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Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Cabramatta Food Tour with Luke Nguyen

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.

Cafe 86

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.

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!

Communal pantry

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

Cafe 86 on Urbanspoon
Pho VIet Restaurat on Urbanspoon
39 comments - Add some comment love

posted by Helen (Grab Your Fork) on 10/14/2009 02:22:00 am


  • At 10/14/2009 10:26 am, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    fantastic and mouth watering post. thanks for this.
    Question: How do you pronounce "pho?"
    --johnny forks

  • At 10/14/2009 11:28 am, Anonymous billy@atablefortwo said…

    the bloggaverse today is filled with pho! Hehe I like Luke's Dad, looks like a cool guy to me. Did you get a copy of his book?

  • At 10/14/2009 11:55 am, Anonymous Tina said…

    Looks like a great day out! Which dish did you get to make?

  • At 10/14/2009 4:17 pm, Anonymous Rilsta said…

    Fabulous coverage of the tour and love the photos as usual! Sounds like a fantastic idea for him to do this tour.

  • At 10/14/2009 4:22 pm, Anonymous Jane Willson said…

    gorgeous helen. what a great display of the day.

  • At 10/14/2009 5:03 pm, Anonymous Linda said…

    Yay! That's my favourite grocery store as well. Hmm not a fan of the Pho store, had an aweful experience there 5 years ago, have not been back. I love the idea of the Tour though, give people a better insight into the crazy world of Cabramatta

  • At 10/14/2009 5:35 pm, Anonymous Julian Davis said…

    Stunning pictures Helen ! Fantastic post .I think you had a great day .

  • At 10/14/2009 8:52 pm, Anonymous Arwen from Hoglet K said…

    Looks like a fun tour, especially the part where you had to shop and cook! I love the entrepreneurial grandmas.

  • At 10/14/2009 9:32 pm, Blogger Deb said…

    This looked like a great day :) Would definitely be interested in the recipes if you upload them!

  • At 10/14/2009 10:36 pm, Anonymous Howard said…

    It's great for Cabramatta to have him do the tour, especially for people who know of him because of his restaurant and book. He looks really young and has achieved quite alot as well. His parents must be proud!

  • At 10/14/2009 10:54 pm, Blogger Simon Leong said…

    great read. i felt like i was taking the tour with you. i'll have to visit that pho place to compare :-)

  • At 10/15/2009 8:22 am, Anonymous lili - pikelet & pie said…

    Whaa! How cool! What an amazing experience, masterchef style :) Would definitely be interested in the recipes.

  • At 10/15/2009 8:31 am, Anonymous beth said…

    ooh please please tamarind soup and caramelised pork belly recipes! tried to make tamarind soup once only to find it go bad after 3.5 hours of slaving away so would love to try it again.

  • At 10/15/2009 9:23 am, Anonymous Jenn/CinnamonQuill said…

    Sweet! And I am glad that I finally know what mangosteen -looks- like!

  • At 10/15/2009 10:32 am, Blogger peter said…

    Oh that looked incredible! Next time I'm in Sydney I really need to make the pilgrimage to Cabra. Great photos!

    And pho is pronounced "fur?" without a strong emphasis on the r. :)

  • At 10/15/2009 11:40 am, Blogger jo said…

    i don't think I can adequately express my jealousy of your day! I finished reading the book cover to cover over the summer and I am sure that was an amazing day.

  • At 10/15/2009 11:50 am, Anonymous Jo Anne said…

    Who wouldn't be greedy and want all of the recipes. I grew up in Cabramatta and still go there all the time it is the best place to shop.First it was English then Italian then Yugoslav now look at it!! Great.

  • At 10/15/2009 12:09 pm, Anonymous clekitty said…

    Tamarind Soup recipe and also the pork belly one as well!
    I want all.. but those two are my fave :)

  • At 10/15/2009 2:58 pm, Blogger Ravenous Couple said…

    what a great event to learn about Vietnamese cuisine!

  • At 10/15/2009 4:04 pm, Anonymous Jess said…

    great post - have never been to Cabramatta but looking forward to it next time I have the chance...would love to see the recipes for green mango and dried anchovy salad (I adore anchovies!) and of course the caramelised pork belly.

