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The Vegetarian Vietnamese: Food From The Jade Cave

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I’m excited to be building up to my presentation on 17th June at Asia House, where I will be interviewed by the renown Sichuanese Food writer, Fuchsia Dunlop, accompanied by lots of Luke’s beautiful photographs from Vietnam. I’ll be discussing the findings from my research into Vegetarian cuisine over there, via pagodas, vegan restaurants and the kitchens of many an excellent home chef, all with the help of Vietnamese friends and the Vietnamese embassy in the UK. We’ll then be serving everyone up a small platter of taster veggie Vietnamese food, recipes picked up along the trail, including ginger caramelised tofu, coconut and kohlrabi salad, mushroom spring rolls on a noodle salad bed and a lemongrass Creme Brûlée. Luke’s even preparing a soundtrack of all the field recordings he made in Vietnam. I’ve been testing the recipes myself and with Paul Bloomfield, who has kindly offered to sponsor the event, being a great friend of Yan Kit’s.

For more information and tickets see here, Asia House will also be launching the next 2014 Yan Kit So bursary for the next lucky aspiring Asian food writer to go travelling http://asiahouse.org/events/yan-kit-memorial-award/

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Lemongrass Low Down

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The tofu curry makes its way down the long table

I’ve been tardy posting in the last month, and have lots of things to update you with. It’s Monday afternoon in Vietnam and I’m actually sitting in my Vietnamese friend Lily’s (who you might remember from earlier blogs) parents’ house in Hanoi as I type this and it’s suddenly started pouring down very very hard with monsoon rain outside the window. Her mum is sitting in her shrine on the balcony upstairs, and I can hear the sound of her repeating her buddhist prayers and the banging of the gongs. After a meal of tofu in tomato sauce, mock squid fritters, mushroom and morning glory soup and bean sprout and mushroom stir fry, (accompanied by rambutans, guava and fresh soy milk) Luke and I have just had a much needed jetlag nap. Later today we will be visiting the Pagoda that LIly’s mum frequents to meet the monks and enquire about whether I might be able to participate in the next feast they prepare there.

But I’ll update you about our arrival weekend later. First we need to recap: It was only been 3 and a half weeks between our Lemongrass vegetarian Vietnamese pop up restaurant and going to Vietnam, a bit of a whirlwind summer for us in general. Firstly, Lemongrass, which I organised with my friend Fran – aka verde – and my photographer partner, Luke aka The Silt Log, was a real success!

We ended up serving 26 people and were slightly oversubscribed, since at the last moment the Granta nominated Chinese novelist, Xiaolu Guo, trekked down from Vauxhall from Hackney to claim her VIP ticket. Of our 8 different dishes – mini summer rolls 3 ways,  lemongrass marinated tofu urry, mango salad, fruit up, sticky rice and black bean pudding, lemongrass ice cream – the dish that seemed to go down the best was the tofu curry (someone said our tofu curry was ‘sublime’ and ‘melted in my mouth’!) and also the ice cream, so these ones are obviously keepers for the future, and the tofu will definitely go in my future cookbook.

It was an incredible amount of work in the end, luckily we’d been able to do a test run with my friend Nhu and her Vietnamese – Cambodian – Australian buddies the week before, so we were able to see just how much time it would take to chop fresh julienne vegetables for 8 dishes by hand for 30 people! And wrapping 90 mini summer rolls – no mean feat. Luckily I’d pulled in the help of my friend Hang, who works at Velo in London bridge

I’ve written a little post for Asia House that’ll go up tomorrow with a short lowdown of the last few months, which I’ll post up here, but for now you can check out a couple of the positive reviews  we had via the grub club website (one of which definitely seems to have been written by a stranger!) Here are some of Luke’s best pics from the night, there are more on our facebook page.

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Making the Red Room green

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Plated up tofu curry and mango salad

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Plating up the last of the curry with my super helpers

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All’s going well in the kitchen – Fran (verde) gives a thumb’s up

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Assembling the summer rolls

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Showing my cookbooks to the guests

 

 

Lemongrass Pop Up Vietnamese Vegetarian

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Been a busy month organising a new pop up event on the 10th August with my pal Fran at Una Bicicletta Verde. We’re hosting Lemongrass, a 3 course Vietnamese Vegetarian banquet, and our restaurant/cheffy name is Jade and Verde (Jade being my Viet half and Verde being Fran’s Italian half). And we’re doing it all in the private red room of the the Vauxhall Griffin Tavern.

