Vietnamese food is a favourite in my kitchen and I have come to enjoy it even more through Luke Nguyen's gentle manner and easy style of cooking in his cookbooks and TV series. Given this, my interest was sparked as soon as I heard news of the latest Luke Nguyen book, Indochine - Baguettes and banh mi: finding France in Vietnam.
Napolean III sent his military into the Vietnam region in the late 1850s and this was followed by an influx of French missionaries and merchants, and an occupation that lasted for almost 100 years. Readers are introduced to this history in the introduction to Indochine, where Nguyen explains how he meets 'Two [elderly] wise men of Hanoi', who shed light on how Vietnam originally became part of French Indochina, and the profound impact the French had on the Vietnamese way of life.
Nguyen says this discussion 'opened a door' and 'planted a seed' that took him on a journey of discovery to learn how the French influenced what the Vietnamese cook and eat today. Chapters are divided into Hanoi (A city within rivers), Dalat (the French alps of Indochina), Saigon (Paris of the East) and France (Meeting my French Vietnamese family). Each has a collection of recipes and vignettes introducing characters Nguyen has met on his culinary adventure, the places he visited, and how the French influenced each different food or recipe.
The recipes are varied and include a number of more exotic dishes using frog's legs, pigeon, snails and pig's ears. There are also Vietnamese standards, such as Pho with salmon, beef and lemongrass skewers, and clay pot grilled beef; as well as curious Vietnamese adaptations of French classics, such as Duck a l'orange, Coq au vin and Creme caramel. The last few pages are dedicated to a section on Basics (such as the quintessential dipping fish sauce, beef stock for pho and toasted rice powder); as well as a short Glossary, which I think could easily have been more extensive given some of the ingredients used in the recipes.
I look forward to road testing Nguyen's Meringue et passion on page 103 (Hanoi), which are meringues piped with a passionfruit custard. They look and sound divine! There is also an interesting Prawn, mango and snow pea salad on page 217 (Saigon), which calls for semi-ripe mangoes, julienned and quickly wok tossed. Nguyen's recipe for Cousin Khanh's Lemongrass and kaffir line creme brulee (page 234) is interesting, in that it is steamed rather than cooked in the oven. One for the list of must-try recipes. And another that caught my attention is Nguyen's Pomelo, avocado and lobster tail salad with sliced perilla and Vietnamese mint leaves (page 184). A summer sensation, methinks. I did make Nguyen's Asparagus wok-tossed with Asian mushrooms, which is on page 153, in the Dalat chapter. 'Asparagus is grown in abundance in Dalat, and the quality is so good that you could eat it raw. The French, particularly in Dalat where the evenings are fairly cool, were fond of using asparagus...' he says. The verdict: this is indeed a delicious vegetarian meal or side dish that I will definitely make again. It was quick to prepare (seriously, it took less than five minutes to stir-fry) and is full of flavour. The recipe is well written and easy to follow, which is what I have experienced with Luke Nguyen's work as a rule.
To my mind, Indochine is a book for the more experienced cook who enjoys dabbling with interesting ingredients and cooking techniques (Green Tangerine's signature dessert of Fried chocolate truffles with pink peppercorns, for instance. Nguyen says 'it would have to be the most unusual chocolate dessert [he has] have ever seen!').
Overall, Indochine is beautifully presented and is rich in detail from cover to cover, including amazing photography throughout. It is worth mentioning that I have worked with Alan Benson and he is a legend as far as I am concerned. Benson's images of food, people, buildings, and even simple things like a curious old bicycle seat, are stunning and further enhance the book.
Indochine - Baguettes and banh mi: finding France in Vietnam by Luke Nguyen (Murdoch Books) $69.99. With thanks to Luke Nguyen and Murdoch Books for allowing me the opportunity to review this title.
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