When I first moved to Sydney many years ago, all I knew about Asian food was that there was Chinese (usually Cantonese) and Thai food (the generic stir fry). But in Balmain where Lara and I had moved into a terrace house together, and in Glebe where Lara’s uncle lived, I discovered there were many other kinds of Asian cuisines, including Vietnamese. My knowledge of Asian food grew and my taste buds delighted in the new sensations that these often tiny and simple restaurants offered.
One small restaurant I remember was a place that I recall being called Saigon. The pedestrian décor has long faded from memory, but the flavours of gỏi cuốn, often on the menus as ‘Vietnamese spring rolls’ was something special. And the dipping sauce that came with it, nước tương ngọt – hoisin sauce, rice vinegar, roasted peanuts, and fresh birds-eye chilli – was a revelation of flavours. It blew my taste buds with its heat and blew my mind with its flavour.
The other dishes we used to eat there were all a delicious blur after those refreshing spring rolls and it wasn’t until we made a trip to Cabramatta in Sydney’s south west that another Vietnamese dish became embedded in my mind’s food encyclopedia: phở. Especially the beef version, phở bò.
Noodle soups are myriad in Asian cooking, but there is something special about phở (pronounced like a drawled out ‘fur’). Besides the slow cooking of the broth (it’s best done overnight), the addition of charred onions and ginger add depth, with some of the beef flank used to make the stock being served in the final dish, alongside rare strips of beef popped in the bowls at the last minute. It’s telling that even in the ‘simple’ recipes of this dish, the stock still takes 2–3 hours of cooking before you dare ladle it out. The accompanying garnish of bean sprouts, Vietnamese basil, chilli, and lime (or lemon) on the side really makes the dish sing.
After trying phở a few times in Vietnam, several people said that I must try thịt bò kho, a popular dish for breakfast, stating that they preferred this beef stew to phở. Could something possibly taste better than phở in Vietnam? And who eats stew for breakfast? I asked around for the best place to try it and on our last day in Saigon we headed off to a little corner shophouse. While Lara stuck to the phở, I ordered the thịt bò kho. (As well as two glasses of the Vietnamese coffee the locals were all sipping with their soups.)
Taking some cues from French slow-cooked stews, thịt bò kho adds those ever-present Asian mirepoix staples of onions, garlic and ginger, as well as lemongrass and the curious addition of curry powder – which could have been borrowed from French cooking. Fish sauce and tomato paste fill out the flavours of the dish. However, there is one ingredient that really sets it apart from any slow-cooked stews: annatto seeds.
Sometimes known as achiote, these seeds are used as food colouring in many parts of the world, such as Latin America and the Caribbean, and also in Asia. While mainly used as colouring it has a peppery flavour that definitely adds to the dish’s intensity as well as its rich good looks.
When the dish arrived, I forget about my fascination with phở for fifteen minutes. On our 2010 grand tour we tucked into many of these kinds of slow-cooked dishes that often define a region’s cuisine. For me, this dish is as rich as the best bœuf bourguignon, with the complexity of rabo de toro, and the slow braised flavours of tomato bredie. Yet it’s distinctly Asian. And for slow-cooked dishes, it’s up there with the best in the world.
After nearly 25 years since first sampling gỏi cuốn, to travel to Vietnam and be knocked off my feet by another unexpected Vietnamese dish reminds me of how, despite how much travelling and eating I’ve done, there are still so many edible pleasures out there to be revealed.