Here’s the menu for Lemongrass:

  • Vietnamese Lemonade (chanh muối)
  • Starter Platter
  • Summer rolls with marinated mock duck (Gỏi cuốn)
  • Mango Salad (Nộm xoài)
  • Main Course
  • Lemongrass and chili marinated tofu curry, served with jasmine rice (Cà ri chay)
  • Dessert
  • Fruit Cup – tropical fruit with condensed milk and ice (hoa quả dầm)
  • A scoop of lemongrass ice cream (Kem Xả)
  • Sweet black bean and rice pudding (Xôi chè đố đen)

The menu is 14.50 without a Vietnamese beer and 16.50 with, the booking site is here on Grub Club, and follow us on @jadeandverde on twitter and facebook/jadeandverde. As it’s our first time we’re aiming to cater to a maximum of 24 so places are limited, and you have to book in advance!

Vietnam Open Fair 2013

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Cakes made from dark green leek leaves coated in batter are deftly re-fried on a huge open wok at the Thanh Binh stall.

I went along to the Vietnam Open Fair last Saturday on the Southbank. Interestingly, it was supposed to celebrate 40 years of diplomatic ties between Britain and Vietnam. Considering it was the British army that reinvaded Vietnam after WW2, brutally suppressing the people’s newly founded independent government, so paving the way for the French to reclaim Vietnam as one of their colonies, which eventually lead to the war with America, I suppose 40 years is no small marker point…

Unfortunately I missed the performances that were featured on the Sunday, but from the Saturday the resounding picture I picked up about Vietnamese culture was overwhelmingly food-orientated. A mini-street of Vietnamese restaurants lined the river bank, with multitudes of dishes on sale. I tried many many very delicious sweet dishes for the first time which made me very happy: Rice flour and mung bean dumplings in ginger syrup would have to be my favourite, deep fried sesame balls with sweet mung bean fillings a close second.

The savoury vegetarian options weren’t too bad either – lots of fried spring rolls, some summer rolls, fried leek cakes and even a fairly tasty slow cooked tofu curry. As you can tell, I went away with a very full stomach. I even managed to get some information about a new type of Vietnamese Export level beer ‘Saigon Special’ that I hope we can stock at our forthcoming supper club at the Vauxhall Griffin, ‘Lemongrass’. Here are some of the best food pics from the day:

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Picked carrot and daikon radish on batons to accompany fried spring rolls with fresh tofu.

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Crinkly cut pandan and taro jellies

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Crinkly cut fruit cup with pandan and taro jellies

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Sweet potato and taro in coconut milk with tapioca pearls.

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Green papaya salad.

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Rice flour dumplings with a sweet mung bean filling in a ginger syrup. Amazing.

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Crinkly cut pink taro jellies.

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The ladies at this stall had an amazing vegetable shredder that made everything they cut look pretty.

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I’m afraid I can’t tell which meat this is (goat?) on skewers grilled in betel leaves!

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The iced Vietnamese coffee from song que, that kingsland road stalwart, was delicious.

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Sticky Rice and Mung Bean Breakfast Parcels and Vietnamese Supper Clubs

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The little package of yellow, turmeric infused steamed glutinous rice is topped by shavings of cream coloured mung beans and sunburnt crispy shallots. 

Taking a break the other day from my lovely green smoothie breakfasts a la Vedged Out, I decided to carb-out and make this popular Hanoian breakfast dish. For some months now it’s been sitting looking yellow and handsome in my copy of Tracey Lister and Andreas Pohl’s book, Vietnamese Street Food, and it was specifically recommended (and requested) by Hang, a new Vietnamese friend who took the time to google search all her favourite Hanoian food that she missed with me. When it got to this dish, the look in her eye was particularly sorrowful and longing – a good sign.

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Although the exact quantities can be found in the Street Food book, you make this dish by soaking glutinous rice and yellow mung beans overnight, steaming the glutinous rice in a kitchen cloth for about 30 minutes with (fresh) turmeric, salt and sugar, boiling the mung beans till soft then squeezing them into a ball and grating it over the top of the rice. You then top with fried shallots and shallot oil or sesame oil if you don’t have that. I hadn’t been able to sleep the night before making this and was worse for wear in the morning, ending up setting fire to the kitchen cloth and burning half of it off while trying to use it to steam the rice. So… be careful.

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I’m more than usual on the hunt for great vegetarian Vietnamese dishes at the moment, since a friend of mine and I are hoping to host our very first, one off Supper Club towards the end of the summer. This is pretty exciting news and I will keep posting with new developments. The Sticky Rice and Mung Bean breakfast parcels turned out to be a bit carby and mild to suit a dinner party menu, but it’s addictive and the rice is so dense that you can use your hands to eat it and it will all hold together! This is a breakfast fit for a workman with delicate flavour sensibilities.

photos by Luke Walker

Asian Food In London: Old Saigon Review and Biang Biang noodles with Mama Wang

Authentic, regional Chinese cuisine – this is a hard gem to find in London as many will know. In fact, I’m just going to put it out there and say good East Asian food is very hard to find in London, certainly if you’re like me and have a £8 mental (and financial) barrier for how much you can bring yourself to spend on the main course at a restaurant. Home is often still where you’ll find the best tasting East Asian food – learn to cook it yourself or find someone who can and barter with them, especially if you’re a vegetarian.

