Cook Book Review - The Little Viet Kitchen by Thuy Diem Pham
Over the years I've come to realise that the simple act of eating can bring me so much pleasure. Shopping for certain ingredients inspires and stimulates my taste buds and at times when I cook its therapeutic. I'll try my hand at almost every cuisine but I do say almost, because the food of the Orient is one that I very rarely explore in my kitchen and my skills generally only stretch to the prosaic stir fry, "because its quick and easy". The problem is, home made Oriental food reminds me of the shared kitchen I had as a student, loading everything with Chinese five spice and plonking it on boiled noodles. It’s not the greatest representation of an entire continent, but I guess it was more nutritious than a Pot Noodle.
And then I go somewhere like The Little Viet Kitchen in Chapel Market and sample Thuy's food, which only affirms how pathetic my cooking attempts have been and the thought of emulating all those delicious plates of food becomes a tad intimidating. Flicking through her new book makes my mouth water, page after page of stunning recipes, from the instantly recognisable Pho to the less familiar Beef Betal leaf Skewers. Thuy writes with good humour and charm about her childhood in Vietnam, with respect and admiration for her parents. A slight uneasiness washes over me, I have to cook and present a meal for 6 people all from this book, I stare in doubt at the Pork and Seafood Noodle soup - a recipe requiring over 30 ingredients and turn the page.
I base my menu choice on the ingredients that can be found in local supermarkets, mainly to see if it can be done or does the book rely heavily on finding a Vietnamese supermarket? Issue 13 of CIBARE is all about fish so after some consideration I decided on the Tofu and Vegetable Spring Rolls, Salt and Pepper King Prawns, Sea Bass, Passion Fruit and Blood Orange Ceviche and Steamed Banana and Coconut Cake. As blood oranges are no longer in season the regular kind were used, and I substituted wood ear mushrooms for dried shiitake mushrooms and used them in the spring rolls.
I’m going to explain the rest a little unconventionally, starting with the negatives and moving swiftly onto the positives. Pudding: The Steamed Banana and Coconut Cake obviously looked delicious in the book, pale in colour and a nice height to it, with coconut custard poured over the top. My first obstacle was either to find a cake tin small enough for my steamer or a pot big enough for my regular sized cake tin in which I could steam it. I hadn’t thought this one through and with my guests arriving later that evening, I cobbled a steaming apparatus together and crossed my fingers. An hour later (it should have taken 20 minutes to cook), I had a flat, gelatinous dark matter with bananas in it. This was undoubtedly to do with my ad hoc steaming technique’s but as I had no back up plan, we were now one dish down.
The spring rolls had a long list of ingredients each requiring some prep, so this took a lot longer to make than I anticipated. If like me you haven’t used rice paper before, they take a little getting used to; soak them for more than 5 seconds and you have a gloopy mess on your hands. I also ended up with a few spring roll casualty’s, with some of them splitting in the fryer. But having said that, don’t let that stop you giving this a go as once they’re cooked you soon discover that they’re worth the effort. Crispy on the outside with a sweet textured filling, this was the crowd pleaser of the evening and for as long as they were on the table, my guests enthusiastically ate them. Not bad for my first attempt!
The ceviche and king prawns didn’t require the same length of prep and were put together not long before we sat down to eat. Ceviche, is claimed to be the Peruvians national dish and is traditionally marinaded in the acidic citric juices. Thuys version with added passion fruit and fish sauce packs a punch as received lots of praise. It’s fresh and mouthwatering flavours were a welcome delight on a warm balmy evening. The sweet juicy prawns lay on an alluring of bed of textures and flavours, but on a side note be aware that lemongrass and spring onions can look a little similar when thrown together. You may not see it but your teeth will feel it!
As the last king prawn sat lonely on the plate waiting to be taken, we came to realise that pudding wasn’t missed. In fact Thuy says that the Vietnamese don’t tend eat it at the end of their meal, so really my cake disaster helped keep us in the spirit of authenticity. As we sat and ruminated over each dish, I was asked the one most important question - Will you cook from this book again? Yes, with more time to prepare, I have already made plans to head to the far east (of London) to source the more exotic ingredients and next time I’ll make sure I have the right kitchen tools to do the job.