'Each day I remind myself of how fortunate I am to be able to explore parts of the world that inspire me; where I can travel and discover not only the traditional foods, but also learn the local language, strong culture and meeting the most incredible people who open up their homes to me and share their culinary secrets. It is you that I need to thank most. Your stories, wisdom, knowledge and recipes have made this book unique and so very special. Thank you'.
Open the front or back covers of Luke Nguyen's Greater Mekong and you'll see images of just some of the 'incredible' people that Nguyen has met during his culinary journey from China to Vietnam. This love of meeting people and sharing their culture and food shines through in both the book and the television series.
Nguyen says he wanted to embark on a journey to explore the Mekong and the countries that use the river every day for nourishment and life. He immerses himself in the culture and lifestyle of the people and investigates the diverse produce and cuisines in the areas. He introduces readers to life in the Mekong by explaining that the river 'is the twelfth longest river in the world, and the heart and soul of mainland South-East Asia. Over sixty million people depend on the [Mekong] and its tributaries for food, water, transport and many other aspects of their daily lives.' We are also reminded that 'the river supports one of the world's most diverse fisheries, nurturing over 1500 different species of fish within its vast ecosystem,' he writes.
The journey begins in China in the Yunnan capital, Kunming, City of Eternal Spring, through to the Dali and Shaxi regions, Lijiang and then Xishuangbanna. One of the recipes from Kunming: Fish Mint Root and Tofu Salad, pictured on the book's cover, is the first I try (P. 20). Although I cannot source 'zheergen' or fish mint root, I substitute bamboo shoots and the dish is very good.
Nguyen is amazed by the generosity of the people of Myanmar and says he has never visited a country where the locals were so warm and inviting. 'The group I travelled with were the very first international television crew to visit Myanmar with permission to film and document the people's lives, based on their food and traditions... Take the heart of Myanmar to the world and let them come to visit us [they told him].' The journey here begins in the former capital Yangon, where 'the streets are filled with food markets and vendors of every kind'. Next is Inle Lake, home to floating gardens where some 61,000 tonnes of tomatoes are grown. I have made the salad using Green Tomatoes (P. 82). It's surprisingly good, in fact, quite awesome. On to mountainous Kengtung, Nguyen discovers the delicacy of buffalo skin. He recommends substituting shredded pork skin in his recipe for Warm Buffalo Skin Salad.
Next stop is Thailand, Nguyen's country of birth. His family fled Vietnam in 1977 and stayed in a refugee camp south of Bangkok for a year before moving to Australia. Nguyen writes that he was 'a little anxious about returning to [his] birth country', not knowing whether he would feel like a foreigner or like one 'coming home'. His adventure begins in Chiang Khong, where he catches catfish, frogs and eels. I wonder, will many readers try the Rice Paddy Frog Curry? Hmmm. Deep fried insects are on the menu in Chiang Mai, along with that most popular Som Tum Thai, or Green Papaya Salad (p. 137).
Nguyen learns that the people of Laos refer to PDR as 'Please don't rush'. It's time to simply relax and eat and enjoy the simple things in life. First off is the nation's capital, Vientiane, where Nguyen encounters a market where many 'weird and wonderful foods' are sold. Bee larvae, crispy grasshoppers, chicken heads, duck blood, live frogs and buffalo hide! On to the world heritage town, Luang Prabang, where 'old crumbling French villas sit next to golden emerald temples'. The Luang Prabang Salad (p. 170), comprised of hard boiled eggs, watercress, lettuce, coriander, celery or mint, cherry tomatoes, fried garlic and peanuts is simple and delicious. Next I will try the Steamed Sticky Rice Cakes with Banana (P. 179). In Laos, Si Phan Don, Nguyen discovers '4000 Islands' and the crunchy pop of Red Ant Egg Salad (P. 187).
In Cambodia, Nguyen ventures from Siem Reap (home to the temples of Angkor Wat) to Phnom Penh, Kep and Kampot. The Wok-Tossed Squid with Kampot Pepper (P. 218) is reflective of the food of the region. I substitute rinsed brined green peppercorns for the Kampot Pepper. The dish is divine. I cannot wait to try the Clay Pot Cola Chicken too (P. 227).
Nguyen's parents met him in Vietnam for the last leg of the journey and they seek out an old family favourite, fermented mudfish at a Chau Doc market. Another specialty of the region is freshly roasted suckling pig, the best Nguyen says he has ever tasted! In Cai Be and Ben Tre, Nguyen says he experienced the 'true essence of Vietnam: sea salt being soaked, steamed and refined; rice and peanuts roasted together to make pop rice; young coconut water turned into caramelised sugar; ginger and coconut made into candy; rice made into vermicelli noodles; coconut flesh turned into jam; and most exciting of all, nettled rice paper being made.' The Warm Mango and Prawn Salad (P. 248) is on my list to try, together with Heart of Palm Salad (P. 258) with pork neck and prawns, which Nguyen suggested by twitter that I must try!
I'm cooking my way through the diverse selection of recipes in this wonderful book, as I read the chapters and travel the Mekong with Nguyen. I love his work and highly recommend that you add the book to your collection.
Luke Nguyen's Greater Mekong, Hardie Grant Books $55.00. Photography by Suzanna Boyd (Nguyen's partner). Thank you to Hardie Grant Books and Luke Nguyen for giving me the opportunity to review this title.
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