‘I was sitting in a café in Hanoi watching the world go by,’ chef Luke Nguyen explains as he pours a cup of caramel-coloured Vietnamese coffee. ‘There were people exercising: doing Tai Chai, playing badminton and kicking around a bamboo shuttlecock. And next to me on these little stools were a pair of old men with long, silver beards. They were wearing scarves and berets--and, to my surprise, were speaking fluent French. I thought “wow, this is a great experience” and I wanted to speak to them and find out what life was like in the days of the late 1800s to 1954 during the French occupation.'
Luke shared this story during a masterclass held recently at Red Lantern on Riley (one of the Sydney restaurants he co-owns with sister Pauline and her husband, chef Mark Jensen). The event was held to celebrate the launch of Luke Nguyen’s France, a ten-episode series which starts on SBS ONE on Thursday, 24 April at 7.30pm. The show follows Luke's latest journey as his appetite for food leads him out of Asia and into France, the culinary wonderland that shaped his ancestral home of Vietnam, and the lives of so many in his family.
Meeting these two old gentlemen in Hanoi would mark the beginning of a new gastronomic adventure for Luke, who says he had never really delved deeply into the history of the French influence on Vietnam before.
'I knew nothing about that time. So I asked them, what was the food like? What were your parents eating before the French came? Were there things like baguettes, pho, pork rolls and crisp rice flour crêpes? As I listened to them, I realised that a lot of the dishes we think are Vietnamese are actually French-inspired. Is pho really French? It can’t be! I knew I had to look into this. So, I contacted a lot of people in their nineties and even older. The more I talked with people who lived through this era, the more I learned about how the French influenced what the Vietnamese cook and eat today, and how the French presence is felt in daily life’.
Through their tales, the gentlemen explained to him that the French brought with them a lot of ‘fantastic things’ that integrated into the Vietnamese culture and cuisine. The iconic Vietnamese pho, for example, seems to have originated from the French pot-au-feu. Luke explains that the stock for both is made using beef marrow bones, sweet vegetables and meat or poultry. The addition of rice noodles, bean sprouts and herbs (such as mint and basil) are the distinctly Vietnamese additions.
As he pours champagne into elegant flutes, Luke tells us that he has cousins, uncles and aunties all through France. He says he just wanted to cook and eat with them, do double-kisses, and just hang out [as you do]. 'I wanted to see what they were cooking, and also see what the French are cooking,' he explained. 'To search for the pot-au-feu that they tell me pho comes from. To search for the crêpe that was the origin of bank xeo.' Luke said his expedition started in Paris, where his cousins have opened a restaurant called Bistro Indochine. 'My cousins all have French names, and their Vietnamese isn't great, but their French is perfect! We were communicating in broken Vietnamese, a bit of French on my side and a touch of English,' he laughed.
He explained that he cooked twenty phos and then tried his hand at a very rustic pot-au-feu. 'It was very much like cooking pho. The basic ingredients were ox tail, shin bones, roasted vegetables, cloves, garlic. I put it all together and found that the flavours were quite similar. Of course pho has more spices, with the star anise, the ginger, the lemongrass. But they were basically the same. The more I discovered French cuisine, the more I realised the connections between Vietnamese and French food. The journey was a learning curve for me as a cook and I learned many new cooking techniques as well. But most importantly I demystified the question: Did the French influence Vietnamese food?' The answer, he says, is 'yes, in a huge way'.
Over the next hour, Luke spoke more about his travels and the people he met and cooked with, as he demonstrated how to prepare sardine farcie or stuffed sardines (see the recipe below), which were beautifully flavoursome and textural; and also a fresh-tasting, fragrant Vietnamese fusion steak tartare. Meanwhile, a few of the more adventurous participants in the 'class' also rolled up their sleeves and prepped sardines and steak tartare under the guidance of the Chef.
Sardine farcie (stuffed sardines)...
Luke says he loves sardines and usually citrus-cures them. But in this 'really simple' recipe he stuffs the delicate-flavoured sardines with Jasmine rice, shallots, panko crumbs, crushed almonds, coriander, lime zest and chilli. It was inspired by a recipe Luke says he learned from a restaurant owner in Nice who cooked 'traditional, honest food'.
