Why buy it?
Accompanying Luke Nguyen's SBS series of the same name, Greater Mekong unravels like the bends in the mighty river itself across Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, revealing the vibrant colour, flavours and cultural nuances of the people it sustains. Bold salads, spiced noodles, and rich braises all come with a lovely provincial sense. They haven’t been fussed over or finessed to modern tastes, rather they’re like heirlooms, intercepted in their generational descent by Nguyen’s gentle hand. His dedication to the keeping true to the origins of these recipes and the culture they’re entwined with is obvious by way of more unusual inclusions, such as red ant egg salad, complete with live ants eaten mid-way through their escape from the bowl. But most recipes in this cookbook are more familiar and have a very usable simplicity. Chargilled salt-crusted lemongrass fish is one for the summer barbecue, while few things could be more restorative on winter nights than shan warm chickpea "tofu" noodle soup. Greater Mekong is destined to become a well-thumbed and grubbied addition to many cookbook collections.
Some recipes in this book read like a voodoo shopping list, requesting ingredients such as buffalo skin, red ant eggs, and fresh duck’s blood. While many urbanites may not be up to wielding a cleaver over a duck’s downy neck, a trip to the Asian grocery store will take care of most of the more pedestrian ingredients.
Warm young jackfruit salad. You may be familiar with the golden, slippery orbs of ripe bubblegum-tasting jackfruit, but young jackfruit, with its more savoury taste, is well worth a try, too.
Most surprising dish
Red ant egg salad – bite it before it bites you! Perhaps best sampled in its country of origin.
Many of these recipes are borne from the poverty of rural Asia and use ingredients of opportunity, perhaps none more so than the rice paddy frog salad. It’s heart-warming to see the pride the traditional custodians take in these dishes and their eagerness to pass them on.
Anyone who relishes the vibrancy of Asian fare will enjoy these recipes.
Luke Nguyen’s Greater Mekong (Hardie Grant, $39.99, hbk).