I live in Hackney on the borders of Islington, Stoke Newington and Dalston, and the area is a magnet for great food outlets. Most of the old eel, pie and mash shops have gone or are on their way out, but there's an endless choice of great Turkish cafés and food shops – and best of all, Vietnamese eateries. The Vietnamese have been there since they fled their country in 1975, and over the years they have set up great-value cafés and restaurants.
My favourite is the Cay Tre and its sister The Viet Grill, owned by Hieu Trung Bui. He arrived here about eight years ago from Ho Chi Minh City and worked in several of the local Vietnamese restaurants before he realised there was a gap in the market for slightly edgy, authentic Vietnamese food.
He opened Cay Tre first on Old Street, which was certainly off piste for a Vietnamese restaurant, as most are up the Kingsland Road, and then went on to open The Viet Grill among his competitors in Shoreditch; both places are great.
Some of my favourite dishes are not even on the menu and I love getting served the staff food, which can be anything from delicious braised brisket to a duck heart salad or tripe. I always advise Hieu to put them on the menu, because there are plenty of offal lovers out there. Anyway, over the years I have been inspired by the simplicity and freshness of Vietnamese food. It's also interesting that the Vietnamese cuisine doesn't use as many spices as are used in Malaysian, Thai and Chinese cooking. Herbs and leaves are all-important, and these days you can readily buy them from supermarkets, greengrocers and Asian food shops.
A visit to a good Vietnamese or Chinese supermarket for provisions is a good idea; if that's not possible, you can always leave some of the harder-to-find ingredients out.
These are commonly found in Thai and Vietnamese restaurants and they are a great light and fresh alternative to the traditional crisp spring rolls. You can really adapt the filling to suit, and the shape too. The rice paper wrapper is just to hold the filling together and I've enjoyed eating these at The Viet Grill and Cay Tre in both rolled-up forms and also as a kind of open cone with lettuce leaves, which makes them into a really fresh and crisp snack or starter.
The wrappers used for these are dry and white with patterns from the matted bamboo they are dried on – not to be confused with spring roll wrappers as they are sometimes labelled.
10-15 rice paper sheets (allowing extra for casualties)
50g vermicelli rice noodles, cooked
4-5 spring onions, cleaned and shredded finely on the angle
A handful of herbs such as thai basil, mint, coriander, wild pepper leaves
Cooked prawns, pork, chicken of your choice
Crisp lettuce leaves such as little gems or iceberg
Lay a leaf of the lettuce on a flat surface and lay on the spring onions, a little of the vermicelli, the herbs and meat or prawns. Have a bowl of hot water ready large enough to dip the sheets into. Dip about 2 or 3 at a time for just a few seconds then lay them out on a clean work surface and leave them for a couple of minutes until the water is absorbed and they become pliable. You will need to work quite quickly and expect a few casualties along the way.
Wrap them in either cornet shapes, exposing the filling and folding the rice paper back, or wrap them tightly, folding the ends over so they look like spring rolls. Lay them on a tray until you have rolled the lot and serve immediately. Don't worry, it takes a while to get the technique right so a bit of practice before your guests arrive won't do any harm.
Oxtail with fresh green peppercorns
This sort of braised oxtail au poivre is a much simpler version of one of Hieu's classics, using fresh green peppercorns, which are very common in Vietnamese cooking.
8-12 pieces of centre-cut oxtail, trimmed of fat
2 glasses of red wine
4 onions, peeled, halved and sliced
5 cloves of garlic, peeled and crushed
1tbsp olive oil
40-50 fresh (or canned) green peppercorns
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 litres beef stock
Marinade the oxtail in the wine overnight in a non-reactive bowl. Pre-heat the oven to 230C/gas mark 8. Remove the oxtail from the wine and dry on some kitchen paper. Place on a baking tray, season and roast for about 30 minutes, turning every so often until browned. Turn the oven down to 175C/gas mark 4.
Meanwhile, gently cook the onion and garlic in the olive oil for 2-3 minutes until soft and transfer to an ovenproof dish. Add the green peppercorns and place the beef on top. Pour the red wine and beef stock on top, season, cover and cook in the oven for about 2 hours or until tender. Remove the meat, skim off any fat and simmer the sauce until it's thickened.
