Tag Archives: Asian

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).

IMG_3477

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.

IMG_3113

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.

IMG_3114

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.

IMG_3154

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.

Advertisements

Review of Asian Tofu by Andrea Nguyen

Image

Ever heard of tofu noodles? I hadn’t, since here in the UK we’re sadly not as well stocked on Asian ingredients as our cousins in the US. But if you’re a fan of Vietnamese home cooking, then you better have heard about Andrea Nguyen. Her blog, Viet World Kitchen, is an invaluable regular resource that provides great cooking advice from everyday meals to special holidays like the Tet festival. Her famous debut cookbook, Into The Vietnamese Kitchen, is one of my best Vietnamese cookbooks despite that it is very meaty, simply because Nguyen’s flavours are always excellent. Just swap, say, the chicken in her lemongrass and ginger curry for mock chicken, and the effect is still brilliant.

Nguyen has the great ability to impart detailed advice on basic to advanced cooking tips whilst keeping her writing extremely accessible to any home-cook. Even more rarely for cookery writers, she synthesises her ability to impart technical knowledge with fluent, original and fascinating writing about Vietnamese and Asian food culture and history. And so I was thrilled to see recently that she had published Asian Tofu, thinking how great it would be to read an Asian/Vietnamese cookbook with predominantly Vegetarian recipes for once!

Asian Tofu is an unusual gem of a book, combining vast amounts of information about Asia, food and cooking into a rich resource with unexpected levels of depth. You might think a cook book succinctly titled Asian Tofu would be a simple affair – I’ve read tofu books that certainly are. Indeed, tofu is an ingredient derived from the humble soy bean; a crop that Nguyen notes was cultivated in China largely because it simply gave a good yield in poor soil. But this book shows you how wrong you are if you think tofu, this staple Asian delicacy, is simple. Even I found the book challenged my preconceptions, despite that I’ve been cooking with tofu for years now. The book has so much new information that it bears reading more than once and trying out a couple of recipes before you really start breaking into it and becoming completely confident, but the results will drastically improve your cooking.

Not only does Nguyen provide simple but game-changing tofu cooking tips and detailed buying guides in her introduction that I have NEVER found in other cookbooks, she also traces the foodstuff’s history in Asia, detailing its spread from country to country from medieval Japan to 20C India. This journey is then mirrored in the following recipe chapters, each section opening with beautiful photographs and stories of a particular destination that Nguyen has researched in her book, such as a tiny local tofu making shop in the suburbs of Tokyo; a Sichuanese University professor’s impromptu home dinner party; a famous Taiwanese vegan restaurant serving briny mock eel. What is fascinating is that tofu is loved differently from place to place, with the Japanese and Koreans in particular preferring softer, silken forms of mouth-wateringly fresh tofu garnished simply, whereas further South in China, Vietnam and Thailand tofu is often enjoyed fried with a deliciously crispy and chewy outer layer and accompanied with vegetables and other ingredients.

Nguyen encourages the home-cook to explore all the different methods of cooking tofu, even mixing and matching different styles, with an interesting chapter opening on young second generation American Asians who are developing new ways to use tofu in Western or fusion styles, such as Eddie Huang’s ‘Tofu Hamburger’ with sweet chilli sauce. My personal favourite section was ‘Salads and Sides’, which has an abundance of highly flavoursome and fresh dishes such as ‘Spicy Lemongrass Tofu Salad’ and ‘Spicy Yuba Ribbons’.

IMG_3495

My attempt at Nguyen’s Vietnamese Lemongrass Fried Tofu (Dau Phu Xao Xa Ot). The tofu is deep fried and then fried again in curry spices and coconut milk so that the outer layer has fantastic flavour and texture.

So far I’ve been cooking up the Vietnamese recipes, such as ‘Lemongrass Fried Tofu’ and ‘Tofu and Tomato Soup’, and the results have been some of the best tofu I’ve ever eaten. Just blanching and draining the tofu, something I’ve never previously been taught to do properly, has had a huge impact on texture and flavour absorption. The next step is to follow the enticing looking guide to making fresh tofu from scratch at home, with the results apparently being akin to the difference between shop bought and home-made bread. And when that time comes I’ll be sure you update you here…

IMG_3510 IMG_3514

(Photos of Lemongrass Fried Tofu by Luke Walker)

Vegetarian Summer Rolls (Gỏi cuốn)

Image

The mint leaves are rolled into the last layer of the wrappers, so that the green shines brightly through the translucent rice. Strips of carrots give the summer rolls a pink hue.

Last week I was lucky enough to help out at my first Grub Club pop up event, hosted by the brilliant and energetic Sharon and Eliza at Miss Manchu. Sharon is Malaysian Australian and an expert in Pan Asian cooking, and she designed a 6 course menu ranging from a starter of deep fried son-in-law eggs and Vietnamese prawn summer rolls to Chinese style pork buns and Thai pandan pancakes with lychee ice cream and bubble tea. We were catering for 40, and so as soon as I arrived at 1pm I was put to chopping 40 chilies, gutting 40 prawns (a slightly uncomfortable new for me) and rolling 40 summer rolls.

