Luke Nguyen
9 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
Stuart Scott

The Mekong River empties into the sea through the Mekong Delta in southwestern Vietnam. The delta is known in Vietnamese as ‘Song Cuu Long’, or ‘Nine Dragon River’ delta. The Mekong helps form Vietnam’s main agricultural and aquacultural region. It is the Mekong’s busiest section, crowded with boats and teeming with life.

It was in Vietnam four years ago that I had the idea of filming a cooking series on the Mekong River. I spent a week with my family in Can Tho, enjoying their way of life, and discovering how much the people of Vietnam rely on this mighty river for their food and income.

I learnt that the Mekong starts its long life on the Tibetan plateau, then winds its way through China, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. This great river is the source of nourishment and life for more than 60 million people in these countries. I wanted to follow this river from beginning to end, discovering the many different cuisines, cultures and landscapes along the way.

The Mekong Delta introduced me to many exotic ingredients in a short time. In one 24-hour period I ate fruit bats, coconut worms and coconut mice. Luckily, two out of these three dishes were really good!

After such a long journey along the Mekong, finishing up in Vietnam was a relief. I felt as though I’d arrived home. I thoroughly enjoyed being back among the cheeky, humorous ways of the Vietnamese people.

Mum and Dad met me for this leg of the journey, and I gained a little more insight into what the mighty Mekong gave to my family. We began our trip talking to the people of Chau Doc, about local foods and traditions. In Chau Doc we found a family who had been making and selling fermented catfish for decades, and I spent a day learning how to make the best roasted suckling pig in Vietnam.

We then travelled by boat to Cai Be, where I demystified the art of making netted rice paper, and spent an afternoon with my folks on a boat very similar to the one in which they had escaped Vietnam. It was the first time they talked openly about their experience on that tiny boat, en route to …freedom.

My Greater Mekong adventure sadly ended in Ben Tre — although I am happy to say it was also where I became a …true Vietnamese by eating everything that moves!

Chau Doc

Chau Doc, in An Giang province, borders Cambodia in the Mekong Delta region. It is near the picturesque Mount of Sam, where the Sam Mountain Lady is worshipped. This holy lady is known in Vietnamese as Ba Chua Xu Nui Sam. People travel from all over Vietnam to visit her. The town of Chau Doc is well known for its ‚fish, in particular cat‚fish and mud‚fish. Locals ferment the mud‚fish in sea salt for many months, making a famously pungent preserved ‚fish known as mam ca loc.

Fermented mud‚fish may not sound that appetising but, like any food, you should try it at least once. My parents made many Vietnamese dishes using fermented mud‚fish when I was growing up, so I knew what it tasted like. But locals reckon if you haven’t tasted Chau Doc’s mam ca loc, then you haven’t really had mam ca loc.

At the Chau Doc market I looked for a mam ca loc stall called Mam 55555, said to be the best in town. But it proved hard to track down. The market was filled with mam ca loc stalls, each one no more than two metres wide, and all selling the same varieties of mam. I asked four di†fferent stall owners, and all told me playfully that theirs was better than 55555. Strangely, it was a group of Japanese people who led me to the right stall. Many Japanese travel to Chau Doc to buy mam: like all fermented food, it has a ‘umami’ Šflavour — the elusive ‚fifth Šflavour that the Japanese discovered.

The vendor was so delighted we came to her stall that she invited us home to meet her grandmother, who had perfected their fermentation technique. The proud grandmother shared one of her favourite recipes with me, a steamed Chau Doc style ‚fish and pork terrine using a beautiful piece of mam. The terrine had a lovely savoury, salty taste, and a tongue-coating sensation: umami.

People from all over Vietnam make pilgrimages to Chau Doc to visit its many temples, especially Ba Chua Xu. They leave o†fferings of gold, money, jewels, clothing and, most extravagantly, freshly roasted suckling pig.

I spent half a day with the best suckling pig roaster in town, who works in a spectacular rustic kitchen, blackened from charcoal and ‚fire. Mountains of wood were stacked high and beams of light shone through small openings in the roof, illuminating the smoke that lingered in the air. The pigs were slaughtered just before roasting, then marinated in a mixture of preserved bean curd, honey, ‚five-spice, annatto oil and soy sauce. His was the most tender pork I’ve ever had, with a crispy crunchy crackling that I’ll never forget.