Only last week I went to the new Vietnamese restaurant in Putney, Old Saigon, with high hopes, and I was initially very impressed: the decor was fresh, the shared noodle benches felt modern and convivial. The Banh Xeo was crisper and more textured than I’d ever tasted and a beautiful deep orangey turmeric colour, the lotus stem salad and the green papaya salad both were stunning with strips of fried tofu arranged around the top. Yet they both came only with nuoc mam (fish sauce), not vegetarian at all, and the dressing made the salads taste almost exactly the same. Then came my plate of fried lemongrass tofu, which was initially tasty but after a while all the deep fried tofu started to go down rather heavily, and I even thought I could detect a faint, residual raspy lick of MSG.

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The golden orange Banh Xeo is accompanied by nuoc cham and plenty of lettuce and fresh herbs to wrap around the pancake

Shards of crispy banh xeo made from mung beans, rice flour and turmeric break off to reveal fried tofu and beansprouts.

Shards of crispy banh xeo made from mung beans, rice flour and turmeric break off to reveal fried tofu and beansprouts.

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Fried tofu marinated in nuoc cham based dressing line this lotus stem and shredded vegetable salad.

Fried Lemongrass Tofu

Fried Lemongrass marinated Tofu with fresh chilies and spring onions.

I wish you could go to a Vietnamese restaurant and have tofu that wasn’t deep fried to within an inch of its life. Saigon Saigon in Hammersmith is the only place I’ve been to that serves tofu in more than one way – soft in a claypot with aubergines and mushrooms, or battered in lemograss marinated cornflour to have a thin crust on the outside and a soft interior. And so Old Saigon in Putney gets a 6.5 from me – who knows, if you were eating the meat dishes you might have loved it, but for veggies it was pretty limited – I mean, I would have tried the vegetable curry but I wanted some protein, damnit! I think I even prefer Pho Saigon in Twickenham, another small, West London new Viet place, because even though they also cheekily used fish sauce in otherwise vegetarian dishes, their green papaya salad was a little more fragrant and less flat/swimming in dressing. Pho Saigon is also a little cheaper – our bill at Old Saigon for 4 fairly straightforward dishes, including two light salads, plus rice and a smoothie came to £40, really not that cheap.

And so into this Asian restaurant void is where Grub Club strides, taking home cooking to the max, bridging the gap between amateur and professional cooking. Indeed, many people are excellent cooks, but will tell you that the last thing they’d want is to work in a restaurant – the job is tough and intense and not for everyone who loves food. Liv who heads Grub Club has been great in helping me to hook up as a volunteer with some excellent Asian pop ups, and Mama Wangs one one of the most impressive looking based on their website, almost daunting, their food so refined, their marketing so well considered… They’d already done an amazing, well reviewed 9 course banquet at Asia House, and so I went to help out at a one off dinner in Dalston’s Dead Dolls Club.

The Dead Dolls Club is a great venue because the kitchen is open plan at the back of the dining area, and so you can really tell how much work is going into the food. Jess and Chris, the head of the team, had prepped dozens and dozens of different components and ingredients for the night: there were boxes of different toppings, freshly chopped herbs, dressings, sauces, stews, syrups, buns, cakes… The detail was so thorough and impressive compared to conventional restaurant fare, with the results meaning that each of the 10+ dishes tasted quite unique.

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Behind the scenes: Just a small selection of all the prepped ingredients for the 9 course menu at Mama Wang.

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Yunnan mint salad

Jess and Chris both worked in China for several years, which I’m sure has helped them develop their recipes to such a full degree. I was particularly blown away by a Yunnan salad of large, green mint leaves dressed simply with chilies, pine nuts, sesame oil and vinegar that really spring cleaned the palate. I was in charge of, amongst washing many many dishes, deep frying lotus roots with minced pork in a pork batter, which went remarkably well (apart from that the lotus stems kept sticking to the bottom of the deep fryer…) and plating up the dessert of lemon and red bean cakes drizzled with ginger syrup. But the signature dish, hand made ‘Biang Biang’ noodles, that you have to ‘bang bang’ on the table like pizza dough, was the most visually impressive to see being made by the deft hands of Jess, who kindly made me a vegetarian version at the end of the evening…