Thursday, 22 March 2012

Back to School: Leluu’s Vietnamese Cooking Class

Led Zeppelin ROCK. When it comes to the question of who the quintessential hard rock band of all time is – we have a clear winner. But sadly, many of my readers will be too young to know all about ‘the Zep’, as they are known. They will not know the joy of listening, at preferably high volume, the classic that is ‘Whole Lotta Love’. The fantastic guitar riff, the way the sound bounces from speaker to speaker (or headphone to headphone) and the crazy break in the middle. 

The outrageously confident opening begins: You need coolin', baby, I'm not foolin', I'm gonna send you back to schoolin'!” The song brings to mind my wonderful very recent experience of Uyen Luu’s (aka Leluu) Vietnamese cooking class. It was fascinating to be a student again, given that I teach for a living. Given my lack of knowledge of Vietnamese food, I really was being sent back to school!
Uyen runs her classes from her lovely Hackney flat. Spacious with a big kitchen, we all sat around a giant kitchen table to learn from someone who has Vietnamese food in her blood. Uyen has taught Jamie Oliver how to cook Vietnamese and is currently working on a book of traditional recipes. She and her mum provided us with a real insight, and confidence to recreate this vibrant and exciting food at home.

Ambitiously, Uyen decided to teach us 9 different dishes. They were:
Pho Bo – Beef Pho (Noodle soup in beef stock with sliced beef and garnishes)
Sai Gon Summer Rolls – Pork, prawn, rice noodle and herb filled rice paper parcels with dipping sauce
Bo La Lot – Beef marinated in chili and lemongrass, rolled and baked in Betel leaves
Chicken, Carrot and Banana Blossom Salad – a fresh and zingy flavoured salad with shredded poached chicken and Vietnamese herbs
Braised Pork Belly in Coconut and Pear Cider – an earthy, flavoursome stew with quail’s eggs
Baked Sea Bass – oven baked with lemon, garlic and ginger
Pan Fried Tilapia with Mango and Fish Sauce – crispy skinned fish served with an invigorating dressing and mango juliennes
Watercress Soup with Ginger – warming, sustaining brothy soup with tofu
Stir Fried Morning Glory – known as Ung Choi, stir fried with oyster sauce and garlic
Banana Fritters – wonderful dessert requiring no introduction
Vietnamese Frozen Yoghurt – healthy and tasty alternative to ice cream

On arrival at Uyen’s flat, we were greeted by her wonderful mother, cute dogs and our engaging host. The day, we were advised would be full of fun, food and drink, and immediately we found tea and basil seed drink ready for us.

The basil seed drink was quite a curiosity. I’ve had bubble teas and Indonesian Chendol (or Tchendol/ Jendol), so I have previously experienced the slightly chewy, sweet contents of south east Asian drinks. This was a surprise, since the basil seeds were just ordinary seeds soaked in water for around 10-15 minutes, yet somehow they rapidly created a gelatinous ooze which may sound terrible, but was actually delicious!

We started with Summer Rolls. I have previously made this at home on occasion, and always found them to be a right old faff. Thanks to Uyen, I have learnt the secret: buy the right type of rice paper (square) and to dip them very briefly in COLD water. This seems to make the assembly and rolling of the rolls all the easier. The square papers also allow you to enclose all of the ingredients in an envelope shape, meaning you don’t have all the contents spill out as you try to dip the roll in the dipping sauce.

Have a look, my efforts look so much more edible now, don’t they?

The Chicken, Carrot and Banana Blossom Salad was unlike any salad I’ve ever eaten. Served on perhaps the tastiest prawn crackers I have ever eaten (they actually tasted of prawns, rather than vaguely smell of them and no more), this salad had a unique combination of crunchy, chewy, sweet, sour and umami. It is this happy balance between all 5 flavours and textures which is the aim of Vietnamese food.
Next up were the preparations for Pho Bo. I’ve had this at various restaurants, both here and abroad. But I’ve never attempted making it from scratch. Although the authentic Pho is time consuming, Uyen has given me the confidence and knowhow to make this at home. The secret, it would appear, is to griddle roast an onion, some root ginger and boil up in a stock pot with some daikon, oxtail and beef. The result was such a pure tasting beefy broth, I am wondering where my next Pho fix will come from. If I weren’t so terribly busy at work, I’d be boiling up my own stock tomorrow!

Whilst the Pho was cooking, Uyen shown us around a local Vietnamese supermarket. She shown us the best ingredients to buy to recreate the dishes she demonstrated, knowledge which will be invaluable. Among her picks are the Bamboo brand square rice papers and the 3 Crabs brand fish sauce, superior products which assist in achieving amazing results.

The Bo La Lot was always going to be a dish I was going to be excited about making. I’ve had it in restaurants both on the Pho Mile in Kingsland Road, in the West End and the ‘mini Pho Mile’ of Deptford High Street (and environs). I’m so obsessed that I nearly always order it. Uyen’s recipe differs from the typical in that it used rump steak rather than mince, but that is all to the good. It was succulent, flavourful and the texture of the sliced steak with the cooked Betel leaf was superb.

Here are the prepared rolls before cooking.

After 12 minutes, the delicious little rolls were ready for devouring.

Of all the dishes, the Braised Pork Belly was the one I was most sceptical about. I have disliked eggs all my life (stemming from a mild allergy to them). However, what I tasted was a hearty Asian style stew which, if I can convince Him Indoors to eat quail’s eggs could become a Winter Warmer staple in our household. Score!

