Vietnamese food is the ‘in thing’ and I’m a little torn. In recent years the food of my ancestors has become intrinsically entwined with middle class hipsters slurping bowls of noodles on the streets of Shoreditch. Just about every upmarket supermarket chain has its own take on a Vietnamese dish, but almost every one is unfamiliar to my eyes (Innocent Vietnamese Curry pots, I’m looking at you).
For me, growing up with my parents who had fled a politically unstable Vietnam in the late seventies and ending up as one of the many thousands of boat people, food was the one of the strongest things that bound me to a very distant motherland. The unmistakable smell of ginger and onion slowly charred on a naked flame to prepare a pho broth is one of life’s most wonderful things. Shared plates of fish, meat, vegetables and soup are, for me, what maketh a family meal.
I want to reclaim good, honest Vietnamese food – and I’m not alone. Charles Phan is the man, in my mind, who’s rolling up his sleeves and stirring up an authentic pho broth for the masses. Like me, his family sought refuge from a turbulent Vietnam but he ended up on the other side of the Atlantic, eventually opening up The Slanted Door restaurant in San Francisco in 1995 to great acclaim. The idea behind his first book Vietnamese Home Cooking is in the title: how to eat like the Vietnamese.
I might not be a food critic but this is one area that I’m well versed in. And he has me nodding from the outset with a key piece of advice: don’t make one large dish but a variety. “At home, I might pair a steamed whole fish or a clay pot with some stir-fried greens, or maybe some fried chicken wings,” he explains. That’s the Vietnamese way of eating I know: everyone around a table with a bowl of rice and a pair of chopsticks in hand dipping and picking into everything on the table.
Recipes from both north and south Vietnam are broken down into sections: soup, street food, steaming, braising, stir frying, grilling and frying – and interspersed with un-glossy images of the country’s food scene like rickety baguette carts and plastic tables and stools (which I encourage you to eat at and place your bum down on when you’re in the country!). Vietnamese food, like a proper pho broth, has loads of depth. It’s not just noodles – although that is a mainstay – or the popular bánh mì or baguette, there’s a rich influence from the Chinese and a lasting culinary legacy from the French. I love that Vietnamese Home Cooking includes a whole recipe on crispy fried shallots to sprinkle on top of his pho ga, (chicken noodle soup) – they add an extra sweetness and snap to the soft texture of the noodles.
Block out an afternoon and try the bánh cuốn (rice crepes with pork and mushrooms), that are dipped into a zingy sauce and freshened with mint leaf and cucumber. The tricky part is getting the pancake technique mastered but if your confidence can overcome a pile of ripped and ragged sheets on first attempt, your tastebuds will be rewarded handsomely. If time and creativity aren’t on your side, grab a wok and whip up the scrambled eggs and pork – it might sound humble enough but trust me, this Vietnamese omelette is a crisp, savoury delight that’ll have you looking at the everyday egg in a completely different way.
I, for one, am glad that Charles finally got round to putting pen to paper after years of persuasion to write this book. It’s fresh, vibrant and simple – just as Vietnamese food should be.
Charles Phan’s Vietnamese Home Cooking is available to buy online here.