  • At 10/15/2009 9:52 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Oohh sounds like a great day! I really must hit up Cabra for more pho action ^^!

  • At 10/16/2009 1:19 am, Blogger Helen (Grab Your Fork) said…

    Hi Johnny Forks - It was a mouth watering kinda day. Pho is pronounced like a cross between "fur?" and "fer?" - making a rollercoaster of tones that goes down and then up. Kinda like "Fur-urh?"

    Hi Billy - Pho out, it was a total coincedence. I already have a copy of Secrets of the Red Lantern but not I regret not getting Songs of Sapa - I could've have it signed by the whole family!

    Hi Tina - I was on the team doing the caramel pork although admittedly I didn't do much as I was too distracted wandering around taking photos. And our dish tasted great!

    Hi Rilsta - I was really struck by how generous Luke and his family. A great day indeed.

    Hi Jane Willson - Thanks :) It was lovely to meet you. Your pork belly slicing skills were noted! Hope you managed to get some avocado shakes afterwards!

    Hi Linda - Eastland is great. I spent about another half hour in there after the tour. So many things to look at. I don't often end up eating pho in Cabramatta so it was interesting to find out Luke's favourite.

    Hi Julian Davis - Glad you enjoyed the pics and post. It was such a great day - we seemed to cram in so much in only four hours.

    Hi Arwen - The cooking part was fun, although we all had help from Luke's parents with the shopping and cooking. And yes, I don't think the local Cabramatta community had ever seen anything quite like it! Will be interesting to see how the next tour pans out.

    Hi Food.4.two - Here's the recipe for the caramelised pork belly. Enjoy!

    Hi Howard - He is young and so baby-faced. I'm always humbled by other people's life stories - it makes you realise that anything is possible if you put your mind to something and don't make excuses.

    Hi Simon Food Favourites - Ahh glad you enjoyed the tour :) It's always good to find recommendations by locals, especially ones that are noted chefs!

    Hi Lili - I think everyone was clapping their hands with glee at the Masterchef-style set-up. Have just posted the recipe for the caramelised pork belly :)

    Hi Beth - Your wish is my command. lol.

    Hi Jenn/CinnamonQuill - Mangosteen are a wonderful fruit - to me they taste like a cross between lychees and custard apple. Hope you get to try some one day!

    Hi Peter - Yes you must get to Cabramatta. It's such a great day out, and the non-stop snacking oppportunities are a bonus too!

    Hi Jo - I had a ball. Such a treat to be led on a tour by a local, who's now a chef, and accompanied by his thoughtful parents. A memorable day.

    Hi Jo Anna - It's amazing how Cabramatta how changed with each tide of migration. I love the energy in these places and that you can still find remnants of older communities here and there. Such a wonderful snapshot of Sydney.

    Hi clekitty - Ahh seems like these two dishes are the clear favourites! Have just posted the recipe for the caramelised pork belly.

    Hi Ravenous Couple - It was much fun indeed. Luke Nguyen, his family and Fairfield City Council deserve props for all their efforts.

    Hi Jess - Here's the recipe for the caramelised pork belly. Will see how I go posting the others.

    Hi FFichiban - Yup get yourself out west where all the real food action is. lol. And the snacks... so many to choose!

  • At 10/16/2009 1:29 am, Blogger lex said…

    haha a chef from work is from cabra and was talking about him... now that I see the pictures, I can see what all the fuss is all about. Will make a trek down when petrol prices are cheaper haha

  • At 10/16/2009 1:58 am, Blogger lifeis2munch said…

    I'd love to have the recipes :) especially the green mango salad one...

  • At 10/16/2009 9:24 am, Anonymous Leona said…

    this is why i love reading your blog because its filled with information, photos and events that a lot of people cant get to.

    I want lukes shirt! Ive been looking for a viet restaurant that actually serves the viet coffee with the full strainer etc? Do you know of any?

  • At 10/17/2009 9:37 pm, Blogger Helen (Grab Your Fork) said…

    Hi Lex - Ha, you can always catch the train. It's worth the trek. Heaps of fun!

