On tour with Luke Nguyen

Sarah Gamboni
29 August, 2016

We chat to Luke Nguyen ahead of the launch of his new TV series and cookbook, Luke Nguyen's Street Food Asia.

How long were you on the road?
Filming takes around six weeks, but that’s the short part of it. The research and pre-production takes month of talking to locals and trying everything – it’s a great experience and a lot of fun. I knew Saigon back-to-front anyway, but for Jakarta, Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok, I had to make multiple visits and try hundreds of different dishes.

I love the address details you give, “Look for this number on that street, then opposite lies a tiny alleyway, home to the best pho in Saigon”. How do you find these hidden gems?
A lot of it is being on the ground and speaking to locals. They’ll say, “Visit this stall, it’s where my grandma used to go.” I want people to travel to a city and try 10 of those dishes on a street food crawl – you’ll feel like a local and will have explored the real city. I also want to show local people where to eat. If I’m in Saigon, I want the Saigonese to try it out, so you have to mingle with the locals to find those authentic places.

How do you overcome the language barrier?
People may be hesitant about the language, but here the language is food because it’s all there in front of you. The beauty of street food is it’s one big open kitchen – it’s a cooking lesson, it’s theatrical, and you’re immersed in the local way of life. Sometimes when you’re waiting in line, you start to converse with the locals and learn more about the dish. That was the case in Thailand when we happened upon a hugely popular pork stall in Bangkok. We were lining up for ages with a guy who spoke very good English and he was able to fill me in.

What was one of your highlights of the tour?
Meeting up with one of my old chefs from Red Lantern, Gade. She was one of my superstar chefs but then she moved back to Bangkok, so I asked her where she would you go on the weekend and she said the floating market. Normally I’d think the floating markets were too touristy, but this one was a three-hour drive from Bangkok, and it was where the locals went. We went out there and sat on the edge of the water, where all these small boats were lined up, cooking the best seafood – it was squishy and exciting, and it was such a great experience!

Any lowlights?
We have lowlights all the time – although not when we’re filming; that’s why we do so much research beforehand. One particular disappointment was a market in Saigon. It took me two hours to find it, but then the food was underwhelming – I loved the adventure of finding it, but because the food let me down I didn’t want to share it with viewers.

So there were plenty of places you ate at that didn’t make the cut?
Yes, hundreds, and that’s the secret to the show – I want to share the absolute best places. In Jakarta, there are a million places serving nasi goring, but I don’t recommend your average one. I show you the best nasi goreng gila, which means crazy fried rice. It’s called crazy because it has more than 20 different ingredients. It was the same for satay sticks. I must have eaten at 45 satay places in Kuala Lumpur and Jakarta, but I only show one and it had to be bloody good: the best char flavour and the best sauce. Every place and every dish has to have a story. It's not just about the food, but the people and the history behind it.

I know this is like choosing a favourite child, but what were the standout dishes of this trip?
I’ve tried a million pad thais, so I ummed and ahhed about showing one. We’ve all tried it, but a local said to me, go check this one out in Bangkok. This place was heaving with people. All the woks were outside in the street, with the flames jumping high. Their style was a very wet pad thai, with a bright orange prawn butter sauce, which was, like, wow. It just blew me away. In Jakarta, I loved the sambals. There’s a dish that translates as smashed chicken that’s first poached in stock, then fried until crisp. They then smash it up in a mortar and pestle to break up all the bones and serve it with sambal – I loved the theatre behind it.

Is there anything you wouldn’t eat again?
There are ingredients that I probably wouldn’t want to eat again, such as chargrilled bat. I’ve tried it and I wouldn’t order it myself, but if offered it would be rude not to eat it. I think it’s important to try things that are out of our comfort zone.

Watch, read, cook, eat

Luke Nguyen’s Street Food Asia is an eight-part series, screening on Thursday nights on SBS at 8.30pm, starting this Thursday 1 September. Keep an eye out for Luke’s new cookbook on Cooked.com.au, featuring all of the recipes from the series, plus more that didn’t make it to the show, launching in November.

To celebrate the series, Luke is also hosting an eight-week pop-up restaurant at The Star in Sydney, showcasing his favourite dishes from the show. 

Discover more tempting recipes from Luke Nguyen on Cooked.com.au.

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