About 5 or perhaps 6 years ago, a mysterious new restaurant opened in Catford, where I live. The glass front was all frosted, so you couldn’t see inside, and outside it declared itself to be a Vietnamese restaurant. Now, in the London Borough of Lewisham (particularly in the north of the borough) there is a large Vietnamese community. They run the majority of Chinese restaurants in the Deptford/New Cross area. I’d been to several of these establishments, but had not tried Vietnamese food. Curious, Him Indoors and I decided to investigate. We found a totally unique cuisine with fresh, clean tastes. The use of large amounts of fresh herbs to lend texture and subtle flavour was something we’d never come across. The kindly old man who ran the place was always keen to explain the dishes and generally chat.
Sadly, it was not a success. Local people were not either curious or adventurous enough to visit. The old man and his restaurant disappeared. We don’t know where to. But his gift to us was the desire to know more and try more of this wonderful food.
Kingsland Road in East London is known as the ‘Pho Mile’ because of its high concentration of Vietnamese restaurants. It is a vibrant street, and having eaten at Cay Tre, it is possibly the best place to get Vietnamese food in this country. Deptford High Street is what I call the ‘Mini Pho Mile’; a clutch of small restaurants catering for the local Vietnamese community and a specialist Vietnamese grocers. Special mention goes to Le Gia, a former pub converted into a Vietnamese restaurant with a very varied menu and food prepared with love and care.
Of course, the next step from sampling Vietnamese food is trying to make it. Those of you who are regular readers may recall my experiments this Summer at making the classic Summer Rolls with Nouc Cham dipping sauce. (Summer rolls recipe is here, and the sauce here). The trouble is that my ambition outstrips my ability. I just don’t have the knowledge or skill to know how to make many of the amazing dishes I’ve tried when eating out. And even though I avidly followed Luke Nguyen’s two series where he travels around Vietnam learning about the traditional dishes and recreating them, many were very fiddly and involved ingredients I can’t seem to find in London.
Then there’s the time factor. Much as I’d love to make homemade Pho, I don’t really fancy putting a stock pot on before going to bed and leaving it on all night. A dish which takes 14 hours to make? Sorry – I love you, dear wonderful Pho – but perhaps I am just destined to slurp your goodness when I am out and about.
So here is an attempt to cut a few corners but create something which approximates real Vietnamese food. I found the soup base in a Vietnamese grocers in Greenwich, but it should be available in either See Woo or Longdan. Here is what the jar looks like:
Vietnamese style Chicken Noodle Soup (for cheats)
1 sheet Chow Mein noodles or Yellow Noodles
3 spring onions sliced diagonally
1 birds eye chilli very finely sliced
2 handfuls cooked (I used leftover roast) chicken (about 2 breasts worth)
2 heaped desert spoons of Vietnamese Chicken Soup base
3 mugs of boiling water
1 lime, cut into quarters
1 handful beansproats, quickly rinsed in boiling water
Sweet white onion, finely diced
Small handful of mint leaves
Small handful of mint leaves
1. Prepare your garnishes in advance.
2. If using raw chicken, then either roast in the oven or poach in boiling water, but using leftover roast chicken is the easiest. Shred the chicken up into small pieces, and put to one side.
3, Cook the noodles according to the pack instructions. Mine needed boiling for 6 minutes.
4. Drain, rinse with cold water to arrest the cooking process. If the noodles are likely to stick together (particularly so with supermarket egg noodles), dress lightly with groundnut oil. Put to one side.
5. Put the boiling water and the soup base in a saucepan. Maintain on a simmer for 2-3 minutes to let the flavour infuse.
6. Now chuck in the spring onions, chilli and allow another 2-3 minutes for the oils in both to seep out into the soup and impart their flavour. Add the noodles and allow to warm through, about 2 minutes.
7. Now add the chicken. If shredded into small enough pieces, it will only need another 3 minutes to be heated through until hot and safe to eat.
8. Dish up the soup (you will have to fish out the chicken or it will all stay towards the bottom of the pan). Share out the spring onions, noodles and chicken.
9. Top with the garnishes – except for the lime, which you squeeze over the soup.