• Jerry Mai's father only knew a few dishes, but no one can beat his version of this Vietnamese comfort food. (Jerry Mai)Source: Jerry Mai
Jerry Mai's late father only knew a few dishes, but no one can beat his version of this Vietnamese comfort food.
Lee Tran Lam

13 May 2020 - 1:39 PM  UPDATED 13 May 2020 - 1:39 PM

It wasn't common to see chef Jerry Mai's father at the stove.

"My mother would usually kick him out of the kitchen!" says the chef who runs Vietnamese restaurants Pho Nom, Annam, and Bia Hoi in Melbourne.

Her mother only relented on certain occasions, like when he returned after long spells working as a fisherman at sea – so exhausted that he'd sleep for three days. Finally, he had permission to haul out the pans and chopping boards. "That's when mum would let him in the kitchen. It's like, 'OK, you haven't been here, it'd be nice of you to cook something for the kids'."

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It was a big deal in Mai's household. "This would happen a handful of times a year and you'd get so excited," she says.

"He had three main dishes and one breakfast, and that's how he rolled."

Her father was like a band with very few hits to its name – but the hits lingered and were worth revisiting as often as you could.

His braised chicken in ginger is a standout and one Mai thinks of very fondly. "My father makes the best version of this," she writes in the introduction to the recipe in her Street Food Vietnam cookbook.

"If you want to infuse a nice deep flavour, you use old ginger."

The dish sends her back to the family backyard in Brisbane, which was fragrant with bushes of lemongrass, and home to betel leaf plants, sugarcane stalks, and banana trees. "We were able to grow our own ginger," she says.

Mai's father told her to use older varieties in the dish, not young ginger, as she stood on a chair watching him braise the chicken at the stove. It's advice she still uses today: "If you want to infuse a nice deep flavour, you use old ginger."

As he stirred sugar into the ginger-charged oil in the pan, he'd explain how important caramel was to Vietnamese food, how the savoury-sweet base powered so many traditional dishes. "And if you burn it, start again," he told her. It was a lesson echoed by her superiors when Mai started working in restaurant kitchens.

At home, though, Mai started cooking at age seven. "The first thing I learned how to make was fried rice," she says.

Then came the stir-fry experiments with instant noodles. The sizzle and pop of frying oil was enchanting – even if her mother stressed out she could possibly get burnt. Mai remembers standing on a chair, with oil spitting from the pan and sugar caramelising, and her mother yelling caution on one side and her dad saying, "She's fine!" on the other.

"I'm like 'mate, I'm standing next to the fire cooking, I don't care what you two are saying!'" she recalls.

Nowadays, though, when she makes the dish, her dad's voice emerges. "I hear how important it is to get the ginger nice and crispy," she says. "Sometimes I get lazy and I do the caramel and just throw the ginger in and it's not the same! That's when I think, God I wish you weren't so right all the time."

That's why the recipe in her book is exactly as her father taught her, and includes his advice to use chicken on the bone. "On the bone, there's more flavour, and I can see my dad sitting there and just munching on the chicken bone and sucking every ounce of life out of it. And that's exactly what I do," she says. "I feed my son chicken on the bone and he's working out how to do it."

Harry is not yet two, but Mai is keen to cook with him as her dad did. 

"At the moment, he's limited to not-hot items and pounding curry pastes with me. Eventually, I'll upgrade and it'll be my wife in the background going, 'you're going to burn him!' And I'll be there going, 'he'll be right!'"

The chef is keen to pass her Vietnamese cooking knowledge onto him and can't wait until he's old enough to confront bubbling pans of oil. Keeping cultural traditions alive has seemed even more important during this lockdown period, especially as Mai's father recently passed away from a long-term illness.

"He was sick for a while," she says. "We've come to the realisation that this is probably better for him … we're coming to peace with it.

"I live 30 minutes from my mum's place, but I was only going down there every fortnight to see them because life got in the way," says Mai. "But cooking brings everything back. Cooking brings everybody back."

The dishes her dad taught her – as few as they were – are now more relevant than ever. And making the ginger-braised chicken, and conjuring those childhood stovetop memories of him, seems like a highly appropriate tribute to him.

"I'm actually going to cook it tomorrow. We're lighting incense for him and been giving him different foods [as a religious offering], so I'm going to do that and give it to him."

As the old ginger and the chicken on the bone go into the pan, hopefully, his voice comes back.


Braised chicken in ginger

1.8 kg chicken
2 tbsp vegetable oil
150 g ginger, peeled and julienned
50 g fine caster (superfine) sugar, plus extra if needed
80 ml (⅓ cup) fish sauce, plus extra if needed
1 tsp ground white pepper
2 long red chillies, sliced
1 handful coriander leaves
Steamed jasmine rice, to serve

1. First, prepare the chicken. Using a cleaver or large knife, chop the chicken in half through the breastbone. Cut off the thighs, then break them down into 3-4 smaller pieces. Remove the chicken wings from the breast and cut off the tips. Finally, cut the breast into 5-6 pieces.
2. Place the oil and ginger in a large, deep frying pan with a lid, and set over medium heat. Cook the ginger for 5-7 minutes until golden brown then, using a slotted spoon. Remove the ginger from the oil and drain on a plate lined with paper towel. Set aside.
3. Add the sugar to the ginger-infused oil over low heat. Cook, stirring continuously, for 7-10 minutes until the mixture turns a golden caramel. Take care not to burn the caramel, otherwise, the dish will be bitter.
4. Add the chicken to the pan and stir quickly and continuously to ensure the chicken and caramel don't stick to the bottom of the pan.
5. Reduce the heat to medium-low, and add the ginger and fish sauce. Keep stirring the chicken to coat with the caramel, then cover and simmer for 30 minutes or until the chicken is cooked through. Check the seasoning, and season with more sugar and fish sauce if necessary.
6. Divide the chicken among serving bowls, sprinkle with white pepper, and scatter the chilli and coriander over the top. Serve immediately with bowls of steamed rice.

Recipe and main image from Street Food Vietnam by Jerry Mai (Smith Street Books/Simon & Schuster, $35)

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