• There is nothing more comforting than a huge pot of thịt kho tàu gently braising on a stove. (Cash Only Diner)Source: Cash Only Diner
Chau Tran's new restaurant is a love letter to her mother, Ngoc Ton.
By
Bron Maxabella

24 Jan 2022 - 2:50 AM  UPDATED 16 Feb 2022 - 2:09 AM

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There was a time in her life when Chau Tran tried desperately to wish her Vietnamese heritage away.

"Growing up you don't really want to be the 'different' kid, because you can be a target," says Chau, co-owner of Sydney's Burrow Bar and new restaurant Cash Only Diner. "I really fought against my 'Vietnamese-ness' at school. I wanted the jam on my sandwich, I wanted the juice box - I'd swap my lunches with people on the playground. Looking back, they definitely got the better end of the deal."

If the dishes coming out of the kitchen at Cash Only Diner are anything to go by, those kids Chau was swapping food with had it made. The restaurant serves food based on Chau's mother Ngoc Ton's recipes from home. Chau's mother is from the Hue region, where the food is distinctive from food from other parts of Vietnam. So distinctive, in fact, that Chau's mum thought Chau and her partner Bryce McDonough should pull back on some of the bigger flavours.

"We argued about how authentic we should go," explains Chau. "Bryce and I agreed that we wanted to have all those funky, authentic sauces, but Mum was very much like, no, people won't get it, you're in the city, they won't like it."

"I'd swap my lunches with people on the playground. Looking back, they definitely got the better end of the deal."

Happily, Chau and Bryce were right and when Ngoc came into the restaurant for the first time, she could see people embracing her heritage for herself. "It made her really proud to be Vietnamese," confirms Chau. "Sometimes, I remember growing up she was a little bit embarrassed about the language barriers or having her four children running home crying about 'why is my hair black and not blonde.'"

The opening of Chau's new restaurant filled Ngoc with pride for her cultural heritage. "There wasn't a dry eye in the house," says Bryce. "It was so incredibly moving to see someone filled with pride for the culture and heritage that they've managed to imbue into [their child] and created an opportunity that they otherwise wouldn't have had."

Developing the recipes together brought Chau and her mum closer. Ngoc learned how to cook at a French finishing school in Hue and growing up food had always been the foundation of her relationships. Creating the food for Cash Only Diner with Chau solidified that.

"My Mum worked three jobs when I was growing up," says Chau. "She supported the family. The only time I really got to see her was when she was preparing food... Mum showed her love through food."

"It was so incredibly moving to see someone filled with pride for the culture and heritage that they've managed to imbue into [their child]." 

The significance of the food Chau makes and shares is embedded deep in her heart.  

"There's a saying in Vietnamese, 'eat for joy'," says Chau. "It encompasses how hospitable Vietnamese people are... my mum had translated it to 'eat for fun' and growing up, no matter how full we were, no matter how many dishes were coming out of that kitchen, she was expecting you to be able to fit in another mouthful."

Food and a love of cooking were interwoven into every part of Chau's childhood. Both were so abundant that Chau says she "didn't even know that we were poor until I was in high school and then I was like, oh, okay!" 

Her mother's recipe for thịt kho tàu is an example of a dish that spoke only of richness during Chau's childhood. It's a recipe that would be made for sharing at a big occasion, like Lunar New Year. It's a quick dish to put together, then it braises on the stove for hours, melting into deliciousness.

It was Ngoc's father's favourite dish and even after his passing it continues to be part of each Lunar New Year. "My mum was such a daddy's girl, her dad's passing really impacted her for a very long time. [During Lunar New Year] is the one time of the year that we would invite him home and remember the great, fond memories that we have. No matter what else is on the table each year, thịt kho tàu is always there."

"No matter what else is on the table each year, thịt kho tàu is always there." 

There is nothing more comforting than a huge pot of thịt kho tàu gently braising on a stove, says Chau. "Christmas, Lunar New Year, weddings… my childhood memories of special occasions are filled with this heady scent of salty and sweet big chunks of collagen-heavy pork with the ever-present eggs. It’s flavourful and hearty but still light enough to go back for more...and more."


