Gourmet Destinations: Vietnam
Chef Jerry Mai’s start in hospitality was less than auspicious. She was fired from her first job washing dishes because she broke too many bowls. The thing was, though, being just six, she could only get them into the sink by throwing them. Thankfully, given it was her parents’ restaurant, they let her stay on as chief napkin folder, at which she excelled.
This was the 1980s and Jerry’s parents had arrived in Brisbane with their young family from Vietnam via a Thai refugee camp. Like many an immigrant before them, they opened a restaurant serving the food of their homeland.
But given Australians had only just got used to the offerings of their local Chinese take-away, Vietnamese restaurateurs played it safe. As Jerry describes, “A lot of the Vietnamese restaurants were just doing stir-fries, you know, ‘here’s 20 sauces and five meats, what would you like with it?’ and the garnish was always broccoli, carrots and capsicum.”
It’s a very different scene today, Jerry explains, “Fast forward 20, 30 years and nearly everybody has been to Vietnam for a holiday and Australians are eating more Vietnamese food – banh mi, pho, rice paper rolls.”
That’s the sort of street fare you’ll find at Jerry’s two Pho Nom eateries in Melbourne.
But, she says, just because you have pho every other weekend and banh mi on your lunch break, doesn’t mean you know Vietnamese food. “That’s like saying French food is just escargot and butter”, Jerry explains, “It’s just scraping the surface.”
The full repertoire of Vietnamese flavours takes in the influences of its history and surrounds, Jerry relates. “There was a thousand years of Chinese rule, from which comes all the heady spices, beautiful braises and masterstocks. Then the French were there for a hundred years, so you’ve got the baguettes, pate, butter, terrines. And from Thailand, Laos and Cambodia come the headier chillies and lemongrass.”
It’s all these influences that Jerry has taken to create the menu for her Melbourne restaurant, Annam. With its funky fitout on Little Collins Street, Annam has a massive open kitchen at its heart, where, Jerry says, “You can come up and chat to us.” You can also watch the team cooking with fire, another aspect of Vietnamese cooking that gets overlooked, she explains.
“If you’ve travelled to Vietnam, there’s not a lot of gas cooking, the streets are full of barbeques, little stoves where they grill chicken or pork and have it with some rice or pickles.”
So when you have the lemongrass chicken that’s featured here at Annam, they hang it over ironbark in the fire so it becomes, Jerry says, “Nice and smoky.”
Jerry talks recipes
This is a take on chicken lemongrass, which is normally a little stir-fry, and the paste we use to marinate the chicken is my mum’s recipe that she uses over summer to grill chicken on one of her three different barbeques!
This has a bit of Thai influence with the chilli jam. The marinated pork belly is put over the grill to crisp up the skin and render out the fat. So it’s just this really rich and salty piece of pork through a really smoky jam dressing with refreshing herbs and cucumber, and sweetness from the lychees.
I had a trip to Vietnam with my parents about five years ago and my mum wanted to find this stall selling coconuts that people kept telling her about. We found it and the woman just scraped out the flesh of a young coconut, put some corn in it – in Vietnam, corn is a sweet rather than savoury ingredient – and added coconut ice-cream with heaps of crushed peanuts. I found the way it uses every part of the coconut brilliant and I thought, “I just need to have a venue to serve it in.” And now I do!