If you’re going to open a restaurant and name it in honour of you mum’s cooking, you want to make sure that it does her food justice.
Luckily for Minh Vu, he’s achieved exactly that and has been pleasing his customers, and his mother, for over three years at his Vietnamese restaurant in Darwin, one of few in the city.
“Mum’s seal of approval? Yeah, I’ve got that, mate!” says Vu, laughing. “She’s surprised!”
The restaurant, Three Mums Kitchen, stands as a homage to the mothers of the three original owners, whose recipes were pooled together to bring a true taste of Vietnam to the Top End. “Everybody’s got their own techniques that they hide, so they all told us how they cooked and we gathered it all up,” Vu explains.
“Mum’s seal of approval? Yeah, I’ve got that, mate!”
Vu was born in Malaysia to a mother from Saigon, spent a few years in Tasmania, grew up in Melbourne and then moved seven years ago to Darwin for the fishing. The relaxed lifestyle and his love for sharing the food of his mum’s home country have kept him there ever since.
And he’s not the only one bringing foreign flavours to the NT: the city’s proximity to Southeast Asia has meant that noodle soups have become a staple in the Darwinian diet. The inaugural Laksa Competition was recently held, and queuing up at local markets for a steaming bowl of the coconut concoction has become a citywide ritual.
Vu now serves up steaming bowls of noodle soup to a sweltering soup-obsessed city, but there's no sign of laksa on his menu.
Vu is looking to add Vietnam’s famed phở to the noodle soup craze, getting his neighbours hooked on the dish like many other cities and towns around Australia.
“Everybody’s got a secret for phở, a special touch,” says Vu. “Depending on what region you come from in Vietnam, it’s always different. In the north they don’t use herbs and sauces, whereas we’re used to the hoisin and sriracha and the basil.”
Everybody will always say ‘my mum makes it the best, my mum makes it the best!” he adds.
For Vietnamese chef Luke Nguyen, he opts for black cardamom to add spice to his own phở recipe. In his new series, Luke Nguyen’s Railway Vietnam, he ventures into the thick jungles of Vietnam with Californian scientist Daniel Nguyen (no relation) to find it growing wild.
“I’ve been using this for a long, long time, particularly in my slow soups, particularly in phở” Luke shares.
Daniel agrees. “These red parts [of the black cardamom] are actually a lovely flavour in soups … That’s to die for.”
But no matter what your recipe calls for, Vu will tell you that when it comes to pho, it’s all in the stock, and a top-quality marrow bone is his first port of call. After that he has a few other secrets.
“I don’t use backbones [because they’re] a bit different. The stock that the backbone gives you, it’s a bit darker as well.”
“And of course, doing everything from scratch and showing the love! Getting the blood out of the bones, toasting the spices, looking after the stock and getting all the frothy bits off at the beginning of the stock is really important as well.”
The finishing touches come in the form of the pho noodles, coriander, onion and thin slices of beef.
“And of course, doing everything from scratch and showing the love! Getting the blood out of the bones, toasting the spices, looking after the stock."
It’s not a game for the impatient, as pho stock takes time. At Three Mums it gets cooked over two days to ensure flavour and is regularly checked to ensure the balance is spot on - an important part of Vietnamese cooking.
Luckily Vu isn’t in a rush. For him the joys of sharing the culture and flavours of Vietnam with Darwin makes it all worth the wait.
“I don’t even look at costings when it comes to the business. Obviously I need to make a little bit of money, but I try to give people the best that I can and show them Vietnamese food.”
That’s where it comes from for me, you know. Showing what Vietnamese food really is, man. That makes me really happy.”
Follow our Vietnamese food crawl from the south of Australia to the north. For an on-the-ground Vietnamese food crawl catch the new series of Luke Nguyen’s Railway Vietnam where he travels from the south to the north of the country, chatting, tasting and cooking along the way. Watch it Thursdays at 7:30pm on SBS and Sundays at 9pm on SBS Food from 5 2019 December to 30 January 2020 or on SBS On Demand.
Three Mums Kitchen Darwin
38 The Mall, Darwin City
08 8941 5808