For all the travel we’ve indulged in, there is one country which remains a haunting sore thumb on the to-do list. It lives as a niggle in my head and a stone in my shoe. The fact that we haven’t made it to Vietnam is something of a small travesty.
There is no good reason for this. Beaches? History? Humidity for The Hungry One? All of these factors place Vietnam- and certainly the south firmly in the yes column. And then there’s the food. It’s hard to think of a cuisine more vibrant. It’s the textures. It’s the liberal use of herbs. It’s the balance of sweet, sour, salt and a twinkle of heat. It’s the noodles and the broths. Vietnamese is what I turn to both when the days are as grey and when the sun is shining bright. It’s food that was built for a good mood.
Earlier this year I was thrilled to find out that my publishers at RPS (and in fact, both my editor and art director) were working on a book of recipes and stories from Uyen Luu. I met Uyen in London last year when The Hungry One and I were roped in some mutual friends eat a whole suckling pig at Burnt Enz. It was a very good day.
Beyond her talents as an art director, stylist and photographer, Uyen is an outstanding cook. She runs a Vietnamese supper club in East London most Friday nights and regularly hosts afternoon Vietnamese cooking classes, assisted by her mother.
On Saturday, The Hungry One and I happily went along.
We were warned before we arrived not to eat too much for breakfast. It proved excellent advice.
Over five hours, eight of us sat around Uyen’s large dining table. We all pitched in to varying degrees as we constructed a banquet that took us through a southern Vietnamese breakfast, lunch and dinner.
A day begins with beef pho (fuh). A heady broth made bold from griddled ginger and onion, beef bones, chicken stock, star anise and cassia bark among other things, brimming with rice noodles, slices of beef, herbs and spring onions. A spritz of lime and some chilli at the last minute were brisk beams of light that made it shimmer as you worked your way to the bottom of the bowl..
Then it was time for ‘lunch’. We had a sheltered workshop in making our own summer rolls. The Hungry One proved swift and adept stuffing his with prawns, pork belly, skinny noodles and herbs. Yet he failed at one vital step- waiting until the hoi sin and garlic dipping sauce was ready before tucking in. I had to confirm publicly that we don’t call him The Hungry One for nothing.
Then came possibly my favourite of the day; a riotous salad of shredded poached chicken, carrot (done on a mandolin, not a food processor, so you get distinct slivers, not wet mush), banana blossom, red onion, peanuts and a peppery, slightly menthol herb ‘rau rum’. Dressed with fish sauce, sugar, cider vinegar and crushed roasted peanuts, we scooped it out with prawn crackers. It would be hard to think of a nicer communal starter in summer, with a pile of cold beers huddling in buckets by your ankles.
Adjacent on the table were slices of beef, wrapped in betel leaves and baked- a perfect canape- easily prepped ahead of time, only needing a short spell in a medium oven to cook the beef and seal the leaf shut.
And then there were the crepes. Bánh Xeo have long been a favourite of mine whenever we have eaten Vietnamese. A lacy coconut milk and rice flour pancake, stuffed with pork, prawns and bean sprouts, it’s eaten nestled in a palm full of salad leaves with scads of fresh herbs. It’s a triumph of texture, with the outside crust brittle and bubbled, the inside still soft from sprouts. It’s one that will be getting a lot of play in this kitchen from now on, both for light lunches and quick dinners-for-one.
We had a brief segue, in which we we trotted out into the snow to a local Vietnamese supermarket to stock up on speciality ingredients to take home; from the Three Crabs brand of fish sauce (aged in wood and best for balancing flavours in salad dressings), to fresh noodles, herbs and nifty packs of ready minced and vacuum packed chilli and lemongrass (which handily will keep well in the freezer- meaning a zinging braise or stuffed fish is never far away)
Which brings us to dinner. Soon the table was full again, with a slow cooked, mellow, sweet and dark concoction of quail’s eggs, pork belly, cider and chillis to have with rice, stir fried morning glory with oyster sauce and garlic, baked sea bass stuffed with julienne of ginger, onion and lemon slices and a palate cleansing soup of broth, tomato, tofu and pineapple.
Just in case we had any room left, there were slices of dense pudding, made from roughly torn croissants (harking to the French colonial presence), baked with bananas, custard, cream, condensed milk and coconut milk.
We left finally rolled out close to 6 pm, full to the brim, with plenty to take home with us. Which meant that last night, while the wind howled outside in another chapter of London’s endless winter of 2013 we sat down to a feast of summer rolls, chicken salad with prawn crackers and bowls of pho. We pretended we were somewhere warm. And we made firm plans to make it to Vietnam as soon as humanely possible.
But until that day, there’s always Uyen’s.
Uyen’s cooking classes are usually run on a Saturday afternoon in East London. They cost £75 per person, and beyond the teaching, involve more food than you can possibly dream of. Find out more here.
Uyen’s super club is run most Friday nights. Find out more here.
You can pre order Uyen’s beautiful book ‘My Vietnamese Kitchen’ here.
Nb, if you’re hankering for another quality book from Ryland Peters and Small, here’s another small reminder that mine is due out in less than a month. You can pre order here.