How is a banh mi like a baguette?

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Colonisation is well known to leave death and disease in its wake, but also crème caramel…

French rule in Vietnam was established as early as the 17th century. Dissatisfied with only taking land and government, the colonialists also set out to bring with them their own cuisine.

Their beloved bread and beef became not just part of their daily lives, but steadily spread throughout cooking pots across Vietnam. Such was their conquest that they created the dish bò 7 món: seven courses of beef to celebrate the success of the newly established cattle herds in the new colony (even to this day, bò 7 món remains a celebratory, high-end dish).

This point in history is where, thankfully, the Vietnamese start appropriating traditions for themselves. French ingredients and French cooking techniques became widely popularised; for example, taking the bones from the aforementioned beef-feasts and cooking them down with noodles to make soup–the humble beginnings of the mighty pho.

The link between banh mi and baguettes suddenly becomes obvious. The banh mi’s lighter texture and softness is achieved through the use of rice flour, sure… but their origins are the same.

Even in Melbourne, this coupling of French and Vietnamese cuisine continues to evolve among its many Vietnamese establishments.

Saigon Sally is a stylish, sassy Vietnamese restaurant in Windsor where chefs Adrian and Felix are largely responsible for the menu. Both Donovan’s-trained, the pair have bright ideas and even brighter palates.

The food is so colourful and creative that Adrian asserts he wouldn’t even call it Vietnamese anymore, as the dishes have combined nods to multiple cultures; from the Korean-inspired confit octopus to their newly introduced burrata dish. There are still, however, French influences lingering throughout. This is partly due to the aforementioned French invasion of Vietnamese cuisine but also because Donovan’s trains up its chefs with French and Italian techniques.

These parallel influences have seen Saigon Sally produce dishes such as the Kingfish Ceviche, and deservedly famous Tira-Mi-Sally. This glorious, French patisserie-inspired dessert consists of piped sheets of macaron, layered with parfait and peanut brittle. Other glorious offerings in their sweet section include the Banh Bo Nut, a deep fried Vietnamese doughnut served with toasted coconut sorbet. The reason the dough is fried is because the mixture was once thrown in jest at Adrian in the kitchen, and accidentally landed in the fryer. Delicious!

338 Bridge Street’s Anchovy is a calmer affair. Here the dishes are based upon dishes the chefs would cook for themselves outside of work; more straightforward and self-admittedly moving away from the new wave of experimental Asian cuisine. For the brave and the bloody, there is the Vietnamese blood pudding: a quasi-custard made with blood, eggs and cream, it is a recipe drawing from how offal is traditionally eaten in Vietnam. Herbs are passed through the mixture and, once set, it is then pan-fried with ginger to offset its heaviness and richness.

After working in kitchens all over the world since she was 16, Thi Le opened the restaurant in August 2015. Anchovy’s soothing interior is designed to not distract from the food; all recipes are a collaboration between the chefs and ingredients are paired and tested through tastings and suggestions. The whipped tofu, for example, is emulsified like a mayo, then used as a coating for charred zucchini. It is not so much any kind of influence here that creates the dishes as much as a constant process of amelioration. As Thi put it: “Do what we do, and do it better”.

Rene and Dai are the two men behind Uncle and, I’m sure a lot of people will have been thrilled to discover, they’ve just opened up a second restaurant on Collins St. It is buzzing yet secluded with an expertly curated menu. ‘Mum’s chay spring rolls’ proved a particularly thrilling discovery–and Dai’s Mum really makes them! They’re paired with a fermented bean curd dipping sauce Dai remembers from his childhood – it’s a balance of sweet, salty, sour and spicy flavours, a balancing act which reflects what a lot of Vietnamese cooking works towards achieving.

Flavour balance is so important in Uncle’s kitchen that, although there are set recipes, everything is still put together by taste. One week the lemons may be tarter than usual, the chillies hotter; and so everything needs to be adjusted accordingly.

The recipes are not the only minutely observed elements, however: every aspect of the process at Uncle is thoughtful and often, local. The pottery is made by Rene’s wife of Fork Ceramics (very beautiful indeed) and the staff aprons are hand-crafted by a shoemaker friend. Even the coffee beans have been chosen with erudite finesse: a mix between coffee and cacao, the coffee is dark and bitter before the condensed milk is added to create something altogether more decadent.

During its colonisation, there was also a widespread (and continuing) caffeination of Vietnam. The French first introduced coffee beans to the country, and today Vietnam is one of the world’s major coffee growers.

Although ever varying, Uncle, Anchovy and Saigon Sally state that the origins their dishes are, at the very least, derived from traditional Vietnamese cuisine. It is redundant to try and define exactly what that traditional cuisine is, as it possesses a far from immutable history. But Vietnamese cuisine is mercifully one that continues to innovate and thrive. Go and try Uncle’s prawn banh mi with avocado puree, Saigon Sally’s sticky lamb ribs, and maybe even Anchovy’s Strawberry Sorbet with Soursop and Goats Cheese (a playful take on the traditional strawberries and cream), and live it a little for yourself.

 

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