Tag Archives: Review

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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Ngon Chiswick: A Vegetarian Pho Review

I headed in here today, the sunniest day of the year so far, to pick up a bowl of their Vegetarian Pho, which I think is the best in Town. And I’ve had a few. When the place first opened in Autumn 2013, they held back on releasing a vegetarian version of their pho, unhappy with the flavour of the stock. And so we’d been happy to eat their summer rolls, zesty salads and delicious garlic marinated mushroom and tofu Banh Mi’s, until one day in January the hallowed vegetarian soup was ready.

I was told by the lovely staff at Ngon how the Saigon born owner had come up with a broth using pears and apples to add a slight, woody sweetness and depth to their meat-free stock that I haven’t tasted elsewhere in the UK. Add to this the lovely combination of marinated shiitake and oyster mushrooms, tender green beans, chives, chillies and you have a very addictive soup: both fresh and hearty.

Sadly it had been a quiet day at Ngon, because the increasingly bland chain Vietnamese restaurant, Pho, has just opened up the road on Chiswick High Street, offering 50% opening weekend discounts. But the staff are confident that once the novelty and discounts have worn off, people will be back at Ngon, which offers you so much more flavour and charm at a better price. I for one strolled out towing my sweet pho and ice coffee picnic into the spring sunshine.

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Review of Asian Tofu by Andrea Nguyen

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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’.

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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…

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(Photos of Lemongrass Fried Tofu by Luke Walker)