Cai Be

Cai Be is a town on the Mekong, criss-crossed with a network of smaller rivers and canals. Tourism hasn’t boomed there yet, so you can experience the true essence of Vietnam.

I was looking forward to arriving in Cai Be, as I love visiting rustic cottage industries to learn age-old techniques. It is important to visit these cottage industries to find out how things are really made. In the West we buy rice paper, noodles, tofu, fish sauce or coconut milk straight from a supermarket, but have no idea how they are produced, as they all come in a sealed pack, bottle or tin.

So all throughout this journey, I made a point to learn more about how these foods are made, as it makes us appreciate the product so much more.

Locals in Cai Be were more than happy for me to watch them at work. In one afternoon I saw sea salt being soaked, steamed and refined; rice and peanuts roasted together to make pop rice; young coconut water turned into caramelised sugar; ginger and coconut made into candy; rice made into vermicelli noodles; coconut ƒflesh turned into jam; and most exciting of all, netted rice paper being made.

Six ladies sat on low plastic stools each with two small woks in front of them, and a large red bucket of liquid batter made from rice, salt and water. Their skill and speed was incredible. Watching these ladies at work, seeing them create perfectly round paper-thin netted rice paper in a matter of seconds, was like watching a live painting.

They used a primitive but creative tool to create the netted patterns: old aluminium sardine tins, with tiny holes drilled in the base. The runny batter was poured into the tin and held over a hot wok. The ladies worked their magic by moving the tin in a circular and criss-cross motion, to create a net of batter in the wok.

About 30 seconds later, they peeled the crispy rice paper offˆ the wok and made another. If they were not fast enough, the rice paper would be far too thick. And for them, time was money — they got paid for every 3000 sheets they made …

Ben Tre

Ben Tre is another sleepy riverside town, known throughout Vietnam for its coconuts: it is surrounded by beautiful islands covered in coconut trees. Agriculture is also big here, in the form of sugar cane and cacao trees, along with exotic tropical fruits such as durians, bananas, mango, mangosteen and rambutan.

My boat trip from Cai Be to Ben Tre was picturesque. I was here to visit family, who had been growing coconuts for 40 years. Times were tough, as the price of coconuts had plummeted, so now they use the entire tree. Young green coconuts were picked € first and sold for juice; „fresh from older ones was made into coconut milk, coconut oil, candy or desiccated coconut; and the empty shells were made into bowls, cutlery and handicrafts. The dried husks were woven into doormats and carpets: their biggest export.

To keep their coconut trees strong and healthy, growers constantly have to check for pests such as coconut mice and coconut worms. The growers tell me both these pests are delicious, so I decided to help them out. To capture the mice, an experienced climber clambers to the top of a coconut tree and shakes the mice’s nest. The rodents leap out and people waiting on the ground gather them up. Marinated and barbecued, they are delicious!

Next we hunted down coconut worms. We found a tree that was already rotting away due to these little critters. The men pulled out a whole handful from the trunk and dunked them in a bowl €filled with €fish sauce. They expected me to eat them alive! I’ve eaten a lot of crazy things on this trip — bats, rats, frogs, tarantulas, crickets, cicadas, cockroaches and snakes — but seeing these fat worms wriggling in the bowl was almost too much.

Then the men told me of a local ritual. I was to put a live worm in my mouth, let it move around a bit and wait until it bit me. Only then could I bite back and eat it. As I placed that fat slippery, milky worm in my mouth and let it wriggle on my tongue, I almost gagged. I was about to spit it out when it bit the side of my mouth, and out of re„flex I bit it back and began to chew and chew. To my surprise, the flavour was like nothing I had ever tried before. I was expecting it to be slimy, creamy and rich, but it was the complete opposite: clean, subtle and light, like a piece of freshly caught and prepared king€ fish sashimi. I was so impressed, I went back for another two. They gave me a pat on the back — I was a true Vietnamese man. It was the perfect ending to my two-year journey exploring the Greater Mekong.

Recipes in this Chapter

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