Serve with boiled white rice or noodles and Asian greens.
Stuffed quail in broth
Hieu has served this a few times when I've brought friends in for special occasions. He's cooked it with squab pigeon and quail on different occasions, but squab pigeons tend to cost a fortune and are difficult to get hold of.
4 oven-ready quails
60-70g minced pork
1 spring onion, trimmed and finely chopped plus 4 spring onions shredded on the angle (to garnish)
2tbsp cooked glutinous rice
Vegetable oil for frying
3-4 fresh shiitake, finely chopped
2tsp fish sauce
20g black "ear" fungus, soaked overnight in water
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2tbsp clear honey
1 litre chicken stock
12-16 lotus seeds, soaked overnight in cold water, drained and roughly chopped
A few sprigs of coriander
Pre-heat the oven to 220/gas mark 7. Mix the minced pork, finely chopped spring onion, rice, shiitake and fish sauce and season. Shred half of the black fungus and gently cook in a little oil for 2-3 minutes then add to the stuffing and season. Stuff the quails with the mixture and secure the opening with a couple of cocktail sticks. Season the birds on the outside and place in a small roasting pan. Spoon over the honey and roast for about 20 minutes, basting every so often.
Remove the birds from the tray and place in a saucepan and cover with the stock, add the lotus seeds, season, bring to the boil and simmer gently for 45 minutes adding the remaining black fungus after 15 minutes, until tender, skimming the stock every so often. Serve one bird, with the cocktail stick removed, per person, in the cooking liquor in warmed bowls with the shredded spring onion and the coriander scattered over.
Lotus stem salad with crispy pork and prawns
This is one of those delicious salads that relies on good ingredients; try Waitrose fresh Red Sea prawns and make sure you get pork belly with a good provenance. You could adapt this if you wanted by adding squid, chicken or a mixture. The lotus stems are smaller versions of lotus roots – it has a crunchy texture to it when sliced. You are likely to find it in Asian supermarkets, preserved in brine or alternatively you could use white radish.
If you can find the long Malaysian prawn crackers, all the better, or if not try to find the prawn crackers that have the highest percentage of prawn in them. If you can't find them don't worry, the salad is delicious on its own. Hieu also says that high-end restaurants in Vietnam sometimes add jellyfish which add a great crunchy texture to the dish; buy them ready-cooked from Asian stores.
A piece of pork belly weighing about 500g
8–12 prawns, preferably fresh and lightly cooked in salted water for about a minute then drained
100g lotus stems, rinsed
1 small carrot, peeled and cut into matchstick shapes
1/4 of a cucumber, halved lengthways, seeds scooped out and the flesh and skin cut into matchstick shapes
1 red chilli, very thinly sliced
A handful of herbs such as fragrant basil, coriander, mint, sawtooth coriander, Chinese parsley etc, washed and dried
Prawn crackers, preferably the long Malaysian ones, cooked
For the nuoc cham
2tbsp fish sauce
Juice of 2 limes
Pre-heat the oven to 175C/gas mark 4. Score the skin of the pork belly with a very sharp knife in cm intervals and just through the rind. Lay the pork, skin side down in about 1cm of water in a tray or pan on the stove top and simmer for 2-3 minutes then remove and place in a roasting pan, skin side up. Season with sea salt and pepper and cook for about 2 hours, basting regularly, then turn the oven up to 220/gas mark 7 and continue cooking for 30 minutes, or until the skin is crisp.
Peel the prawns and save the heads and shells for a soup or sauce. Cut them in half, lengthways, and put them to one side. Make the nuoc cham dressing by mixing all of the ingredients together. Hieu says that it really depends on the fish sauce; if it's good quality, he uses less sugar. I would suggest adding sugar to taste. Nuoc cham must taste not too sweet and not too fishy; the anchovy-like aroma must be undetectable.
To assemble the salad, remove the crispy rind from the pork and break into strips. Slice the meat thinly and toss with all of the other ingredients and arrange on plates with the crispy pork rind on top. You can pile the salad on to the crackers or serve the crackers alongside the salad.
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