Luke Nguyen rips open his coat with a flourish.
Beneath his assuming attire is a fitted black t-shirt that proclaims "I love pho". It generates a round of laughter amongst the assembled crowd as he stands there, chest puffed and proud like a Vietnamese superman.
Luke's family story is not dissimilar to thousands of other Vietnamese refugees who fled to Australia following the fall of Saigon. It's quite another thing to hear it personally, particularly as his parents listen quietly and, when nudged, provide further details. Their escape involved a handmade boat, an arduous journey at sea and no end of bravery and resilience.
These days, Luke is the Cabramatta boy done good, his experience at his parents' series of restaurants and cafes culminating in the opening of The Red Lantern with his sister Pauline and Mark Jensen.
Today Luke is hosting a Cabramatta Tour for the Sydney International Food Festival. There's already plenty of chatter when we arrive at Cafe 86, the designated meeting point, and soon the cafe (once owned by Luke's parents but now sold) is spilling over with enthused food lovers.
Having read the Nguyen family's history in Secrets of the Red Lantern only the night before, I'm awestruck to meet his parents. His parents are tiny in stature and all warmth and smiles. They are gracious with their hospitality, bustling about with staff to ensure everyone has a Vietnamese coffee to start the day.
Luke's father, Lap Nguyen
Luke's mother, Cue Phuong Nguyen
Vietnamese coffee with sweetened condensed milk
It's like visiting your grandparents. We're offered top-ups of drinks and almost everyone ends up getting two drinks - the hot and the iced coffee versions - for research purposes. Vietnamese coffee is always strong, the intense brew tempered by sweetened condensed milk that converts the drink to liquid candy.
Vietnamese iced coffee with condensed milk
Luke's mother, Cue Phuong Nguyen
henceforth affectionately called Mum by everybody
It's 10.15am on a Sunday.
"Has everyone had breakfast?" Luke asks.
When there are a few hestitant murmurs, he rounds us up for the start of the tour and delivers us straight to his favourite pho restaurant in Cabramatta, Pho Viet.
Bean sprouts and Vietnamese basil
For many people, it's their first taste of pho, a Vietnamese breakfast staple of clear sweet beef broth and slippery rice noodles. Raw shavings of beef are submerged into the soup to cook briefly, and the bowl is adorned with a help-yourself collection of crunchy bean sprouts, Vietnamese basil and a squeeze of lemon.
Pho dac biet
Vietnamese beef noodle soup special (with tripe)
We share enormous bowls of pho dac biet between three people. This special version has beef balls, bible tripe, honeycomb tripe and tendons. We slurp our noodles happily.
Lap Nguyen oversees the pho consumption
Sufficiently satiated, we're led on a walking tour through the streets, laneways and arcades of Cabramatta to Luke's favourite shoppping spots, his parents amenably in tow. I've undertaken many a personal Cabramatta food tour, but it's fascinating to follow a local and discover his secrets, especially as he uses many to source produce for his restaurant.
Luke's favourite fruit and vegetable shop:
Thai Hung Asian Fruit Market
Rambutans and wax jambu (aka wax apples or love apples)
Luke shows us a green papaya used to Vietnamese salads
Lap Nguyen with water spinach
Luke shows us a banana bell, used in Vietnamese salads
Milk fish at the fishmonger next door
Luke outside his favourite barbecue meats shop
(regrettably I forgot to note its name, down one of the arcades off John St)
Luke's favourite Asian grocery store:
Eastland Supermarket (the range is huge)
Luke's recommendation for vegans or vegetarians
An Lac Vegan Restaurant
Vegan takeway boxes of savouries and desserts
Making sugarcane juice with cumquats
Even strolling the streets is cause for greater scrutiny. Luke spruiks the delights of freshy squeezed sugarcane juice with cumquats and explains a few of the items for sale by the entrepreneurial grandmothers who set up makeshift stalls of homemade foods or homegrown vegetables.
Pre-chopped lemongrass ($2 for the small container)
and fermented pork at the rear
Homegrown mountain yam
We head toward Dutton Lane and suddenly we all notice the bright red canopies, the tables, the portable gas burners and Luke says "Guess who's cooking here? You are!"
Cooking station set-up
Oh yes, it was just like Masterchef!
We split up into five groups, each cooking a different dish. We were allocated $25 to buy ingredients (returning to the shops we had just visited) when suddenly, crash-boom-bang, the plaza rumbled with a lion dance - especially arranged by Luke just for us!
Lion dancers and drummer
Luke's mum manning the stall selling copies of his new book
The Songs of Sapa
Budgets, shopping, chopping and more... we were a hive of activity that naturally attracted a curious crowd.
