My obsession with Vietnam and Vietnamese food began about six years ago when I read ‘A Cook’s Tour’ by chef Anthony Bourdain. As I read his fervent descriptions of his culinary road trip through Vietnam, detailing the vibrancy of the food and its and eye-popping flavours, spices and marinades, I just knew I had to go there. So about a year later my then-boyfriend (now husband) and I packed our rucksacks and headed to South East Asia for a six-month trip visiting several countries, and we devoted one month of it to discovering Vietnam. Once we were there, we simply couldn’t stop eating – great bowlfuls of beef Pho noodle soup decorated with herbs, chopped noodle salads doused in zingy marinades, fragrant stews, jewel-like fresh summer rolls, crispy spring rolls adorned with salads…oh God we were hooked. We had to extend our visas to stay a second month. Just to fit all the meals in. And we still didn’t want to leave at the end…
Mid-way through our two month stay, we met an amazing chef in the picturesque town of Hoi An called Duc Tran. He ran a tiny neat cafe called the Hoai River Restaurant along a narrow backstreet, and we ate at his place for six days on the trot because he cooked like a god. We persuaded him to give us cooking lessons – he wasn’t sure at first, but after twisting his arm we became his first ever students. For just $5 each, he spent the whole morning taking us around the local market to pick out produce, and then we made three dishes together: a squid and watercress salad, lemongrass, chilli and chicken stir fry and a crab soup. He wouldn’t divulge the secret of how to make Vietnam’s national dish of Pho, the legendary beef noodle soup with its aromatic broth of star anise and other magical ingredients – every family has its own secret way of making the broth. But no matter; we were totally bewitched with Vietnam’s style of cooking, and we left the country determined to eat Vietnamese food as often as possible back in England.
The things that this style of cuisine so special to me are the liberal use of fresh herbs – mint, coriander, holy basil, sawtooth – and the abundance of fish sauce and aromatics such as lemongrass, garlic and chilli. Vietnamese cuisine is light and fresh, never making you feel bloated or heavy, even when you’re as greedy as I am! I would be happy to eat this way every single day, and luckily in London we are blessed with ‘The Vietnamese Mile’ – a long stretch of Vietnamese restaurants on the Kingsland Road in Shoreditch, East London. My favourite one (of many) is Loong Kee, where you can feast on a veritable banquet of wonderful dishes for roughly £12 a head. No kidding!
Last weekend we took our very good pals S and C to Loong Kee – they are our ideal partners in greed as they also love to cook and eat as much as we do. And we knew they’d be impressed with the spread…
Crispy soft shell crab (left), fresh summer rolls, crispy squid with chilli and salt (right):
Beef in betel leaves:
Beef ‘loc lac’ (front) and king prawn rice noodles with lemongrass:
The magnificent ‘cha ca la vong’: Hanoi-style monkfish with turmeric and dill…
…and its accoutrements:
The happy diners at the end:
The thing that I love about Loong Kee is that it’s totally unpretentious and the food is always good. You sit at formica tables and you can bring your own booze. The staff are efficient and friendly. The tantalising smells of fish sauce, garlic and anise waft out from the kitchen. There are absolutely no frills, and you will struggle to spend more than £15 per head even if you are a total uninhibited glutton. If you can’t make it to Loong Kee, you will still eat very well at a number of the other Vietnamese restaurants along the Kingsland Road – Cay Tre and Viet Grill are two other great places to try out.
If any of you happen to go to Hoi An in Vietnam do go and see if Duc still has his restaurant there – here is the address:
Hoai River Restaurant
44 Nguyen Thai Hoc St
Tel: 0510 910 809
And when in London:
134G Kingsland Road
London E2 8DY
Tel: 020 7729 8344