Introduction

Introduction

By
Luke Nguyen
Contains
0 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
ISBN
9781742707181
Photographer
Alan Benson

My incredible food journey to France, the subject of my latest television show, started where much of my recent life has been centred: in Vietnam. After spending so much time there, I’ve become increasingly intrigued by the nuances of Vietnamese cuisine, and in trying to find out what makes one region’s food distinct from another. So many influences have shaped regional Vietnamese food and culture — you only have to visit Hoi An to see clear architectural traces of Japan, for example, or eat any noodle dish to sense the huge impact China has had.

I’ve spent a lot of time investigating Vietnam’s unique regional dishes and cooking styles, and the more people I speak to about differences, similarities, influences and history, the clearer it becomes that the French, who colonised Vietnam from the mid-19th century until its independence in 1945, have left an indelible mark.

As I’ve pondered the Gallic-inspired architecture of Dalat, noticed how European in feel are the wide boulevards of Saigon, and sipped coffee with my stuffed baguette (filled with omelette and pâté — how French are such things!) in Hanoi, my quest to identify food links between France and Vietnam has really taken off. I’ve spoken with older Vietnamese people who can still remember the colonial era, and are able to list all the foods they never really ate before the French came, but that today are considered staples: sure, bread, coffee and wine are obvious examples, but cabbage, dill, tomatoes, potatoes, asparagus, carrots and lettuce are less so. Before the French, the locals never ate beef, or used eggs much at all. But today these ingredients are everyday items in the Vietnamese pantry, and this is totally due to the French influence.

As well as individual ingredients, there are entire dishes and cooking techniques that I now realise we can credit the French for. All those cold cuts of meat the Vietnamese do so well were originally French-inspired, for sure. Then there are all our raw, leaf-based salads, garnishes and accompaniments, which are unique in Asian cookery; the idea for these has to have come from Europe. Bo tai chanh, or citrus-cured beef, reminds me of steak tartare. Bo sot vang, a classic beef dish braised in red wine, is absolutely French in the way it is cooked and in some of its ingredients. And I know I’m not alone in thinking that even pho — perhaps the best-known of all Vietnamese dishes — has been informed by that great French classic, pot-au-feu: poached beef and vegetables in a rich, clear, meaty stock. Some of our culinary words are borrowed from the French too. For example, cà phê means ‘café’, ga tô (from gâteau) means ‘cake’, and patê sô is a savoury puff pastry whose name derives from the French pâté chaud.

Before a quick reconnaisance for the television show, I’d never been to France. On so many levels I was super-excited about finally going there, especially as a chef — after all, this country is known as the centre of the epicurean universe. The quality of the ingredients, the reverence the French have for their food, the way they buy fresh produce from the most fabulous markets, as well as the calibre of their restaurants; these are all things I’d wanted to experience first hand for a very long time.

When I finally arrived, I was like a kid in a candy store, and could never quite believe how beautiful and inspiring the food culture actually is.

On my journey to France to uncover food links back to Vietnam, I met so many wonderful chefs, home cooks, suppliers and knowledgeable food enthusiasts, and their passion for food completely blew me away. I’ve had countless experiences throughout France that will forever stay with me. Like seeing the unbelievably exquisite presentation at Pierre Hermé, the Parisian sweets shop in which all the staff wear white gloves and the cakes look like jewels. Or following Rachel Roussel-Voisard around her lush, green farm in the Franche-Comté as she spoke lovingly to her special Bresse chickens, treating them like her own children. Discovering regional specialities such as choucroute and hearty fleischschnacka in Alsace, where the vibe and the food seem more German than French (but shhhh... don’t tell the French I said that). Drinking the wine of my life (Jura chardonnay) at Château de Germigney and not even thinking about the bill (it wasn’t small). Tending bees on a Parisian city rooftop, while taking in the most breathtaking architectural backdrop. Coaxing a hugely famous, jealously guarded recipe for chicken liver gâteau from the lovely owners of one of the most famed bouchons in Lyon. Cooking up a fish storm on the Marseille waterfront with my friend Georgiana, right in front of the fishermen, and in the sights of a local oil painter.

On every level — people, history, architecture, culture AND the food — France really, really delivers.

Truthfully, my knowledge of the French food regions wasn’t vast before my visit. For the television series I picked places that would help piece together the Vietnam–France food puzzle for me: Paris to look into pot-au-feu, for example. But I also chose areas and towns that are simply wonderful food destinations in their own right, with plenty of interesting produce, down-to-earth food people and so much for me to learn and put into my own cooking.

I was also biased towards places where my extended family live — another big reason for my excitement at spending time in France. So many relatives, some of whom I’d never met before, ended up in France, in the same way that my own immediate family ended up in Australia.

I wanted to know their story, their links to Vietnam, and their relationship with the food of both their homeland and their adopted country. My uncle, Paul Sabourdy, is now 75 years old; he’s my mum’s brother, and something of a character. We’d never met in person and had so much catching up to do after all these years. When he made me lunch I was fascinated to see that he cooked in a half-French, half–Vietnamese style, using pâté, red wine, thyme, mustard and soy sauce in the one veal dish. His adult kids have somehow all ended up in the hospitality industry, and it was a real highlight to cook alongside my cousin Laurent in his new restaurant in Paris, called Le Bistro d’Indochine (or Bistro Indochine in English). His food style is quite different to mine; not surprisingly, he uses some French techniques, and his food reflects a more modern take on Vietnamese cuisine. But from him I learned so much about French cooking finesse, and we had an amazing time sharing the stove.

Thanks to my cousins for taking me under their wing and showing me all of their favourite haunts, I was able to enjoy Paris like a local. For this experience alone, I will never forget my time in France.

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