I can still remember the moment I slid my teeth into my very first Vietnamese rice paper roll.
I can feel the soft, dry, sticky exterior on my lips and tongue. I can feel the slight give of the sheet as my teeth enter the interior of the roll, and the tang of the fragrant dipping sauce on the tip and sides of my tongue.
I can feel the crunch sensation of the Vietnamese mint, the vermicelli, and the al dente vegetables inside. And I can sense the burst of flavour and freshness as it zips up my nose and does crazy things to my brain.
There is nothing – nothing on earth – like a Vietnamese rice paper roll. But, of course, that is not the only dish from Vietnam that will curl your toes and send your eyeballs skyward.
When traveling through Vietnam with our children, many years after I declared Vietnamese my favourite cuisine (followed very closely by Japanese), I was very fortunate to have an experience that remains one of the most precious of my life. It was the experience of cooking real Vietnamese food with my eight-year-old daughter at a cooking school near the central coast town of Hoi An.
The flavours, the authenticity, the surreal surroundings – gas burners under a grass hut right on the edge of the Hoi An river – was just heart-burstingly beautiful. And watching my Ella (the only child in attendance) whip up several local dishes over her teensy gas stove with absolute competence and aplomb was secondary only to the joy of watching her gobble down every dish – yes, including prawns in rice paper rolls (she hates prawns) and eggplant and lemongrass stew (she hates eggplant).
She even made her own rice paper sheets, for goodness sake, and gobbled down every last morsel. As for me, I joined her in the gobbling. I simply couldn’t get enough. We cooked and cooked and cooked – standouts being that eggplant stew and bánh xèo, a famous Vietnamese dish consisting of a crispy pancake stuffed with prawns and bamboo shoots – one of my absolute favourite dishes, ever.
You can imagine how much drool pooled in my mouth, then, when I first saw a copy of new cookbook – Little Vietnam – and found bánh xèo tucked inside its pages. Not only that, but also recipes for phở (noodle soup), chả cá (fish cakes), mực rang muối (salt and pepper squid), and – of course – Gỏi Cuốn Chay (vegetarian rice paper rolls). All favourites.
This gorgeous book, released by Lantern (an imprint of Penguin) this June, is by chef Nhut Huynh, a native of southern Vietnam, who first came to Australia as a refugee in 1984. Beginning his culinary journey as a kitchen hand, Huynh (pronounced ‘hooen’), was soon offered a chef’s apprenticeship and went on to work in various kitchens around Sydney.
In 2002, Huynh opened his first establishment – RQ Restaurant in Surry Hills – with business partner Jeremy McNamara, to much critical acclaim. He has since moved on to open Snakebean Asian Diner in Oxford Street and continues to run a highly successful catering business.
Huynh’s first foray into the book world has landed with a delectable bang. Little Vietnam is a beautifully-bound, design-rich book all cooks of Asian cuisine will love. It features mouth-watering photos by photographer Chris Chen and includes a personalized history of Hunyh’s touching journey, complete with a peek in his family album.
The book is broken into easy-to-use sections such as poultry, beef, seafood and sweets, but what I like most about its layout are the initial chapters on Getting Started and Essentials.
Getting Started begins with a fascinating look into Vietnamese food, written by Jeremy McNamara, followed closely by extremely useful advice on tools and equipment needed to cook this style of food. Happily, the tools needed for Vietnamese cuisine are simple, and many items are already found in modern day kitchens, such as the mortar and pestle, bamboo steamer and wok.
A peek into the contents of a ‘Vietnamese pantry’ gives clear advice on what to stock if you wish to drum up your favourite dish in a hurry, and Huynh also gives advice on how to set out ingredients, as well as buying and handling fresh produce.
Essentials provides us a colourful list of essential ingredients, coupled with photographs and even recipes (ginger sauce and curry paste, for example), and there’s also a list of banquet menu suggestions.
All this before you even get to the recipes, which are rich and textured with authenticity and variety, accompanied by delicious photographs that focus on traditional plating on classic Vietnamese dishware, rather than over-styled glamour shots. The author even gives us a glimpse into the origin of his recipes, showing us that Vietnamese recipes vary enormously between regions, and are adapted and updated constantly.
Little Vietnam’s focus, despite its beautiful layout, is definitely on the food. Huynh gives us a book full of recipes from the most enriched and authentic source – his own life story – his childhood steeped in the smells of lemongrass, fish sauce and aromatic herbs, and his adulthood pungent with experience and exposure to Australia’s diverse and abundant fresh produce.
For me, Little Vietnam is a blessed addition to my culinary wishlist. When I open this book and cook from it for the very first time (it will definitely be bánh xèo), I may not physically find myself on the shores of the river at an authentic Vietnamese cooking school, but I know all my senses will be transported right there – if only until that prawn pancake has been gobbled ravenously from its plate.
Chúc ngon miệng. Bon appétit!
To experience our cooking experience [of a lifetime], head to The Red Bridge Restaurant and Cooking School – www.visithoian.com/redbridge
Little Vietnam by Nhut Huynh is published by Penguin Australia and is available now at book retailers for the recommended retail price AU$49.95