Various recipes for stuffed sardines can be found along the stretch of Ligurian Sea coast between France and Italy. Use very fresh sardines for the fullest flavour.
Preparation time: 30 minutes
Cooking time: 15 minutes
Level of difficulty: easy
2 cups cooked Jasmine rice
1 garlic clove, chopped
1 French shallot, chopped
2 tbsp roasted crushed almonds
¼ cup chopped coriander, plus extra to garnish
½ lime, rind grated, plus 1 lime, cut into wedges, to serve
1 red chilli, sliced, plus extra to garnish
pinch of salt and pepper
140 g (2 cups) breadcrumbs
3 eggs, separated
6 sardines, boned and butterflied
125 ml (½ cup) olive oil
2 handfuls of rocket
Combine rice, garlic, shallot, almonds, coriander, lime rind, chilli, salt, pepper, 2 tbsp breadcrumbs and egg yolks in a mixing bowl. Using your hands, stir to combine until ingredients stick together. On a flat plate, combine remaining breadcrumbs and coriander.
Gently squeeze 1 tbsp stuffing in your hand to firmly combine ingredients, making a tight sausage shape. Place stuffing on the inside of a sardine, then flatten so it sticks to the sardine. Place the egg whites in a shallow bowl and whisk for 1 minute to thin out slightly. Dip sardines in egg white, then coat with the breadcrumbs and set aside. Repeat process with the remaining sardines and stuffing.
Heat ⅓ cup olive oil in a frying pan over medium heat. Cook 2 sardines at a time, belly side down, for 2 minutes. Turn and cook for another 2 minutes or until golden brown and crisp. Drain on paper towel. Meanwhile, place rocket in a mixing bowl. Drizzle with remaining olive oil and season. Place sardines on a serving platter with rocket leaves, extra chilli and coriander, and a wedge of lime.
SBS cook’s notes
Oven temperatures are for conventional; if using fan-forced (convection), reduce the temperature by 20˚C. | We use Australian tablespoons and cups: 1 teaspoon equals 5 ml; 1 tablespoon equals 20 ml; 1 cup equals 250 ml. | All herbs are fresh (unless specified) and cups are lightly packed. | All vegetables are medium size and peeled, unless specified. | All eggs are 55–60 g, unless specified. Recipe appears courtesy of SBS Food.
'It's good fun to cook while you're sitting down...'
Next, Luke prepared a Vietnamese steak tartare made with the freshest grain-fed Black Angus beef and herbs (see my images below). 'We're using Black Angus so that we can appreciate the quality and texture of the meat,' he explains. The meat is citrus-cured for just a few minutes and mixed with capers and a combination of wonderfully aromatic herbs.
Initially I wasn’t keen to taste this as the thought of raw egg (at that time of the morning) didn’t particularly appeal, but I must tell you it was absolutely delicious and I’ll definitely be making this at home for Peter. I’m sure many of you would love to try it too. You’ll find the full recipe on the SBS Food site here.
A conversation with the chef...
Luke was generous enough to sit down with me after the masterclass, so I took the opportunity to ask a few questions about his travels. Our conversation is below:
Luke, thank you for inviting me to attend the masterclass, it was such an honour and pleasure. The series is beautiful, stylish and colourful, and also down to earth, as always. Congratulations!
Thank you, Liz. I'm really glad you like it and thank you for your time today.
I'm interested in the rooftop bees in Paris and the honey they produce. Those bees are so fat and furry and healthy.
The honey tastes amazing! There are parks everywhere and plenty of vegetation. It was fascinating how you taste different honey from bees from different areas and taste the difference. And it's interesting because if the hives are on the rooftop of a hotel, the honey is only for the hotel, for instance, it's served to the hotel guests for breakfast.
The correlation between pot-au-feu and pho is fascinating.
Yes, it is. I had heard about it but I wasn't sure. Of course you can research recipes and history online but I wanted to go there and just talk with the people and learn more.
So you think that it definitely explains the origin of pho?
Absolutely! For sure. You see it in the making the broth for pot-au-feu. Making the meat tender, and tasting the sweetness of the bone and the marrow, the oxtail, the vegetables, the cloves and the onions and all that. And then you have the Vietnamese version, which is exactly like that but with more spices. And at that point where it finishes, the French add Dijon mustard, cornichons and baguette. Whereas the Vietnamese serve it with rice noodles, bean sprout, basil, chilli and so on. And so that's where it evolves. The beginning, however, is the same.