    Hi Globe Trotting Foodie - Will work on uploading more recipe - a matter of re-typing them from the photos I snapped of the recipes! The green mango salad is always a favourite. In the interim you can check out a previous post on my version of green mango salad.

    Hi Leona - Aww thanks Leona :) It's always more fun to share the goodness around, I say!

    Yes I want Luke's shirt too! I don't know of any Vietnamese cafes that use the strainer - I think they will usually use an espresso machine as it's faster. I say get your own! I've been using my one at work and it's such a good pick-me-up with the condensed milk hit!

  • At 10/20/2009 5:34 pm, Anonymous Harald said…

    What a great day! I wasn't lucky first to get a ticket for one of the tours, but today Luke called me and invited me for Sunday 25th. Met him already on the BBQ in Cabramatta and on the Chef Showcase. He is a great chef and entertainer!

  • At 10/21/2009 5:49 pm, Blogger Helen (Grab Your Fork) said…

    Hi Harald - Wow, a personal phone call from Luke! Lucky you! Am sure you will enjoy the tour. Let us know how it goes!

  • At 10/21/2009 9:10 pm, Anonymous Harald said…

    Helen, have you been on my blog for the chef showcase? Have a look on the dedication Luke wrote in my copy of "Secrets of the Red Lantern". I'm so happy to know him! Will let you know how the 25th went!

  • At 10/22/2009 1:48 am, Blogger Helen (Grab Your Fork) said…

    Hi Harald - What a lovely inscription. Sounds like you had a great time at the Showcase, and yes, would love to hear how the second tour goes!

  • At 10/25/2009 7:31 pm, Anonymous Harald said…

    Hi Helen,
    even if the weather was really nasty we had a lot of fun on the second tour today. Who else could give you a better Cabramatta tour than Luke and his parents. They are all so lovely! If you like to see a few picture of the second tour click on my name.

  • At 10/28/2009 11:42 pm, Blogger Helen (Grab Your Fork) said…

    Hi Harald - Shame about the weather. We had a little drizzle at the start but then it fined up by midday. Looks like you had a great day - and yes, aren't Luke and his parents utterly lovely?

  • At 11/11/2009 6:26 pm, Anonymous brenda said…

    Hi All, Thanks for all the posts,recipes and photos, i'm going on Luke's tour in two weeks (he has organised a new one based on the success of the Oct Tours)and i am really looking forward to it.

  • At 11/13/2009 6:12 pm, Blogger Helen (Grab Your Fork) said…

    Hi Brenda - I didn't realise that Luke was organising more tours of Cabramatta. Am sure you will have an absolute ball. Make sure you say hi for me :)

  • At 11/25/2009 5:00 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Hi - we printed out your tour and did it ourselves on Saturday - in the heat it was particularly appropriate as Cabramatta really is little Vietnam! We hadn't been before so thanks Helen, you helped us ventured forth and enjoy!

  • At 11/26/2009 9:21 pm, Blogger Helen (Grab Your Fork) said…

    Hi Jax - So glad to hear you made your way to Cabramatta! It's a great buzzy suburb and there's so much to see - and eat!

  • At 12/16/2009 11:13 am, Blogger mad as hell [and not going to take it anymore] said…

    Hi Luke, love your show, but don't understand all of the ingredients. I have just moved to within minutes of the exciting "Little Saigon" market of Footscray in Melbourne.

    When are you coming to do a tour of that market, explaining what the excellent and fresh produce are and how to use them all in dishes?

    We'd love to see you in Melbourne!

    Cheers Julie

  • At 12/19/2009 4:28 pm, Blogger Helen (Grab Your Fork) said…

    Hi Zoe/Julie - I'm not sure that Luke subscribes to this post's comments but I'm sure he'd love to go to Melbourne! In the interim, I'd suggest you ask the shopkeepers - most are reasonably friendly and should be more than happy to help someone with a healthy interest in Vietnamese cuisine :)

  • At 11/22/2013 3:28 pm, Blogger hoang G said…

    Vietnam's food is alway great!!


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