychees. She explained why it was called ‘Imperial’ tofu: it was a family recipe, and her family had apparently been Vietnamese nobility, which is supposedly why I had never encountered it in Vietnam.

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It was interesting to hear these various origin myths, which Vietnamese restauranteurs in England don’t seem to be as bothered about sharing. I suppose French restaurant go-ers are more keen to hear romantic stories of their country’s colonial history. And it seems that French restaurant-goers also expect something a little more from their tofu, they expect it to be rendered, flavoured and textured as you would cook meat, which is a good lesson for any vegetarian gourmande.

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