Growing up in Australia, food was an intrinsic link to my Vietnamese heritage and culture. Everything ‘Vietnamese’ I’d learnt as a child was passed on to me through the memories and knowledge of my parents, and the other families in my Vietnamese community. They shared these gifts with us, within our own ‘little Vietnam’ in the Sydney suburb of Cabramatta. Our lifestyle, cooking and language were a version of our parents’ own upbringing.
Through all this, I was inspired to go to Vietnam. I felt a pull to discover the country and people on my own, and to hopefully understand more about the lives of my parents and my own life in Australia. But first I needed to follow the strongest of my passions — my dream of opening my own restaurant, where I could showcase traditional Vietnamese food within the contemporary Sydney dining scene. My restaurant, Red Lantern, is more than a restaurant to me. It has been my dream fulfilled, but it has also taken me beyond my dreams and around the world, to expand my life and love of food and culture — far more than I ever could have asked for.
It brought to me Vietnam, where my journey to further understand my heritage, history and culture still continues, years later. Heavily schooled in southern cuisine, I wanted to learn about the country’s regional specialties, travelling not only to particular spots to visit my family, but also to areas where I had no relatives, links or knowledge: a discovery for the soul and the stomach!
In this book, The Food of Vietnam, I begin my culinary discovery in southern Vietnam, where I trace my extended family. I meet my mother’s sisters — Aunties Eight and Nine, who show me where they, and my Mum, were brought up. After sharing their favourite family recipes and street-food spots, they introduce me to my cousins from the Mekong Delta.
Later I visit the fishing folk of Mui Ne, who work the ocean waters by night, and in the early mornings prepare tonnes of seafood by hand, expertly cutting, slicing, drying and packing their catch for sale right along the beachfront. In the quiet fishing town of Quy Nhon, I learn the ancient art of handmaking tofu, and visit the famous Thien Huong Pagoda, where I am taught age-old vegetarian dishes, before being blessed by the pagoda’s revered Buddhist monk. The terrace fields of Da Lat, filled with exotic vegetables, local flowers and herbs, reflect the colonial influences of the French, who introduced the coffee plantations that now flourish under local hands, and satisfy the country’s own huge appetite for coffee drinking, their coffee also exported around the world.
This first journey through Vietnam taught me so much, and I’m still learning something new every day. A lifetime of travelling, talking and eating throughout the country may not be enough to discover all that Vietnam has to share, but the people’s stories and their memories are all in some way tied up in any single dish that is prepared; each technique is the word and practice of someone before them. I love to listen and watch as knowledge, history and culture is told through the form of food.
Chargrilled Phu Quoc salt & chilli squid
SERVES 4–6 as part of a shared meal
This dish was taught to me by a local Phu Quoc fisherman. He told me he would regularly make this dish on board his boat, while out in the deep sea, where he would not have many ingredients to cook with. It took him only 30 seconds to describe the recipe to me. I also made this dish on a fishing boat, after catching my own squid. So try to get the freshest squid you can — alive and kicking if possible. As you can see, the recipe is incredibly simple, but it is oh, so delicious.
- 1 whole squid, about 600 g (1 lb 5 oz)
- 2 red bird’s eye chillies, sliced
- 2 teaspoons sea salt
- Lemon sauce
- 2 tablespoons lemon juice
- 1/ 2 teaspoon sea salt
- 1 teaspoon ground white pepper
Pull away the squid’s head, slice it open and remove the guts, cartilage and ink sac. Pat both sides dry with paper towels or a clean cloth. Place on a chopping board, skin side up. Using a sharp knife, cut a crisscross pattern into the squid, being careful not to cut all the way through.
Pound the chilli to a paste using a mortar and pestle. Mix in the salt until well combined.
Evenly coat both sides of the squid with the salt and chilli mixture. Chargrill the squid over medium–high heat for 3 minutes on each side, or until golden brown.
Meanwhile, put the lemon sauce ingredients in a dipping bowl and mix well. Cut the squid into bite-sized pieces and serve with the lemon sauce.