Indochine: Baguettes and bánh mì: finding France in Vietnam »’s Number One cookbook

By Robyn Lewis
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Indochine – Luke Nguyen

Indochine – Luke Nguyen [©Murdoch Books]


What do you get when you combine two of the world’s greatest cuisines, and let them simmer for over a hundred years? The amazing food of Vietnam…..

Vietnam sits like Asia’s rounded elbow, nudging into the balmy waters of the South China Sea. Chinese merchants passed through for thousands of years, trading tea, ceramics, silk and spices with the Middle East. It has been colonised by, and in turn ruled over, parts of China – their relationship has ebbed and flowed, and over millennia Vietnamese cuisine evolved from simple rice, fish and meat to become dominated by sophisticated Chinese techniques and tastes.

Marco Polo arrived in 1292, the Portuguese in 1516, followed by the Dutch. With European traders came chillies and corn, both natives of South America. It is difficult today to imagine Asian food without chillies; but more subtle culinary influences were to come.

The French arrived in the 1700s, first as missionaries and then as colonisers in 1858. With them they brought not only troops and the Catholic religion, but their tastes, customs and cuisine, which dominated Europe at the time. Imagine the culinary fusion.

They called the country Indochine (French Indochina, which then included Laos and Cambodia), and divided it into three: Tonkin in the north, Annam in the centre and Cochin-China in the south. With a coastline stretching over 3000 km north from the humid tropics, fertile river deltas and mountains to over 3000 m, almost anything subtropical will grow there – as will many temperate herbs and fruit, as the French soon discovered.

One of my first cultural shocks on tasting Vietnamese food was dill. How north European, what is this doing here, I asked myself – but how well its flavour blended with the Asian spices! I can still taste it now, and use the combination frequently; the Vietnamese subtle use of chilli (compared with their Thai near-neighbours) marries so well.

Then there’s the smell of fresh baguettes and croissants in the mornings, roasted coffee, garlic mayonnaise, terrines, pâté …. Vietnamese food is so different to that of China, and to me, it’s perhaps the best in Asia. Add the charming people with their great sense of humour (I call them ‘the Australians of Asia’), the scenery and the vibrancy, and it’s a winning destination too.

Indochine is a work of passion and love, and it permeates every page. Its author Luke Nguyen needs little introduction to Australian food lovers – boat person turned founder of Sydney restaurant The Red Lantern, cookbook author (Secrets of the Red Lantern, Songs of Sapa) and TV personality on both SBS and Ten’s MasterChef, Nguyen is quintessential refugee made good. He regularly returns to Vietnam to explore his heritage, to learn, and to share.

Despite the pounding of wars, there’s enough of the old colonial architecture still standing to give the place a lost in time feel, especially in the north. The Hanoi Opera House was built as a replica of architect Charles Garnier’s Paris equivalent. The Presidential Palace now houses government offices, with an air of faded colonial charm. There’s a French Quarter. And then there’s the Metropole.

Built in the late 1800s, and now run by Sofitel, it houses Le Beaulieu Restaurant, ‘renowned for its fine French food and magnificent old-world wines’. The menu reads like something from Paris: chicken in red wine, roast lobster with garlic butter and fresh pumpkin mousse, and no doubt a soufflé or two. Its head chef, Madame Van, gave Luke not only a number of her recipes, but tips on where to seek out French-Vietnamese fusion cuisine in Hanoi.

Of course, as with many meals in Vietnam, the search starts on the streets. Why cook or eat inside (at least, out of monsoon season) when it’s not raining? Many Vietnamese cooks (who have the culinary expertise of chefs, if not the official training) specialise in one or two dishes, honing them to perfection; thus stalls often only serve beef pho, or banh bao (dumplings), soup or whatever – to find the best, you simply look at the length of the queue…

Sometimes street food has French influence (Fish Cakes with Coriander and Chilli in Baguette; Pan-fried Fish with Turmeric and Dill) but often it is classic Vietnamese, so it’s necessary to dig a little deeper. Hop on the back of a motor bike with a Vietnamese guide, or get lost in the alleyways of the Old Quarter, and you’ll soon find it.

A dish called Bo Kho Hanoi (Slow-cooked Oxtail and Beef Brisket in Aromatic Spices) is a great example of how the Vietnamese turned a traditional French stew into a classic Vietnamese dish. It has hoisin sauce, tomato paste, cassia, annatto and more, and it outstandingly delicious. And we’re only on page 34.

Not all the recipes in Indochine are obviously French influenced (although many street snacks are served in baguettes – the recipe is given on p 168 – and then there’s the dill and broad beans, another French introduction); it’s often only when you read the techniques that you notice. There are chargrilled vegetables, farces, sauces and dressings that the French would recognise, even their now widespread use of beef is a colonial legacy – previously cattle were used more as working animals than sliced and grilled.

Like the Chinese, the Vietnamese categorise foods into ‘heating’ and ‘cooling’, reserving them for their appropriate seasons (winter can be quite chilly in Hanoi), and the dishes in Indochine in part reflect those beliefs, too. Bitter Melon with Duck Eggs, anyone?

Life under the French for the Vietnamese was not all rosy however. Like all colonists they exploited the people and the land, repatriated the profits (and like the British in China, some from opium), and no doubt worse. This culminated in rebellion in the early 20th century; although the Japanese controlled them in World War II, it took a further eight years of war before they were expelled in 1954. Their legacy has however helped make Vietnam what is it today, a nation of hard-working, industrious and friendly people, who share the French joie de vivre and love of good food.

