Tag Archives: Food

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.

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/

Winter Returnals and New Year of the Horse

Happy year of the horse to you all, it’s good to see you again after such a long absence. I’m just about feeling normal again after returning from Vietnam with Luke a couple of months ago. And I can tell you, coming back from here to London after spending the Autumn in 28 C monsooning Vietnam was a brutal shock.

By the end of our travels, we were spending much of the daytime sitting on the pavement making notes and taking snaps whilst drinking fresh soy milk or tropical juice (my favourite was watermelon) and Vietnamese style coffee (an expresso shot mixed with lots of condensed milk and poured over lots ice). As my friend Giang told me in Hanoi, ‘in Vietnam, everything happens in the street’. Cooking, eating, socialising, selling, gambling, chess playing – it all takes place outside in the sun.

A lone cockerel takes a walk down the rainy streets of Hanoi.

A lone cockerel takes a walk down the rainy streets of Hoi An.

Iced Vietnamese Coffee at Tracey Lister’s Hanoi Cook School

Iced Vietnamese Coffee at Tracey Lister’s Hanoi Cook School

Iced lime juice with lemongrass, cinnamon and ginger syrups at Reaching Out Silent Tea House in Hoi An

Iced lime juice with lemongrass, cinnamon and ginger syrups at Reaching Out Silent Tea House in Hoi An

A roving street vendor selling vegetables from her bike in Hanoi

A roving street vendor selling vegetables from her bike in Hanoi

After this, imagine our sensory confusion at entering Costa Coffee at 6am one rainy November morning in Gatwick airport. We had been thrust back into this dark, cold, indoors city, wearing only sandals and multicoloured monsoon macs.

Apart from the weather, one of the biggest differences between the UK and Vietnam was the abundance of strictly vegan (chay) restaurants. They proved to be plentiful in every Vietnamese town we went, mostly run by the local Buddhist pagodas as a way of raising extra money.

A worker having lunch at Buddhist restaurant in Ho Chi Minh City, surrounded by books about the benefits of veganism

A worker having lunch at Buddhist restaurant in Ho Chi Minh City, surrounded by books about the benefits of veganism

Veganism was much more widespread there than it is in the UK. Most Vietnamese go vegan at least one day a month on special days in the Buddhist calendar. Eating vegan (an chay) in Vietnam also means avoiding garlic and onions so as not to inflame the senses. It’s all seen as a way of collecting good karma, and so as full-time vegetarians we were given a very warm welcome and were admired for what was seen as our holy and disciplined characters…

In these ‘chay’ restaurants we ate many special vegan dishes that I collected in my travelling journal. We had salads made from shredded banana blossoms, fresh coconut and kohlrabi, green mango; tofu that was caramelised, deep fried, curried, and marinated; mock meats made from flour spiced and crisped to taste like pork or chicken and then simmered in lemongrass and chopped tomatoes.

(Very) freshly pressed tofu sold at a small neighbourhood market in Hanoi.

(Very) freshly pressed tofu sold at a small neighbourhood market in Hanoi.

Fresh coconut and Kohlrabi salad at one of Hanoi’s most venerable vegan restaurants on Tran Hung Dao Street, in the old French Quarter.

Fresh coconut and Kohlrabi salad at one of Hanoi’s most venerable vegan restaurants on Tran Hung Dao Street, in the old French Quarter.

Occasionally the simplicity of the Buddhist food made it difficult for our palettes, accustomed as they are to the strongly flavoured food vegetarians tend to eat here in the UK. I confess that once or twice we ate pizza and missed hummus…

Even so, through contacts and friends I’d been able to make through The Vietnamese Embassy in the UK and organisations Vietpro and Longdan, we met up with many different home-cooks and chefs throughout Vietnam who were generously showed us into their kitchens of their homes, pagodas, training schools and restaurants.

One of the most special cookery lessons from Ms Anh Tuyet, a lady in the ancient Imperial capital of Hue who specialises in teaching vegan cuisine. Over half a day she taught me 7 local dishes, influenced by Hue’s unique regional vegetables (things like bitter figs and young jackfruit) and its tradition of complex, royal gastronomy.

Fresh green figs, or ‘vả’, commonly used in vegetarian cooking in Hue.

Fresh green figs, or ‘vả’, commonly used in vegetarian cooking in Hue.

Ms Anh Tuyet’s royal Hue cockerel, with dragon fruit for a body and chillies for a crown. His feathers are made from vegan spring rolls.

Ms Anh Tuyet’s royal Hue cockerel, with dragon fruit for a body and chillies for a crown. His feathers are made from vegan spring rolls.

The royal cockerel makes a second appearance next to Ms Tuyet’s mixed salad ‘Goi’ and Hue style stuffed, deep fried pancakes, ‘Banh Khoai’

The royal cockerel makes a second appearance next to Ms Tuyet’s mixed salad ‘Goi’ and Hue style stuffed, deep fried pancakes, ‘Banh Khoai’

The day after, we were shown around the organic gardens of Duc Son, a local pagoda and children’s orphanage, where the monks and nuns grow all their produce, including fresh green tea, mushrooms, aubergines and chillies.

A nun working as head chef in the restaurant in Duc Son pagoda.