Checking the recipe
Picking mint leaves
The end result? A veritable feast - all thanks to cooking guidance from Luke and his parents, with much appreciated on-hand support by Fairfield City Council staff.
Summer rice paper rolls were made with much vocal coaching from passersby and we surprised ourselves by how good everything tasted. We delighted in the fresh zing of green mango against crispy deep-fried anchovies. Quite a few people took to the stir-fried bitter melon too.
Green mango and dried anchovy salad
Goi Kho Com Xoai Song
Stir-fried bitter melons with shiitake mushrooms
Tamarind broth with silver perch and elephant ear stems
Canh Chua Ca Chem
Canh chua tamarind soup was hot and sweet and sour, the elephant ear stems providing a tender crunch alongside fatty chunks of silver perch.
Caramelised pork belly braised in young coconut juice
Caramelised pork belly is always a favourite and this bowl was scraped clean of its sticky salty sauce. Overall a fantastic time and a privilege to spend the day hosted by such amazing people.
Luke Nguyen with his parents
Interested in any of the recipes above? Leave a comment with the recipe/s you most want to see and if there's sufficient interest, I'll upload them to the site.
And don't forget, the new series Luke Nguyen's Vietnam starts on Thursday on SBS at 7.30pm.
Luke Nguyen's Cabramatta Food Tour was held on Sunday October 11, 2009. The second food tour, on Sunday October 25, 2009 is fully booked.
Grab Your Fork attended this tour as a guest of Tourism NSW.
EDIT: Shop details added 21 Oct 09, with thanks to Luke Nguyen and Fairfield City Council for all the address details. Luke's recommendations are in brackets.
Luke Nguyen's Cabramatta Food Tour visited:
- Café 86 (for Vietnamese hot or iced coffee)
4/29 John Street, Cabramatta, Tel: +61 (02) 9723 2696
- Minh Tam BBQ Pork (get their roast duck for an easy dinner)
6/29 John Street, Cabramatta, Tel: +61 (02) 9726 7162
- Pho Viet Restaurant (Phở Bò beef noodle soup)
11-15 John Street, Cabramatta, Tel: +61 (02) 9728 6657
- Bau Truong Restaurant (Gỏi Bò Bóp Thấ beef salad with green mango, apple and star fruit)
42 John Street, Cabramatta, Tel: +61 (02) 9727 4492
Open 7 days 9am-10pm
- Phuoc An Chinese Herbs (get fixed quick with natural remedies)
2/50 Park Road, Cabramatta, Tel: +61 (02) 9728 2768
- Thai Hung Asian Fruit Market
3-4/47 Park Road, Cabramatta, Tel: +61 (02) 9728 2068
- Tien Minh Bakery (Banh Mi Thit pork roll)
2/85 John Street, Cabramatta, Tel: +61 (02) 9755 0656
- Chi-Thanh 2 Butchery
11B/53 Park Road, Cabramatta, Tel: +61 (02) 9724 3700
- An Lac Vegan Restaurant (Bun Rieu Chay vegan vermicelli)
94B John Street, Cabramatta, Tel: +61 (02) 9727 5116
Open 7 days 9am-9pm
- Tan Viet Noodle House (Mi Ga Don crispy skin chicken with egg noodle)
2-3/100 John Street, Cabramatta, Tel: +61 (02) 9727 6853
- Eastland Supermarket
103 John Street, Cabramatta, Tel: +61 (02) 9726 9104
- Viet Hoa Fish and Seafood Market
3/85 John Street, Cabramatta, Tel: +61 (02) 9725 6546
Related GrabYourFork posts:
SIFF 2009 - Nose-to-tail barbecue with Fergus Henderson
SIFF 2009 - Sugar Hit at Azuma Kushiyaki
SIFF 2009 - World Chef Showcase
Do-it-yourself Cabramatta Food Tour
Cabramatta Moon Festival 2009
Cabramatta Moon Festival 2006
Cabramatta Chinese New Year Festival 2007
Cabramatta - Bau Truong (duck tongue and crispy sticky rice)
Cabramatta - Dong Ba (bun bo hue spicy noodle)
Cabramatta - Duc Thanh
Cabramatta - Phu Quoc (duck salad)
Cabramatta - Tan Viet (crispy skin chicken)
Cabramatta - Thanh Binh
Cabramatta - Tuong Lai (sugar cane prawns)
Top 10 Sydney Eats for Tourists and Other Rewarding Food Adventures
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10/14/2009 02:22:00 a.m.