'Don't get in between Dai and food!' Fairfield City councillor Dai Le chats about her journey as a refugee, how Fairfield faired with lockdown, and the dishes and restaurants that bring her warmth all year round.
By
Mark Mariano

21 Jun 2021 - 2:33 PM  UPDATED 22 Jun 2021 - 9:20 PM

 --- The Cook Up with Adam Liaw airs weeknights on SBS Food at 7.00pm. Dai Le's Winter Warmer episode airs Wednesday, 23rd June. Each episode will be made available after broadcast on SBS On Demand. --- 

 

Nestled in a hidden Chinese-Cambodian restaurant off John Street in Cabramatta, Dai Le (@daile_inspo) chats with SBS Food over steaming egg noodle soup. Dai is a local council member, former journalist, current business founder, and most recently, one of Adam's guests on The Cook Up's Refugee Week.

Le and her family came to Australia in the 70s as refugees of the Vietnam War. After leaving the camps and a short stint on the south coast, her family found home in Fairfield - in Sydney's west.

"My mother brought us here. There was a growing Vietnamese population, and I think for many refugees at the time, they flocked to this area," Dai recalls. "There’s comfort in knowing there’s food and shops here where people speak the language they do. They feel safe."

"There’s comfort in knowing there’s food and shops here where people speak the language they do. They feel safe."

Before pivoting into local politics, Dai felt stagnant as a reporter. "I was at a crossroads in my career, looking for something that had greater impact. At that stage, I had spent 17 years of my life as a storyteller, and I felt I wasn’t going anywhere. I saw how upset locals were with the MP at the time, and my husband suggested I give politics a go."

Dai is set to enter her tenth year as a councillor in 2021. As a Fairfield local with hundreds of community stories, she had more of an understanding of the issues people faced. "I understand the population, their background, the demographics, the aspirations, the challenges - and that was a benefit."

For The Cook Up's Winter Warmer edition, Dai made rau muống xào - stir-fried water spinach with garlic and fermented bean curd, famously known as 'morning glory'. ‘I love rau muống - it’s simple, cheap, and it grows anywhere and everywhere. For me, it was one of the first familiar vegetables that was available in Australia.' Dai reminisces.

If given more time, Dai would have made traditional phở (beef noodle soup), but the best attempts take hours to cook. Many traditional Vietnamese recipes require a fair amount of attention and preparation, so she opted for the quick and simple vegetarian dish.

COOK DAI'S' RECIPE
Water spinach with garlic and fermented bean curd

Wok stir-fry water spinach is one of my favourite dishes. It’s so simple, yet it’s tasty. And is cheap too!

While Dai's appearance on The Cook Up was the first time she had met Adam, the two knew of each other through their work in the Asian Australian Leadership community. "Adam has come out here [Cabramatta] for a couple of culinary festivals, but I had never met or spoken to him [but] he does have quite a presence here," she says. In 2017, Adam was the ambassador for District 8, a restaurant hub within Cabra Vale Diggers, a local RSL.

Don't get between Dai and her food

On The Cook Up, Dai jokes about how her friends and family see her as a notorious foodie. "Food is so integral to family and relationships - we talk about food a lot. I think in Western culture, they don’t have that same connection to food. We talk about what we’re going to have for breakfast and lunch and what we’re going to get at the markets.

"When I’m surrounded by non-Asian people, and they see me eat so much, they sometimes ask ‘Are you always thinking about food?’ That’s just how I’ve been brought up!"

"When I’m surrounded by non-Asian people, and they see me eat so much, they sometimes ask ‘Are you always thinking about food?’ That’s just how I’ve been brought up!" Dai laughs.

Community comeback

COVID-19 hit the hospitality industry hard, and that was just in the CBD alone. In outskirt communities like western Sydney, it hit even harder.

"When I saw how it forced many local small businesses to shut down, it was a struggle. It was very difficult.' Dai laments. The famously bustled John Street in Cabramatta is one of the most expensive commercial areas in Sydney, according to Dai, who says its storefront rent is almost comparable to Double Bay. When Greater Sydney restrictions were at their peak, the street stood still. 

As regulation eased, the strip slowly edged back to its regular pace. "We were one of the first communities to start wearing masks - even before masks were mandated. Fairfield had one or two cases, but other than that, we managed it really well," she says. 

In Fairfield, 7 out of 10 households speak a language other than English, and Dai believes there are a lot of aspirational diverse business owners rebuilding Fairfield's food economy. "This community isn’t scared of working hard. It's very innovative. They did the best they could and followed and listened to authorities very quickly. They didn’t rebel."

As the city rebuilds and as Dai enters her tenth run as councilor, she is focused on empowering community engagement. Le's platform, both online and offline, is 'about talking with the people and sharing information. People see my life, I don’t shield things or hide things away.'

Dai Le's Fairfield faves

  • Battambang Restaurant (Cabramatta)
  • Phuong Nam Noodle House (Canley Heights)
  • La Italiana (Smithfield)
  • Kiki's Café (Smithfield)
  • Maison Café (Greenfield Park)
  • La Grilla (Canley Heights)
  • Hai Au Lang Nuong (Canley Vale)
  • Frankie & Co (Bonnyrigg)
  • Gigino (Fairfield West)

MORE VIETNAMESE STAPLES
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It’s hard to imagine an easier dessert than this. Vietnamese coffee is known for its characteristic fragrance which pairs well with the mascarpone cream.

Lemongrass pork belly on rice

Adam loves Vietnamese broken rice (cơm tấm) dishes, but having all the elements from the pork skin to mung bean noodle omelette can be a little daunting. This version simplifies things for a simple dinner.

Pho bo (beef pho)

Pho bo is my absolute favourite pho. It has a rich beef flavour and fat from the top of the broth, which is referred to as the golden layer. It’s this fat that gives beef pho its unique aroma.

Prawn and pork salad with green papaya

Green papaya is commonly used in salads throughout Southeast Asia, and this classic Vietnamese dish is no exception. It’s simple, delicious and filled with multiple textures.

Braised meatball banh mi

Xiu mai is a great example of a Vietnamese play on Chinese and French food influences. Meat dumplings (meatballs) are braised in a tomato sauce, then piled into a crispy banh mi with all the trimmings.

Rice paper salad with shrimp

Adding rice paper to salads is a fairly new innovation that’s taken off over the last five years. The addition of rice paper to this tangy salad adds a wonderful textural element to the dish. It’s also great served with Vietnamese beer!