[I explain to Luke that the broth for pot-au-feu and pho is not dissimilar to the way my Hungarian mother taught me to make veal broth with vegetables. We agree that it's important to have a very clean and clear broth.]
Tell me in your opinion, Luke, what makes a good Vietnamese pho
Definitely the clarity of the broth. It should be clear. I needs to be really aromatic without looking like there's a whole heap of spices and herbs in there. It also needs to be really well balanced. The fish sauce, the sea salt (if you want to put that in), and the amount of rock sugar you put in there. The noodles have to be silky and fresh.
Tell me about the Parisian market that you visited. It was established in 1615?
It was amazing! What I loved about that market, and what I really enjoyed about France (and especially Paris), is how diverse it was in culture and cuisine. I wanted to look into that further. There's the Latin quarter, there's the area where there's African food and African butchers, they had Lebanese food there, as well as Italian and Japanese. And then you have the Vietnamese influence as well. So that market was great. It is such an old market and of course it has great produce there. But I really loved the little hole-in-the-wall places that would serve cooked food. So you go to this old market and you are just exposed to all this wonderful food. And that's what France is. It's as culturally-diverse as we are in Australia.
And the produce must be soooooo fresh?!
Yes, the best berries I have ever tried were in France.
A three-course soufflé meal, wow, tell me about it.
Actually you can have more than three courses if you want to, but three courses of soufflé was enough for me. They are really light and fluffy and airy. Not rich or heavy at all. It was quite fascinating to try soufflé like that.
And now that you are back at home, are you planning to add soufflé to the menu at Red Lantern?
Yes, I plan to put a lot of those dishes onto the menu. We held an event last week where I just cooked a lot of the dishes from the show. We worked on the dishes to make them more restaurant-friendly, and our guests just loved them!
Is there a difference in the ingredients and the baking technique between the French and the Vietnamese baguette?
There is a difference. It is that the Vietnamese baguettes are a lot lighter, there are more air pockets and they are a lot flakier. And because they are designed to hold lots of filling, they are not dense and chewy. Our baguettes are designed for pâté, mayonnaise, pork balls, pork fat, Vietnamese pickles and lots of ingredients. The bread is the accompaniment and everything has to work together. Whereas, with the French baguette, they put their cold cuts or whatever and the baguette is the hero. I think the Vietnamese one is the other way around. French baguettes are also long and thin, whereas Vietnamese baguettes are bigger but shorter, and a lot, lot lighter.
And finally, what's next on the agenda for Luke Nguyen? Will there be a book accompanying Luke Nguyen's France television series?
Yes, I am working on a book now.
How do you find the time?
I don't know. [He laughs]. I do squeeze it in somehow. I like writing on a plane. Last time I was on a long haul flight I wrote about 15 recipes. I smash them out! There's nothing else to do. There are no phone calls or emails. So I can just focus. It's great.
Thank you Luke for hosting this masterclass and for taking the time to speak with me. It was a great experience and a pleasure to meet you. I love your work and also I'd like to thank you for giving me the opportunity to recreate some of your dishes in the past, too.
You have done it really well, Liz. Thank you, and thank you for your continued support. It was lovely to meet you.
Tune in to Luke Nguyen's France on SBS ONE...
Luke Nguyen's France begins on Thursday, 24 April at 7:30pm on SBS ONE. Following its premiere, each episode will be available on iTunes and Googleplay. All episodes will be available online at http://www.sbs.com.au/food/luke-nguyens-france And the full series will be available on Blu-ray and DVD from June 2014. Join the conversation on social media #LukeNguyensFrance.
Note: This post is sponsored by SBS Food. Good Things received payment for editorial support of Luke Nguyen's France and attended the masterclass at Red Lantern on Riley as a guest of Luke Nguyen and SBS Food. Opinions expressed are my own.
It's interesting to learn the origins of different cuisines and discover how dishes evolved with time, don't you agree, dear readers? Did you know about the correlation between pho and pot-au-feu?
Cooking and writing have been a lifelong passion.
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NB: I use Australian standard measuring cups and spoons in my recipes.