--- Diana Chan is bringing the wonder of Asian cuisine to your homes in the second series of Asia Unplated with Diana Chan, Thursday at 8pm on SBS Food and streaming on SBS On Demand. ---
When we talk about Vietnamese food in Australia, the dishes that often come to mind are pho bo (beef noodle soup), banh mi thit (pork rolls) and goi cuon (rice paper rolls)—iconic ‘street food’ dishes we’re all familiar with by way of Vietnamese mom-and-pop shops that have existed since the late 80s.
In the four decades since the first wave of Vietnamese immigrants arrived in Australia, the mainstream Vietnamese food scene has evolved from these hole-in-the-wall shops to Vietnamese street food chains often found in major shopping precincts. Of course, there are some suburban gems that offer a wider selection, mostly frequented by the Vietnamese community, keen gastronomes, and any lucky friends who are privy to this knowledge. But much of the flavour profile has been defined by this handful of popular dishes.
Vietnamese food is frequently described as ‘light’, ‘fresh’ and ‘flavoursome’ but missing from that palette is also ‘textural’, ‘salty’, ‘sweet, ‘bitter’ and ‘rich’.
Growing up as a first-generation Vietnamese-Australian, I was lucky to be raised on traditional Vietnamese home food, a side of our cuisine that doesn’t receive as much attention as it should for its broad selection and immense flavours. Vietnamese food is frequently described as ‘light’, ‘fresh’ and ‘flavoursome’ but missing from that palette is also ‘textural’, ‘salty’, ‘sweet, ‘bitter’ and ‘rich’. A melting pot of flavours that have been influenced by a repeated history of blended cultures. Take for example, ra gu bo a Vietnamese variation of beef ragout that is served with French baguettes, and banh mi ca moi (tinned sardines with crusty bread) a popular snack with colonial origins. In this mix, we also have the savoury yet saccharine flavours of thit kho (caramelised pork) and ga kho xa ot (braised lemongrass chicken), and textured dishes such as banh beo (dried shrimp steamed rice cakes), canh kho qua (bittermelon soup), tom lan bot chien (battered prawn lettuce wraps) and nghieu hap xa (lemongrass steamed pippis).
Despite not having much time in the limelight, these dishes have been in sight the whole time. How often have you visited your local Vietnamese joint and noticed the same corner table always occupied by an elderly Vietnamese person? This table is often the dining table where breakfast, lunch and dinner are served for the family running the establishment and their staff. Where off-menu family recipes are frequently shared in between meal preps, taking orders, school drop offs and waiting tables. The dishes are very quick to prepare and most families will have their own variation based on their family history and originating province.
In fact, on the occasions I can convince my mum to let me take her to a pho restaurant, I could guarantee she’ll utter the words, ‘I can make this at home’.
In fact, on the occasions I can convince my mum to let me take her to a pho restaurant, I could guarantee she’ll utter the words, ‘I can make this at home’. To an outsider, this may sound ungrateful but what she means is it doesn’t carry with it the aroma of her family’s broth. Like many Vietnamese-Australian women her age, mum has experienced many unspeakable hardships. After the war, her entire family found refuge in Europe while she found herself 15,000km away in Australia. Forced to build a new life alone, the only thing that connected her to her family was their shared recipes.
I remember my father used to make this for us on the weekends. He would fry all the eggs in one large frying pan, making sure the edges were crispy.
A common mistake when cooking pippies or clams is to overcook them, leaving them quite rubbery. Be sure to remove them from the heat as soon as the shells open up.
While pho can be found in most restaurants, her family’s broth allows her to reflect on times she spent slurping pho with her eight siblings back in Vietnam. Since moving out, I now find myself craving her dishes and replicating them for my wife who is also a first-generation Vietnamese-Australian. For us, these dishes are nostalgic and remind us of our own experiences growing up in Australia. While Vietnamese food is considered ‘street food’ to many Australians, it’s ‘home food’ to so many others and something I implore you to try at home, especially as the dishes are often simple to prepare.
Over the past few years, my favourite dish to cook at home has been bun bo xao (Beef vermicelli noodle salad). Bun bo xao combines ingredients such as lemongrass, beef, rice vermicelli noodles and fresh herbs, takes about 30 minutes to prepare, will feed a family of four and is full of fresh and delicious flavours. It’s as simple as stir-frying beef, boiling rice vermicelli noodles, cutting up herbs and making a my uniquely tangy nước mắm chấm dressing, that will leave you feeling fresh, light and satisfied.
These chewy little steamed rice cakes are a special snack in Vietnam's city of Huế as it's where they originated. Nowadays they're a popular street food enjoyed across the country.
The pastry 'lace' of these spring rolls creates a crisp and intriguing texture against the fragrant pork mince and plump, soft prawn filling.