Mark Lowerson is an Australian who has been living and working in Vietnam since 2002. Mark started his food blog Stickyrice as a creative outlet in 2005, focusing his posts on street food in Hanoi and the culture around food in his adopted home.
Mark's alter-ego, Sticky, is a "gutter crawling streetfood eater and drinker." Stickyrice was featured on Gourmet's Diary of a Foodie in 2008 and was selected in TimesOnline's Best 50 Food Blogs in 2009. This year, Mark was a guest on Vietnam's National Broadcaster's (VTV) 'Talk Vietnam' program.
You've lived in Hanoi for a number of years, what prompted you to start a food blog?
A combination of factors, really. I've had a past life in hospitality back in Melbourne in the mid-late 90s and a very healthy interest in food growing up too. The food scene in Vietnam is an assault on the senses and pretty hard to get away from. It's an 'in your face' kind of experience, with markets and eateries and walking vendors very visible from the minute you step down into the street. Along with my interest in words as a literature graduate many years ago and a persistent though still very much amateur ability behind the camera, the three components (food, words, pictures) seemed to morph together. Egged on by a friend from Sydney, Kate Henry, who actually started the blog with me (she stopped contributing early in 2006) the first post on stickyrice was published in June 05.
What is Hanoi's number one essential eat and why?
If I had to nominate one dish, I wouldn't do it... so let me mention two:
- The world-wide phenomenon pho (noodle soup) which is said to have its origins if not in Hanoi, then not very far away. I've done a fair bit of research on this one; in fact one of the categories on the blog is the 'Hanoi Pho Swoop', which documents more than 30 different pho experiences that I've had in Hanoi... really hard work, as you can imagine! Put simply, pho is the comfort food of the nation.
- The other dish perhaps more synonymous with Hanoi (though it is available in certain spots, increasingly in Saigon) is the Vietnamese take on the barbecue, bun cha. Available only at lunch, it's pork patties and pork belly grilled by the roadside, plonked in a warm soup consisting of fish sauce, vinegar, sugar, thinly sliced young papaya, fresh chili and served alongside fresh vermicelli noodles and a tangled bush of herbs. What's not to like about that!
SBS food program, Luke Nguyen's Vietnam, airs tonight on SBSONE. Are you familiar with the program?
I think I caught one episode - maybe of a previous series - when I was back in Australia last year. I know he has a popular cookbook but unfortunately we don't get much SBS programming, at least not food programming on AustraliaNetwork. One program I do see on Discovery Travel & Living is Food Safari, which I love.
What's so good about Vietnamese cuisine?
Well, in general, it's healthy though you'll note some strong Chinese and other influences in certain dishes in Hanoi, where there maybe heavy-handedness with oil and salt. But the clean flavours, the balancing of the salty, sweet, sour, spicy, the amazing range of fresh herbs, different noodles and dipping sauces, the still very seasonal nature of fruit and vegetables... need I say more? Eating communally is another feature of the culinary tradition that I really enjoy, particularly in Vietnamese homes and in the celebration of occasions.
What are the similarities/differences between the Vietnamese and Australian food scenes?
There are not many similarities. I don't feel that well-qualified anymore to comment on the Australian food scene, but in general terms, particularly in Melbourne and Sydney, there is incredible diversity in the culinary landscape, with access to all the wonderful cuisines and ingredients for cooking at home. In Hanoi, while recently there has been an improvement in the availability of ingredients for other cuisines, it really remains an Asian cuisine wonderland. Luckily, I am in love with noodles, rice, all the wonderful Asian greens and it's very rare for me to crave food from other worlds... The other difference is that, in many respects, the food comes to you. Unlike in Australia where you might be constantly jumping in and out of a car to shop for ingredients, in Vietnam the vendor is often mobile and will come to you and do a lot of the work for you. I can get my vegetable vendor to peel garlic for me for example - no extra charge!
In Australia you can find restaurants catering to almost any cuisine you could wish for. What is the restaurant scene like in Hanoi?
I am not an expert on the restaurant scene. In fact, I find it rather dull. I'm much more interested in the authentic dishes available at street eateries or small family run establishments. There are quite a lot of high-end Vietnamese restaurants, sumptuously designed and located in old French colonial villas. The food always looks pretty on the plate but I wouldn't say that every dish is going to be a truly authentic experience at these places. There has been growth in restaurants of other cuisines since I've been in here: Italian, French, Indian, Moroccan, Japanese just to name an obvious few. Hanoi even has its own celebrity chefs, Bobby Chin and Didier Coulou!
What is your secret food shame?
Would it be too shocking to say that I've eaten dog meat... not once, not twice but three times!
What's your favourite recipe?
I love cooking but I don't document that on the blog, there's too many other talented cook/bloggers doing that already. I might allude to the kitchen occasionally but much prefer nosing about in the street kitchens of Hanoi for the purposes of the blog. That said, the salads of Vietnam are amongst my favourite dishes in the world, combinations like green mango and duck, shredded chicken with Vietnamese mint, shredded papaya with dried beef. I'm sure Mr Luke Nguyen has a recipe or two for Vietnamese salad!
What ingredient couldn't you live without?
Fish sauce, limes and fresh chili.