Vietnamese cuisine is as vital to the country’s heritage as Halong Bay. That’s why I, a chef from Bretagne in France, am working to raise awareness of its rich history and flavour.
I have lived in Vietnam for 12 years and people often ask me what it was the made me stay: the women or the food? In truth, it was both. I have traveled all over the world, across the Indian Ocean and through Africa, Polynesia, And Asia, and over time I have created my own style of cooking that combines the menus of many lands where sunshine reigns. When I chose to settle in Hanoi is was a woman who tempted me to stay – and the same woman who introduced me to the city’s cuisine. She showed me the fragrance of the lotus seed, the pungent warmth of the banana flower, the crispness of raw papaya… she took me through the city’s streets where I discovered its soul in every bowl of pho Vietnam.
It didn’t take long for me to fall in love with Vietnamese food and soon I found a way to disseminate my new-found love: at the Sofitel Metropole hotel where I work, I begun training courses in Vietnamese cuisine and at one of our hotel’s restaurants we offer a lunch buffet that introduces Hanoi street foods such as pho (noodle soup), nom (noodles with sweet and sour salad) and nem (spring role). In food festivals overseas I always try to introduce Vietnamese cuisine to foreigners. My opportunities to do so are increasing – after being voted the Association of Asian Cook’s most outstanding cook of the month, I now receive regular invitations to food fairs around Asia. I relish these opportunities to prove that Vietnamese food is worthy of international recognition. Because many visitors here eat only the generic food served to our groups, they often leave Vietnam with the impression that its cuisine is second rate. They fall to discover the diversity of a multitude of dishes served in the North, Centre and South. If Vietnamese food is cooked according to traditional recipes, it can be truly wonderful.
Cuisine is a part of a nation’s heritage that every chef should try to preserve. However, tastes in food, like so many other things, change over time and a chef must also be ready to experiment. When I learned to cook Vietnamese food I learned first the fundamentals then begun to add my own touches My passion for Vietnamese cuisine has prompted me to write three books on the subject: Cuisine of Vietnam: Hanoi Yesterday and Today gathers together 80 Vietnamese dishes, mostly from Hanoi; Viet Home Cooking collates recipes of dishes cooker at home; and Vietnamese Cuisine of Didier Corlu consists of 100 dishes that I have created by altering traditional Vietnamese recipes. The changes I have made are slight I have replaced some Vietnamese ingredients with French ones, changed the presentation of a few dishes and introduced French cooking techniques in others-but I have retained the fundamentals of Vietnamese cuisine. I want to show that Vietnamese cuisine is not only original but also rich.
Some people ask me why I ‘interfere’ with the dishes that I so clearly love in their original form. Why do I alter that Hanoi classic, pho, by replacing the beef that gives it its essence with less traditional meats like pork, fish and duck? Why do I stuff banh cuon, a light pancake role usually filled with minced meat, with salmon roe instead? The changes I make appear to contradict my love of traditional Vietnamese food, but that is not the case. I have never tried to compare traditional Vietnamese cuisine with my own creations. I respect the traditional taste of Vietnamese dishes and by adding my own touches to their core I have attempted to enhance rather than change them. My pho, for example, includes more ginger then a traditional recipe because I believe that the spice is characteristic of the best beef-pho which is found only in the city’s narrow traditional inns.
There is another reason why I ‘tamper’ with traditional recipes: any attempt to introduce Vietnamese cuisine to other parts of the world must allow for the availability of ingredients overseas and the likes and dislikes of the foreign diner. If a chef can’t find a particular ingredient and is offered no alternative to it, or if a dish contains ingredients that don’t appeal to non-Vietnamese, this country’s delicious cuisine will remain locked behind a bamboo curtain. In order to give foreigners better access to Vietnamese dishes we must make them more accessible. Once the diner’s attention is caught, then it will be possible to introduce more traditional cuisine. Cuisine, like fashion, should be always on the move. Rather than remain static like an exhibit in a museum, it should morph and change as it travels around the globe.
For me, Vietnam is much more than just the tourist sites of Halong Bay and Hoi An it is a world of rich and impressive foods. Dishes from each part of the country have their own strengths, their own original flavours, but despite the merits of Central and Southern foods, my heart still belong to Hanoi. Here, a plethora of vegetables, the sparse usage of oils that are so popular in the South and a mildness compared to more spicy Central dishes, make food irresistible. I am tied to this city. I have sucked in the fragrance of young sticky rice in a banh bao (steamed dumpling) on an early autumn day. I have enjoyed the reverie of Hanoi’s quiet. I am in love.
Tags: banh cuon Vietnam, nem Vietnam, pho vietnam, Vietnamese cuisine