As soon as that was done I set about making as many green pandan pancakes, which took about an hour and a half because the pancakes needed to be cooked slowly on each side to avoid them from browning, and then needed to be rolled with a sweet coconut filling just like the summer rolls. We finished cooking that night past 11pm! And I left happy and satisfied with a tub of Sharon’s delicious home-made lychee ice cream in tow.

So as you can see I have summer rolls and rolling in general on the mind, having picked up a tip or two from both Sharon as well as Nhu – a lovely and skilful fellow sous-cheffer. Urged on by the late onset of spring, since then I’ve been making batches of summer rolls at home, and so here’s my recipe using tofu, mushrooms and peanuts:

Recipe (makes 8 rolls):

20g rice vermicelli, soaked in boiling water for 4 minutes then refreshed under cold water.
3 dried shitake mushrooms, soaked in hot water for 20 minutes.
1 carrot, sliced into julienne strips
100g tofu
1/2 jicama (optional), julienne sliced and then fried gently for 3 minutes.
16 mint leaves plus extra for serving
8 Thai basil leaves
5g of coriander, coarsely chopped.
8 circular dried rice wrappers
Nuoc Cham Sauce (click here for recipe)

Slice the tofu into thin strips, about 1 cm thick and 5 cm long, and shallow fry them in a wok in hot oil until they begin to turn golden. Remove and place them on kitchen roll to absorb excess oil, then slice lengthways again to make them thinner. Set aside with other filling ingredients. Slice rehydrated mushrooms into thin strips, about 2 mm wide.

Soak a rice wrapper in a bowl hot water, turning the edges like a wheel so that the whole sheet becomes wet. As it starts to soften, place the wrapper carefully on a hard, moistened work surface. Then place 4 strips of tofu horizontally about 5cm away from the bottom edge. On top of this add two slices of mushrooms, about 5 batons of carrot, a couple of batons of jicama if using, a sprinkle of chopped peanuts, two mint leaves, a sprinkle of coriander and about half a tablespoon of vermicelli. The shape should be that of a small, horiztonal sausage.

Now, carefully roll up the bottom edge of the wrapper until it has covered the ingredients, and then do another half roll over the top. Then fold each side edge of the wrapper to the centre over the sides of the filling, trying to avoid any creases or folds. No carefully go back to rolling the filling towards the top of the remaining wrapper. Before the last roll of the filling, place a Thai basil leaf face down about 2 cm from the top edge of the wrapper, which will then be rolled in at the top of the summer roll as in the picture above.

Invite eaters to wrap the rolls in crispy lettuce to add a crunch to each bite, and dip in the nuoc cham sauce as they go.

(Photo by Luke Walker)

Tofu and Cashew Nut Curry

So, in celebration of the Yan Kit So award (see my last post), here’s a brand new recipe:

IMG_3423

The turmeric blends with the coconut milk and lemongrass to create a rich, subtly sweet sauce, that gradually absorbs into the tofu and cashews as they simmer gently. And the green Thai Basil and fresh red chillies contrast sharply with the mild flavours and the all consuming yellow…

This mild curry was inspired by the many delicious recipes for lemongrass tofu that you find in the South of Vietnam. Vietnamese curries are elegant – delicate but very fragrant, with abundant use of lemongrass, ginger and fresh chillies, as you will see… Although I’ve not often found tofu with cashew nuts together in Vietnamese cookery both are used individually and go very well together. Credit goes to my partner and colleague Luke for the idea to add cashews (coconut milk was my idea)! We’ve been working on different lemongrass tofu recipes for years, and this is a good one.

Recipe (serves 4):

450g block of firm tofu, chopped into 2cm cubes
3 stalks of lemongrass, chopped very finely or grated
2 chillies, chopped finely
3 garlic cloves, chopped finely
1 inch piece of garlic, peeled and chopped very finely or grated
165ml coconut milk
80 ml water (or coconut milk for a richer sauce)
1 1/2 tsp turmeric, ground
100g cashews
1tsp lime juice
2 tbsp thin soy sauce
A handful of Thai Basil leaves, roughly chopped
1 1/2 – 2 tsp ground black pepper
1/2 tsp sugar
salt, to taste

Fry the garlic, chillies and ginger on a low medium heat for 3 minutes, then add the lemongrass and fry for another 2 minutes.

Add the tofu, coconut milk, water, nuts, lime juice, soy sauce and sugar, then cover and simmer gently for 5 minutes, stirring whilst being careful not to break up the tofu too much. Add the salt and pepper, then simmer for another 5 minutes, or until the sauce has reached your desired consistency. Take off the heat and leave for at least 30 minutes (the longer the better, it will taste better the day after). Reheat and stir through the Thai basil, and serve with fresh rice and a vegetable dish.

(Photo by Luke Walker)