By Ella Walker
The first pancake is always a dud. It doesn’t matter how smooth your batter, how hot and Teflonned your pan; the debut is always a crumpled mess that flops sadly onto the plate.
This is true whether it’s an English pancake destined for lemon or sugar, or, as in this case, a turmeric-spiked rice flour and coconut milk crepe, laden with plump prawns and a forest floor’s worth of coriander. Impaled by rogue bean sprouts and soggy rather than crisp, I have utterly massacred food writer Uyen Luu’s sizzling crepes. I hope she will forgive me.
I order in Vietnamese food every chance I get but until now, I’d never attempted to cook it myself.
Why even try when the depth of flavour seems unfathomable to achieve? When every dish is so zingy and bold, fresh and sprightly? Who has such lightness of touch? Luu, that’s who. And me, it turns out, when armed with Luu’s new recipe collection, Vietnamese.
The dishes in the brilliantly blush pink cookbook are designed to “demystify Vietnamese cooking”, promises Luu, who reckons the most common mistake people make when approaching the cuisine, is “they think it’s more complicated than it is”.
You can’t really blame them (ok, me) when the “flavours feel and taste complex”. However, to hit those key Vietnamese flavours – sweet, sour, salty, umami, hot and bitter – it’s just a matter of combining ingredients, Luu insists. There’s no need to be intimidated.
As a general rule, the dishes we cook at home on autopilot are the ones we grew up eating. Ask chefs, food writers and home cooks, ‘Who taught you to cook?’, and we almost always invoke grandmothers, nonnas, abuelas.
They can hold the keys to our culinary heritage in a way parents – too close, too busy – tend not to. For many of us, it’s our grandmother’s recipes we long to record, and that we miss most desperately when we realise we’re grown up and have our own kitchens to use.
It turns out the act of learning something new, grasping unfamiliar methods and skills, or mastering a flavour combination that once seemed daunting, can make your brain turn to the person who taught you the first things, way back in the beginning.
Vietnamese Ginger Chicken
1½tbsp vegetable oil or coconut oil
2 round shallots, roughly sliced
4 garlic cloves, finely chopped
3tsp brown sugar
400g chicken thighs, bones removed, skin on, sliced into bite-sized pieces
70g ginger root, julienned
150ml coconut water
2–4 bird’s eye chillies, whole
2tbsp fish sauce
1tsp heaped black pepper
Heat half a tablespoon of the oil over a gentle heat in a saucepan that will fit the chicken pieces snuggly. Fry the shallots until golden, then add the garlic. Stay and watch over the pan until the garlic turns golden, then remove the shallots and garlic from the pan, leaving any oil, and set aside in a small bowl.
Add the remaining oil to the same pan and increase the heat to medium. Spread the brown sugar evenly over the surface of the pan. Watch over the pan for the sugar to caramelise, resisting the urge to stir. As soon it becomes a golden colour, watch for it to slightly darken, then immediately add the chicken pieces and let them sizzle away for a couple of minutes before turning. Add the ginger, let it sit for two minutes, then add the coconut water.
Return the fried shallot and garlic to the pan along with the bird’s eye chillies, fish sauce and black pepper. Cover and cook over a low heat for 10 minutes, then remove the lid to reduce for a further 10–15 minutes. It should be reduced and quite succulent and sticky.
When ready to serve, garnish with spring onions. Serve with rice and plenty of greens.
Vietnamese: Simple Vietnamese Food To Cook At Home by Uyen Luu is available now