Luke Nguyen is best known for his TV show which follows the chef around his mother country of Vietnam. Now a new book, a very big book by the way, should cement Luke’s position as the world’s leading authority on Vietnamese cuisine. The Food of Vietnam is a beautiful cookbook with hundreds of recipes covering all of the regions of this fascinating country.
I met Luke in London, after having heaved my review copy of the book on the underground – it weighs a fair bit let me tell you!
Luke is an instantly likeable Australian chap, with a fascinating story as a refugee turned restaurateur. First I ask him to sum up what makes Vietnamese food so special.
I take a sip of my English breakfast tea and he takes a sip of his ginger-infused tea before answering: “It’s because Vietnam is food! You don’t just say hello to someone, you ask them if they’ve eaten.”
Luke explains the influences of the different cultures inhabiting the country over the past few centuries from the Chinese, to the French and the Americans. These have resulted in some of the more recognisable Vietnamese foods found in cities outside of Vietnam, such as London with its proliferation of Banh Mi outlets selling the French-inspired baguette with pâté and a range of lighter Vietnamese ingredients.
Flicking through his book I can see there is loads of street food, from rice cakes to char-grilled squid and beef on lemongrass skewers. I ask Luke to sum up the flavours of Vietnamese cuisine – if it’s at all possible. “It’s the balance of hot, sweet, sour and freshness as well as the textures which really define it,” he says. “Unlike Thai cuisine, which is all huge bold flavours, which I love by the way, Vietnamese food is lighter and more refreshing. You can graze all day without feeling stuffed. There’s wonderful salads all over the country, we are really very good with salads.”
This always makes me think of those amazing south-east Asian salads made with crunchy papaya, peanuts, fish sauce and chillies bashed in a mortar to release the natural sweetness. As well as several classic Vietnamese dishes in the book, Luke has taken some inspiration from the street food vendors in the country of his birth and given them a twist. He is particularly proud of his Pan-Fried Rice Cakes with Tiger Prawns and Caramelised Pork. The photo alongside the recipe particularly excites Luke: “You see how the pork has turned into a kind of candy floss?”
I ask him how he did it and it turns out to be a reasonably simple although labour-intensive process of slow-roasting the pork and then tossing it over and over in the wok until it ‘fluffs’. This is just part of the magic of Vietnamese food, a kind of alchemy that turns simple, fresh ingredients into magical combinations.
Luke has agreed to share with us some of his recipes, so keep your eye out in the coming few months…