Curiously, it also make them a nation of beer-drinkers – the French introduced beer-making along with coffee (wines were imported; it is only recently that wine grapes have been grown near Dalat, and even then, the local wines were originally made from strawberries). There are many Vietnamese dishes that are cooked in beer or have a beer sauce – not obviously French in technique, but without the colonists, the dishes would be very different. Luke’s Crab Steamed in Beer beckons temptingly….

There are so many dishes I want to cook in Indochine, it’s such a fabulous fusion cookbook and a huge step forward from the Vietnamese recipe books that were available in Australia in recent decades. OK, it’s still hard to get betel leaves in many places, but aluminium foil does nearly as well for the Lemongrass Scented Chargrilled Wagyu Beef… And what can be more multicultural than Pumpkin (or zucchini) Flowers Stuffed with Prawns and Dill?

So much of the food in Indochine is suited to our outdoor, casual lifestyle, and current trends for shared starters. Call it the tapas of Asia, if you like, it’s good. And why not add nam pla (fish sauce) to your terrine instead of salt? The bonus is the richness of umami flavour, and ideas that can be used elsewhere.

You’ll learn a lot, and the recipes will have you creating new combinations of your own. Would I have ever thought of using truffle in coconut spring rolls, Pho Noodle Soup with Salmon, or Dalat Artichokes with Clams in Vinaigrette Dressing? I’ll be trying the latter very soon, too… Indochine will take a very special place for cookbooks I use often: right in the kitchen. That is, when I can tear myself away from the stories and evocative photographs while reading it in bed.

Luke’s recipe selections follow a journey, from Hanoi to Dalat (described as ‘The French Alps of Indochina’) to Saigon in the south. This is kitchen travel at its best. The only minor criticism I have is that it’s sometimes hard to remember where you are. But who cares? Surrender yourself to tropical time and a fascinating culinary adventure, where Rabbit or Beef Tongue in Red Wine (with more nam pla) and Pork Cutlets with Broad Beans sit happily alongside Heart of Palm and Tomato Salad with Vietnamese Herbs, and Asian Celery Broth with Barramundi.

Almost all the recipes are suited to the home cook, although some are for the more experienced or adventurous. There’s plenty of inspiration for the chef, too. Yes, it sure is time to look beyond Thailand for our next dose of Asian influences in the home kitchen (we’ve had Vietnamese restaurants for years, of course, but perhaps not many of this calibre).

Australian winemakers are discovering Vietnam as a new market for our wines – Luke describes sipping on Petaluma Riesling and eating French cheeses in Saigon – and with almost 90 million people becoming more prosperous and sophisticated in their tastes, expect to hear more about Vietnam and the wine scene. I can't see precision in wine and Vietnamese food matching evolving just yet, but as with any cuisine, balance the weight of the wine to that of the dish (and the weather) and you won’t go far wrong.

Indochine features some interesting desserts, although they are not a mainstay: creative offerings include Fried Chocolate Truffles with Pink Pepper; Meringue et Passion(fruit); Pandan and Ginger Panna Cotta and the delicious Lemongrass and Kaffir Lime Crème Brulée.

The book’s penultimate chapter is another treat: Vietnamese cooking in France, a sort of reverse fusion. Luke travelled to Paris and Marseilles to meet cousins who emigrated there instead of Sydney, and sampled French dishes with a Vietnamese twist, including Snails in Coriander and Asian Basil; Caramelised Frogs Legs; Verrine (terrine in a glass) of Eggplant, Asparagus and Asian Mushrooms with Goats Curd, and Citrus-cured Sardine Salad. Perhaps the ultimate is Lamb Cutlets Cooked in Preserved Bean Curd (an acquired taste).

It concludes with a very useful chapter on the basics: how to quickly and easily make your own Nuoc Man Cham (the ubiquitous Vietnamese dipping fish sauce); Mo Hanh (spring onion oil, used in just about everything), garlic oil, annatto oil, stocks for pho, picked carrot and other accompaniments. There’s also a glossary of potentially unfamiliar ingredients.

Luke’s humility shines through Indochine. As in his TV series, he readily acknowledges that although he has joined the ranks of celebrity chefs, many of the cooks who have generously shared their recipes know a lot more about these dishes and techniques than him. But it has taken his trained eye and curiosity to stand back and see what they often cannot: that a century of French colonisation has left a culinary legacy so integrated with their own that they cannot believe that there was once life without consommés, coffee and charcuterie.

I love Indochine: Baguettes and bánh mì: finding France in Vietnam, and we have unhesitatingly awarded it’s Number One Cookbook for 2011.

Congratulations to author Luke Nguyen; the publisher Kylie Walker and team at Murdoch Books; photographers Alan Benson and Suzanna Boyd, and to all who generously contributed their recipes, techniques, stories and personal history to make this such a delightful production.

Australia should be proud to be producing cookbooks like Indochine, a title that can stand tall on the competitive world stage, which not only brings us something new but shows us a way forward in food, a book that will delight the home cook and may also inspire professional chefs to new levels of creativity.

We can all learn from history, and the rich cultures of France and Vietnam have a lot to teach us. Bon appetit with Indochine!


Indochine: Baguettes and bánh mì: finding France in Vietnam by Luke Nguyen is published by Murdoch Books (2011, Sydney, NSW; hc, 320 pp) and retails in Australia for RRP A$69.99. and WinePros Archive subscribers can purchase Indochine from our book partners Seekbooks at 12.5% off RRP here (postage extra) »

It is also available from here  »



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November 24th, 2011
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