• Thanh Berthou's mother instilled the joy of cooking, regardless of the cuisine. (Supplied)Source: Supplied
Blending Swiss, Australian and Vietnamese food flavours over the festive season keep Thanh Berthou's family connected to their diverse family heritage.
Thanh Berthou, Presented by
Elli Iacovou

16 Dec 2020 - 9:01 AM  UPDATED 25 Mar 2021 - 10:57 PM

My parents come from Vietnam and immigrated to Australia in 1979. They chose to come to Australia in part because some of my mother's siblings were already in Australia. However, many of my father's family had migrated to Switzerland some years before. My parents initially settled in Perth, where I was born, but we later moved to Sydney then Brisbane.

Food formed a big part of our family life, as it does for many Vietnamese families. Growing up, my parents ran a busy Vietnamese bakery, so we were always surrounded by food.

My mother, Nancy, worked long hours in the bakery every day, but she would still come home every evening to cook a proper Vietnamese homemade dinner — caramelised ginger chicken and chicken noodle soup. They were the meals we enjoyed the most as a family around the dinner table.

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Mum was a fantastic cook. Sometimes I would be her sous chef and grind spices and mix ingredients for her, but she was sadly always too busy to teach me whole recipes. Still, I did learn a lot just from watching her in the kitchen, although most of my early cooking skills came from home economic classes at school and TV cooking shows.   

One of the first things I learned to bake at school was an apple crumble from the Day to Day Cookery book, and I still remember making this often at home as a child. Gradually, my baking repertoire increased as I tried out more recipes at school and occasionally my mother would let me sell some of my better baked desserts, one of which was a cheesecake. 

From Vietnam to Australia to Switzerland - Berthou's family enjoys food from all these countries.

Overall, I had to work hard for my pocket money. After school and on weekends, I would help out in the bakery. I served customers, used a machine to slice bread and stacked shelves.

Following my parents' divorce, my father Tien started spending considerable time in Switzerland to be close to his siblings. That meant I spent many Christmases with my father's family. 

Both sides of my family could not have been more different, especially when celebrating Christmas, and this became a fascinating experience for me as I grew up.

"Both sides of my family could not have been more different, especially when celebrating Christmas."

My dad's side of the family in Switzerland wholly integrated with the community. They were familiar with the local customs, traditions and holidays. For Christmas, there was always my aunty Mai's filet im teig, a pork fillet wrapped in puff pastry that is similar to a beef Wellington. However, my family gave it Vietnamese twists. They added steamed Asian greens and other stir-fried vegetables. There was also always a panettone to serve with the adults' coffee or kids' hot apple punch, a chocolate yule log from the local bakery for dessert and of course, roasted chestnuts.

Conversely, Christmas in Australia with my mum and her side of the family was mostly a day of relaxing by the beach, feasting on grilled seafood and Vietnamese salads. Maybe I would get a stocking from the supermarket, but the whole notion of Christmas was unfamiliar territory to my mother, so she largely preferred to celebrate with the foods that she knew.

My own festive food

I began cooking when I moved out of home at the tender age of 17. My repertoire back then was limited to budget student meals.

It was only when I relocated to Switzerland in 2006 for work that I began wanting to cook my childhood meals.

Back then, there were no Vietnamese restaurants in Zurich, so if I was craving a bowl of pho, I had to make it myself. Thankfully, I could call up my mum for advice, but like many Vietnamese mothers, she cooks from memory and intuition — not precise recipes, which made it hard for me to get the portions right.

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To learn Vietnamese cooking, I have been amassing a large cookbook collection, which has become an enjoyable hobby. There's a lot of satisfaction in making a bun cha that rivals your mother's, and that sense of achievement is what motivates me to continue cooking and sharing with others through my blog Eat, Little Bird.

Now as a mum to two children who are half-Vietnamese and half-French, it's important to familiarise them with Vietnamese flavours and textures from a young age. When they began to eat solids, I would sneak in ingredients like coriander, coconut and fish sauce to get their palate used to these flavours.

Food is an important way to connect with one's heritage, so as a family we've decided to celebrate Christmas and New Year in the western tradition, and Chinese New Year in the Vietnamese. 

On Christmas Eve and New Year's Eve in Switzerland, we serve either a Swiss-Chinese fondue Chinoise or Swiss fondue bourguignonne and have an Australian-Swiss Christmas feast on Christmas day.

A fondue Chinoise is loosely based on the Chinese steamboat. Pieces of meat and vegetables are cooked in hot broth in a special pot placed at the centre of the table. They are served with an array of sauces and condiments — not to mention some French fries. A fondue bourguignonne is similar, except it features hot oil instead of a broth.

I'm still trying to get into the groove of Christmas day cooking, but I try to make it a combination of Swiss and Australian food traditions. So far, my experiments have varied. I have served friends and family roast Turkey, roast beef and roast pork belly. My favourite Christmas dessert is a variation on the Swiss Mont Blanc dessert, which I make as a pavlova with whipped cream and chestnut purée plus grated chocolate on top.

I'm rather fond of the Epiphany, which is a Christian celebration on 6 January. In the French-speaking part of Switzerland, they celebrate with a king's cake, called a galette des rois. It's a puff pastry wrapped around a layer of frangipane and whoever finds the fève, a little religious porcelain figure hidden inside it is crowned king for the day. 

"Sharing with others is a way of eating that's inclusive and honours diverse families and the coming together of food traditions."

In the German-speaking region where I live, the king's cake, called a dreikönigskuchen, is made from a sweetened yeast dough, similar to a brioche. These two cakes happen to be among my favourites, and because they are only sold in the week of the Epiphany, it makes them even more special.

When it comes to Chinese New Year, I want my children to understand why it features an abundance of food, something which signals generosity and prosperity. My husband's family, who are French, would never fill a table with this much. In fact, they would view a Chinese New Year spread as excessive. But, I want my children to learn and appreciate these differences.

While my mother never really celebrated Christmas when I was a child, she would go all out for Chinese New Year, so I am channelling her this festive season by cooking up a feast which we eat over lunch and dinner. It will consist of spring rolls, radish cake, tea eggs and braised pork belly with eggs. We will finish off with glutinous rice balls for dessert. The dessert is something I only make for Chinese New Year, so I hope my children will associate them with this tradition as they get older. 

I would say my mother was the one who instilled in me the joy of nourishing others, which in turn has made me appreciate the value of home cooking. This includes sharing with others a way of eating that's inclusive and honours diverse families and the coming together of food traditions. 

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