Move over Songs of Sapa. There’s a new cookbook on the bench – Indochine. Baguettes and bánh mì: finding France in Vietnam - and it’s taken prime spot on the cookbook stand in all its emerald-green cover jacket glory.
Both books are by Luke Nguyen, one of the star chefs at Surry Hills restaurant Red Lantern. The former traces Nguyen’s journey through Vietnam from the northern highlands of Sapa, to Saigon in the south. Indochine, on the other hand, hones in on Vietnamese cuisine’s ancestry, tracing elements of it back to its colonial French roots.
Nguyen’s journey begins in Hanoi, covers Dalat – “the city of eternal spring”, Saigon, and finally France. One of the loveliest aspects of his work are the people he meets and introduces to the reader along the way – from two elderly Vietnamese gentlemen who wear black berets and talk fluent French, to a woman who has cooked pho broth in the same way for thirty years – her young son char-grilling shallots, garlic and ginger over a fire, and my favourite, Madame Delphine, a woman in her eighties, of aristocratic blood, whose walls are covered in old black-and-white photographs that are “blanketed in a thick layer of dust” – the Vietnamese epitome of Charles Dickens’ Miss Havisham.
All of Nguyen’s acquaintances could be characters in a play, or novel. They all have stories to tell, recipes to share, or favourite restaurants to steer Nguyen towards, the names of which are scribbled down in a clandestine fashion that adds an aura of discovery to Nguyen’s tale.
Along the way, Nguyen learns which Vietnamese dishes were inspired by the French, such as xa lat – salads with vinaigrette dressings, pate chaud – a French-Vietnamese version of a hot meat pie, and bahn mi thit – pork sandwiched in baguettes. He shares the recipes for these and for the Vietnamese versions of French classics, such as duck a l’orange and coq au vin– which are laced with coconut water and other non-traditional ingredients, including coriander, shaoxing rice wine, and spices such as star anise and cinnamon.
He discusses the ingredients which were introduced to Vietnam by the French – such as asparagus and dill, the cooking techniques that they left behind – such as roasting vegetables before adding them to stock and soups, and the produce that the French inspired the Vietnamese to use – such as beef.
It was a pleasure to put some of these cross-cultural culinary treasures to the test. Duck a l’orange fell off the bone. I was disappointed that the sauce was thin and runny after the stated 10 minutes cooking time – whereas Nguyen’s looked thick and glossy in the photograph by Alan Benson. However, when I reheated the dish some hours after it was initially cooked the sauce reduced to a wonderful syrupy consistency.
Pan-fried cinnamon prawns were quick and easy to make and subtly spiced and fragrant. Chilli salted school prawns with garlic mayonnaise were a superb beer snack. These crunchy little critters were a salt-spiced enticement we couldn’t resist.
One flaw is that the French connections of some dishes are not fully explained. Most recipes are accompanied by an introduction that discusses them in a little detail. But the odd recipe has no accompanying blurb, and the information doesn’t always provide an insight into a recipe’s French heritage.
Nguyen also quotes his interviewees in great length. He mentions a notebook, maybe he even used a tape recorder, but even an expert journalist would be hard pushed to capture a conversation shared on the back of a motorbike taxi as the driver revs the engine. But that’s a pedantic journalist’s take on the situation. Nguyen may well have a great memory for detail, first-class shorthand skills, or a top-notch tape recorder. And if he doesn’t, he still offers a unique insight into the culinary legacy of colonial French rule in Vietnam. And he shares it with his signature enthusiasm and knack for telling a good yarn.
Indochine. Baguettes and bánh mì: finding France in Vietnam
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BY MARK JENSEN