A nun working as head chef in the restaurant in Duc Son pagoda.

An organic aubergine growing in the gardens at Duc Son pagoda.

An organic aubergine growing in the gardens at Duc Son pagoda.

A farmer at Duc Son pagoda, Hue, poses next to the mushrooms he grows for the nuns in a special shed.

A farmer at Duc Son pagoda, Hue, poses next to the mushrooms he grows for the nuns in a special shed.

A vegan feast cooked up for us especially by the nuns at Duc Son

A vegan feast cooked up for us especially by the nuns at Duc Son

Cooking, especially home cooking, is generally the domain of women in Vietnam. As we found when staying with my friend Lily’s family in Hanoi, many Vietnamese wives and mothers will wake up at around 5 or 6 am to make it to the local market and buy fresh ingredients for the day. They will then go to work full time, only to return home in the evening to cook again and care for their families. Lily’s mother was a devout Buddhist as well, which meant that aside from making wholesome vegan food every day, any spare hours were spent praying in her shrine on the balcony at the top of the house. Twice a week she would leave the neighbourhood, riding out fast on her moped to her favourite pagoda near Hanoi’s West Lake.

Spending so much time with female cooks illuminated my mother’s upbringing for me. Although my mother was born and raised in France and does not really speak Vietnamese, her parents were from Vietnam. When I applied for the Yan Kit So grant, it was because food was one of my most tangible ways that connected me to my mother’s heritage, and meeting so many Vietnamese women through cooking presented a new context for me to understand my mother’s own character and struggles, one that I hope to explore further as I write up my notes for the trip.

Aubergine

Aubergine, you have been my nemesis, my bette noir.

I can not fry you properly, aubergine, but it’s all that I want to do.

I dont like ovens.

I don’t like grills.

I don’t want to leave you alone, out of my sight.

I want to be able to touch you myself at any time.

I can’t trust you with the oven.

Who knows what you’ll be like when you come out?

Unrecognisable, and all the secrets of your cooking hidden from me.

Your secrets hidden inside your flesh, not visible on your skin.

I’d only find them by eating you, but then it’s too late and you’d be gone.

I want to control you as you transform.

But you’re impossible. You’re always too thirsty, you stay dry for so long, you threaten to burn, you soak up disgusting amounts of oil.

And then all of a sudden your watery insides break down and you go wet like a leaf.

By then you’ve already drunk so much oil, you taste slimy like a fish and chips wrapper.

Raw, you’re the most promising looking vegetable in the fridge,

With the beauty of a fruit, your skin like polished black granite,

You seem soft to touch but your flesh has tricked me time and again,

Self contained with your own irrigation system.

You remain independent, and I am so thirsty.

Vegetarian Summer Rolls (Gỏi cuốn)

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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:

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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)

Vietnamese Crêpes (Bánh Xèo) with Cinnamon

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Cinnamon flecks these creamy coloured, crispy pancakes. Bright Yellow kumquats, red chills and fresh green herbs make a colourful filling.

Making Bánh Xèo the other week at Lily’s, at the crucial moment we found that we were out of turmeric. But ingenuity came to the rescue, and we decided to use cinnamon instead. This worked surprisingly well with the coconut milk used to mix the rice flour into batter, creating a faintly sweet, delicate taste. I would still use turmeric, since the flavour and colour is really important, but try adding a bit of cinnamon and you might be pleasantly surprised… This would work well if you wanted to add a Vietnamese inspired dessert filling to the pancakes too, like sweetened mung beans.

Recipe (Makes 8 pancakes):


For the batter:
200g Bánh Xèo flour (rice flour mix that can be bought at oriental supermarkets)
1 can coconut milk
1 tsp turmeric
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tbsp vegetable oil
pinch of salt

For The Filling:
1 carrot, chopped into Julienne strips
3 spring onions, chopped into Julienne strips
200g beansprouts
1/2 pepper (red or green), blanched and diced or julienne sliced
1/2 bunch of coriander
1/2 bunch of mint, stems removed.
200g tofu, fried and chopped into roughly 1cm square pieces
1/2 red chilli, sliced diagonally
8 whole, large iceberg lettuce leaves

For the Nuoc Cham Sauce:
5 tablespoons of warm water
3 tablespoons thin soy sauce
1 tsp lime juice
1 tsp sugar
pinch of salt
2 cloves garlic, crushed
2 kumquats, sliced lengthways (optional)
1/2 red chilli, sliced diagonally for garnish

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Mix the Nuoc Cham ingredients together, adding the chillis and kumquats at the end as garnish.

Combine the batter ingredients and whisk until there are no lumps left. Head a non-stick frying pan to a medium high heat and brush oil over the surface. Add one ladle of batter to the pan and tilt the pan to each side to  make sure the batter spreads evenly and thinly. When the bottom half is starting to brown slightly and become crisp, flip the pancake and cook the other side in the same way.

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Line up the filling ingredients, and on one half on the pancake surface, pile a few stalks of onion, pepper, carrot and beansprouts, a few pieces of tofu, one of two pieces of chilli and layers of herbs to taste. Add 1-2 tbsps of Nuoc Cham, wrap the whole pancake in a lettuce leaf and eat. And if you feel like it, keep dipping in Nuoc Cham as you take each bite.

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