 

 

Thịt kho tàu

Serves 8

Ingredients

  • 900 g pork (I like to use a mix of pork belly and pork shoulder)
  • 2 litres of water

Braise ingredients

  • 200 ml of young coconut juice or coconut water (this isn’t as sweet, so adjust with some sugar at the end of your braise)
  • 3 tbsp fish sauce
  • 2 tsp salt
  • 3 tbsp caramel colour (nuoc mau, you can make this by caramelising sugar or buying it from an Asian grocer) 
  • 8 large hard-boiled eggs
  • star anise
  • 4 cm piece, ginger lightly bruised

Dau chua - quick-pickled veg

  • 100 g bean sprouts
  • 200 g carrots, julienned 
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp sugar
  • 3 tbsp vinegar

Blanched veggies

  • 1 tsp salt
  • water
  • 1 quartered cabbage, cut into 4cm pieces 

Method

  1. Cut the pork into 4cm to 5cm cubes. 
  2. Bring 2L (or enough to fully submerge the pork) of tap water to a rolling boil, blanch the pork for 2 mins to remove the scum. Drain then rinse the pork under cool running water. Discard this water.
  3. Rinse the pot and add the coconut juice, fish sauce, ginger, star anise and salt, then add the pork back and just enough water to cover it.
  4. Bring to a boil then lower heat to a simmer for about 1.5 to 2 hours total, leaving covered for the first 40 minutes. Check and stir the pot every 20 minutes. 
  5. Make the caramel colour (nuoc mau) in a separate pot and add it to the pot of thit kho
  6. Make the hard-boiled eggs
  7. During the last 40 minutes of cooking add the peeled eggs.
  8. Reduce the liquid so it is a third of the starting amount, 
  9. Season, if required with sugar, salt or fish sauce and extra water, but you can do it based on your own taste of the sauce and pork softness. 
  10. Serve with jasmine rice and a side of pickles and blanched veggies (you should dip the veg and pickles into the broth as you eat the dish).

To make dua chua (quick pickles)

  1. Add carrots and bean sprouts into a bowl and massage salt into them - leave to sit for an hour.
  2. Rinse and dry veggies.
  3. Massage sugar into the veg and add the vinegar - let sit for 10 minutes and it’s ready to eat.

 

Eat for fun
Deep-fried ice cream with salted caramel

Scoops of fried salted caramel ice cream smothered in homemade salted caramel, a creamy, sticky sensation.

Banh xeo

The name banh xeo comes from the sound of the batter hitting the hot frying pan (xeo means sizzle). I absolutely love these crispy pancakes with their accompanying fragrant, fresh herbs.

Seafood spring roll (chả giò rế)

The pastry 'lace' of these spring rolls creates a crisp and intriguing texture against the fragrant pork mince and plump, soft prawn filling. 

Hue beef noodle soup (Bún bò Huế)

Hue is famous for its spicy beef noodle soup, known to the locals as 'bun bo Hue'. This recipe will make more broth than you need but any excess can be stored for 3 days in the refrigerator or frozen for up to 3 months.

Vietnamese chicken rice (Com ga)

In almost every corner of Hoi An you can see vendors selling chicken rice. The most common style of chicken rice is torn with your fingers, as Luke does with his dish.

 

Hanoi grilled fish (Chả cá lã vọng)

Originating in the old quarters of Hanoi in the 1890’s, this dish became so popular that it has its own street named after it. Fish, turmeric and fresh dill combine to make this wonderfully fragrant Vietnamese classic. Food Safari Water

Fried sticky rice cakes (xoi chien phong)

Theses delicious sticky rice cakes are often served in Vietnam as an accompaniment to grilled chicken or sweet crisp roasted duck but are just as delicious served solo, as a snack, dredged in sugar or icing sugar. Note that a wok is the best cooking vessel to use here and that using a cooking thermometer is by far the safest and most accurate way to monitor the temperature of your oil.

Hue pancake (banh khoai)

Banh khoai translates as "happy pancake". Luke Nguyen cooks this beautiful Vietnamese rice flour crepe, which is crispy, moist and full of flavour. It is served with a hoisin dipping sauce, which was a secret recipe until now!

Hue lemongrass skewers (nem lui hue)

These Vietnamese beef and pork skewers are shaped around stalks of lemongrass and cooked on a chargrill, which releases a smoky aroma that flavours the meat beautifully.

Chargrilled pork patties with Vietnamese herbs (bun cha)

Luke Nguyen's chargrilled pork patties with Vietnamese herbs are perfect for summer outdoor entertaining. All the components can be prepared ahead of time, then all you have to do is fire up the barbecue and the guests assemble their own. What's not to love?