Luke Nguyen, acclaimed food presenter and head chef behind Fat Noodle restaurants in Sydney and Brisbane, shares his top tips for cooking Vietnamese comfort food.
My personal experience of Vietnamese comfort food is linked to my childhood. My parents fled Vietnam in the 1970s with nothing but three hungry children and the clothes on their back. My parents didn’t really talk about the hardships they faced but they communicated a sense of safety, comfort and love through the dishes they cooked.
Here are my top five tips for creating and enjoying classic Vietnamese comfort food in the cooler months.
1. Start with the key ingredients
If there’s one essential ingredient in Vietnamese cooking it’s nước mắm – fish sauce. True Vietnamese fish sauce only has two ingredients – anchovies and sea salt – and it really is the best in the world. Make sure you also have oyster sauce, shrimp paste (it’s fermented and gives such a burst of flavour), soy sauce, hoisin sauce, fresh herbs, rice paper, vermicelli noodles, lemongrass, coconut water, spring onions and fried shallots. These are the building blocks of great Vietnamese dishes.
2. Make a Vietnamese wrap
The easiest and healthiest Vietnamese comfort food to make is a wrap. Go to a local Asian market and buy vibrant, fragrant herbs like coriander, Vietnamese mint or perilla leaf as well as protein like fresh seafood, beef or chicken. Grill or stir-fry the protein and put it on some rice paper. Add vermicelli noodles, lettuce and fresh herbs, then wrap and roll. Have a dipping sauce on the side like nước chấm – a blend of fish sauce, water, fresh lime and sugar.
Recipe inspiration: How to make seafood longevity noodles
3. Consider the cooking technique
Vietnamese people love to grill food over charcoal, especially chicken. It’s our version of barbecuing! Grilling is quick and simple, but you need to make sure that you control the fire underneath so you don’t burn the meat. Steaming, stir-frying and braising are other popular techniques used in cooking Vietnamese comfort dishes. Don’t be afraid to give these techniques a go – Vietnamese food is not fussy!
4. Enjoy communal cuisine
The beauty of Vietnamese cooking is that everyone can be involved. I have strong memories of plucking the ends off bean sprouts, washing herbs and chopping spring onions. While the dishes are fast to plate up or put in a bowl, they take a lot of preparation and that’s done by bringing people together. Part of the experience of comfort food is everyone helping prepare the dishes.
5. Give the food time
After I’d left home to work and study, my mum would call me up and say, “I’m cooking this amazing broth and I would love for you to come home and taste it for me”. She would have started cooking on the Friday and when I walked in on Sunday the house would be filled with amazing aromas.
Read more: Luke Nguyen’s family cooking memories
One of the dishes I love is thit kho. It’s a very popular dish made with pork belly. You sear or brown-off lean pork belly and then make a wonderful caramel with sugar and fish sauce, then cover it all with coconut water and season with fish sauce, chilli, garlic and sugar. You then slow braise it for at least 45 minutes to one hour, and serve with jasmine rice, cucumber and coriander. It’s sticky and flavoursome and it rocks my world.
Vietnamese food is so varied and that makes the comfort dishes diverse, too. Lemongrass chicken is a popular southern dish, whereas phở (a fragrant Vietnamese noodle broth) comes from the north. The great thing is that no matter what dishes you try, you’ll never get bored. Comfort food like this always picks you up and makes you feel better.
Try out Luke Nguyen’s Vietnamese comfort food cooking for yourself and book a table at Fat Noodle in Sydney or Brisbane.
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