In November 1981, a hungry little girl – me – was born to two loving parents in a small village called Hanh My in the south of Vietnam, among the beautiful rivers of the Mekong Delta. In the aftermath of the war, food was scarce and life was extremely difficult. To supplement milk, Mum would often feed my sister and I the starchy water left over from cooking rice.
Growing up, every meal was precious. Always humble, yet always delicious. The effort put in by the women of my family at mealtimes was immense. For celebrations and holidays this would be even more evident as all the aunties would gather to help prepare the ‘feast’ for the day. So much so that I always felt the real party was in the kitchen.
It was the loudest room by far, with constant stories, gossip and laughter alongside the wonderfully enticing bubbling and hissing of cooking food.
Thirty odd years on and I can still close my eyes and step back into grandma’s kitchen like it was yesterday. Every recipe handed down has been treasured and passed on with a sense of reverence. Of course each generation adds its own tweak or twist here and there, but always with a fundamental level of respect to the recipe. It comes as no surprise that traditional and ‘authentic’ Vietnamese recipes are considered sacrosanct.
As with the majority of Vietnam’s cooks and chefs, I was inspired and trained by my mum. My grandma and aunties were all happy to share their many years of experience with me. So I approached my career as a chef with my own restaurant – The Little Viet Kitchen, which opened in London in 2015 – as confident as a graduate straight from Le Cordon Bleu.
I can still vividly remember our first service and the very rude awakening that came with it! But The Little Viet Kitchen soon became a much-loved dining venue for locals as well as people from all across the globe, some who would travel thousands of miles to eat our food.
A pandemic and a beautiful baby boy later and it’s fair to say that my world has changed quite dramatically. It turns out that there is nothing quite like long queues for empty supermarket shelves to bring you back to the fundamentals of cooking.
The challenge had gone full circle and once again became about making the best of what I had – no longer a staunch traditionalist, insisting the only way to cook ‘authentically’ was to spend many hours toiling away in the kitchen, I set about recreating familiar flavours and textures, noting down interesting combinations and little newfound tricks and hacks.
Vietnamese food is essentially about contrast and balance. Each dish should be a balance of different elements like sweet and salty, with contrasts of texture and temperature, as well as flavour. It does not need to be complicated, just balanced and tasty. These recipes showcase a different side to Vietnamese cookery, one that can be quick, accessible, delicious and nourishing.
Today my boy will often be found happily on my hip, while I cook our family meal with the other hand. Despite the extra effort, I love that he enjoys being in the kitchen with me. Even though my little sous chef is only a year old as I write this, he is already fascinated by all the sounds of cooking and is constantly investigating the different ingredients. I can’t wait to teach him all I know, just like my mum did for me.
Quick and easy Vietnamese favourites
Vietnamese Made Easy by Thuy Diem Pham (£22, Quadrille)