Pete and I and a couple of friends spent the weekend feasting with Uyen Luu. And she wasn’t even there!
Instead, we cooked up a storm from her beautiful cookery book, My Vietnamese Kitchen. Over the weekend we made a dessert for our first dinner, another recipe for breakfast, one more for the next dinner and yet another for Sunday lunch. While the rain and wind lashed outside, we stayed warm and busy cooking and eating – what better way to spend a weekend with dear friends?
Uyen Luu was born in Vietnam into a close-knit, food-loving family – her maternal grandmother opened a noodle soup shop in her front room to help make ends meet during the tough times following the Vietnam War, and some of Uyen’s earliest memories are of her grandmother making and serving her fragrant bún bò huế to customers. Times were very tough during that period and Uyen’s parents made the decision to emigrate to London. Here, her mother continued to raise her family on a traditional Vietnamese diet, as best she could with the ingredients available here.
I came to know Uyen’s story and her cooking via her food and travel blog, where she shares a mixture of old and new memories and tasty recipes, all beautifully illustrated by her creative photography and styling. Since moving to the UK, she has returned to Vietnam often, and her travel journal posts are a particular pleasure to read.
Uyen and I met in person several years ago via her supperclub – she is one of the pioneers of the UK supper club phenomenon – and I couldn’t fail to be captivated as much by her gentle and complex character as by her food; she’s shy but riotous (and occasionally fiery), vulnerable but strong, superbly creative but genuinely modest, a social butterfly but also quite private. I love to sit in her kitchen, following her instructions to stir the stock, chop some vegetables, rub salt and oil onto the meat, and talk about life, the universe and everything. She has a knack for bringing out a protective feeling in me, and I’m always so happy to learn of her successes and joys.
So I was delighted when she announced her book deal, which resulted in this truly beautiful book. Her food is authentic, delicious and achievable and she’s taught many, many people how to make it during the cookery classes she also runs out of her East London home. Those numbers include greats like Raymond Blanc and Jamie Oliver, who are quick to acknowledge not only her skill with flavours but also her ability to teach those skills to others.
I was one of the many friends who helped Uyen with recipe testing when she was still writing the book, and when I saw the finished book, I felt very proud to have played a (very very tiny) part in it.
As I always knew it would be, the book is a visual feast. The team she worked with to style and photograph the book have captured Uyen’s very personal and quirky style amazingly well. First and foremost, the images showcase the food itself, but they also create a very warm and rich tapestry that tells Uyen’s story beautifully.
My Vietnamese Kitchen starts with an introduction to key ingredients. The recipe chapters are then divided into Breakfast, Soups, Snacks, Noodles, Lunch & Dinner and Sweets. Many of the recipes need only what you can find in a well-stocked UK supermarket, but of course there are some that require specialist ingredients. In this era of online shopping, these are no longer difficult to source.
Here is Uyen’s recipe for Caramelised Sardines in Coconut Water (cá mòi kho). As we couldn’t get sardines, we switched to mackerel as a similarly oily fish; we also doubled the recipe (given in its original quantities, below). It was beautifully simple, worked perfectly and we all really loved it! I’m already planning on making this one again and again.
Caramelised Sardines in Coconut Water (cá mòi kho)
- 1 tbsp vegetable oil
- 1/2 red onion , finely chopped
- 350 grams whole sardines , scaled and gutted
- 150 ml coconut water (or use fresh water plus a teaspoon of sugar)
- 1 Bird's Eye chilli
- 1 pinch black pepper
- 1 tsp coconut caramel (see note)
- 1 tsp sugar
- 1 tbsp fish sauce
- cooked rice , to serve
As we didn’t have any coconut caramel, we followed Uyen’s tip to melt and caramelise some brown sugar instead. Make sure you let the sugar get reasonably dark so it can add colour, sweetness and bitterness to the dish.
Heat the cooking oil in a frying pan over medium heat and fry the onion until browned.
Add the sardines to the pan and fry for about 2 minutes per side.
Add the coconut water, chilli, pepper, coconut caramel, sugar, fish sauce and a little more vegetable oil. Bring to the boil, then cover with a lid and simmer over low heat for 20 minutes.
Serve with cooked rice, or a palate-cleansing soup and fried greens.
Other dishes we made from Uyen’s book during the weekend were:
- Frozen Yoghurt (kem da-ua) – an outrageously simple recipe combining tangy natural yoghurt with condensed milk before churning in an ice cream machine. We had this with a clafoutis of whisky-soaked dates and the match was excellent. I loved the balance of tart and sweet and will definitely make this again.
- Omelette Baguette (bánh mì trứng ốp lết) – we switched baguette for other home made loaves but we loved the core recipe for sweet sharp pickled shredded carrot and herby omelette. The chillis we added were so hot that my eyes watered, my lips were still tingling ages later!
- Fresh Rolls with Mackerel Ceviche (gỏi cuốn cá thu sống đầu phộng ớt) – rice paper summer rolls filled with herbs, beansprouts, a pineapple dipping sauce, rice vermicelli noodles and mackerel ceviche and we also added leftover pickled shredded carrot. This was our least favourite of the dishes we made with the texture of the rice paper wrappers and the ceviche cited as difficult textures / tastes.
I’ve also made the Tofu and Tomatoes in Fish Sauce (đầu phụ sốt cà chua), which I first had at Uyen’s house, so it was a great test of whether I could achieve the same flavours and textures by following her recipe. I could and I liked it just as much the second time around.
Kavey Eats was sent a review copy of My Vietnamese Kitchen by publisher Ryland Peters. As I’ve made clear, Uyen Luu is a friend, but all of us genuinely enjoyed cooking and eating from her book and I recommend the book wholeheartedly.