The fish dishes were very different, but both had that classic balance of eastern flavours. The Tilapia is a dish which would be great to share with others with salads and rice. The Sea Bass is a great simple supper dish which could be served with rice in the Vietnamese style, but equally could be teamed with steamed veg for a fusion twist.
Fried Tilapia with mango
Sea Bass baked in the oven

The vegetable dishes, particularly the Morning Glory, were achievable, simple yet tasty. Being someone who really could do with eating more veg (I’m a 2.5-3 a day person more so than a 5 a day girl), these are great ideas for having great tasting veggies with supper.

Stir fried Morning Glory
Watercress soup
 Somehow, after a day’s gluttony, I managed to find space for pudding. I don’t know where I put it all, but there was no way I was going to miss out on Banana Fritters! One of my favourite desserts (along with its sister, Pineapple Fritters), these are hard to get right. They need to be have a light and fluffy batter and cannot taste oily or the fruit flavours are ruined. Serving them with Vietnamese frozen yoghurt gave a sweet and sour tang to the dish rather than cloying the palate with too much sugar.

I had a great day learning about the philosophy of Vietnamese food and its balance of Yin and Yang. You can read an article by Uyen on her website about this here:

I also thoroughly enjoyed learning about new cooking techniques and ingredients. I hope to use my new knowledge to recreate some of these dishes at home. So thanks very much, Uyen, for sharing your kitchen, knowledge and skills with us, and it was a privilege to meet your lovely mum and to learn from her, too!

If you are interested in attending one of Uyen’s classes, they cost £75 and future classes will be held on the following dates: Apr 1, 7, 28; May 13, 20; Jun 3. You can contact Uyen at

Thursday, 15 March 2012

South Indian Inspired Chicken Curry

My family does not hail from the South of India, so I don't claim to be any kind of expert. The food of South India is usually exceptionally hot, with lots of chili. Apparently this is because the chili encourages sweating, which means you can keep cool in the fiercely hot climate of the south. South Indian food also reflects the produce of the area, with coconut, coconut milk and bananas appearing in dishes. Many South Indian curries are also cooked in coconut oil.
The marinade ingredients pre-prepared

Slash the thighs a couple of times to allow the marinade to permeate them
Some readers will be familiar with South Indian dishes such as the Masala Dosa, a scrumptious dish served on an enormous stainess steel thali consisting of a lightly crispy pancake made of fermented dahl, curried potato, rasam (thin dahl) and spicy chutney. That dish is beyond my skill; the making of the pancake itself is an art. So here is something altogether more basic and manageable.

This chicken curry attempts to deliver some of the flavour of South India without the heat. Even though it has 3 chilis in it, the fact that the sauce is cooked in coconut milk seems to neutralise the heat. The spice list may seem a bit daunting, but once you buy these spices, you will find that you'll use them again and again in many other Indian dishes. Because the majority of them are whole spices, they will keep well in an airtight container kept away from the light.

Serves 3-4


For the marinade paste:
2 small (or 1 large) white onion/s, peeled and roughly diced
7 cloves garlic, peeled and roughly diced
2-3” (5-8cm) piece of ginger,  peeled and roughly diced
3 green chilis, roughly chopped (please de-seed if you don't like too much heat)
1 tsp turmeric

8 chicken thighs, skinned and slashed

For the curry sauce:
4 dried curry leaves
1 tbsp black mustard seeds
3 tbsp mustard oil
2 sticks cinnamon
½  tsp ground black pepper
5 cloves
5 green cardamom pods
2 medium potatoes, peeled and cut into 1cm thick half moons
⅓  butternut squash, peeled and cut into 1cm slices
1 440ml (standard size) can coconut milk
2-3 tbsp fresh coriander
½  tsp ground sea salt

Serve with cooked basmati rice

Optional / variation: use chunks of sweet potato instead of ordinary potatoes.


Take all the marinade ingredients and put into a blender/food processor. 
Blender is loaded and ready to go!
 Blitz into a puree, although if it is too thick, feel free to add a tablespoon of water to loosen.
The marinade is ready!

Make sure the marinade coats all of the chicken
Rub the marinade paste over the chicken and place in a non-metallic bowl. It must be non-metallic or the acids in the marinade will react with the bowl, resulting in ICKY tasting curry!

Allow to marinate in the fridge. I did this first thing in the morning and left it whilst I went to work – around 8 hours. However, 1 hour at room temperature will do if you don't have that sort of time.

In a large saucepan, put your mustard oil and heat. Now fry the mustard seeds and curry leaves and allow to sizzle, about 2 minutes.

Now add the marinated chicken, any leftover marinade (which will make up the curry sauce) and all of the spices (including the salt). Brown the chicken all over.

Now add the tin of coconut milk and 100-150ml of water. Put the lid on and cook for 30 minutes.

Add the potatoes and squash. Cook for 5-10 mins with the lid on. Then another 10 minutes with the lid off.

Adding the veggies.....
Give them enough time to cook in the sauce....
Now cook your rice – which will take around 15-20 mins. Leave the curry cooking for 15-20 mins with the lid off.

Check the potatoes and squash are cooked. If so, then turn the heat off and stir through the chopped coriander, or serve topped with the coriander. (I served the coriander as a topping as it looks more attractive that way). Serve with the cooked rice.
The chicken is cooked as are the potatoes and squash

The finished dish, ready to enjoy!

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Ringing the changes: new 'about' page

Hello everyone!

You may have noticed that I've not posted for a little while. Sadly, things at work have gotten a little bit busy. Much as I might dream of writing full time, it isn't going to happen, and I have to work full time in my day job as a university lecturer. I do love teaching, but the job isn't all about the classroom, and it is the endless admin and marking which has kept me from my blogging.

I have recently been reading about this blogging lark, because when I started I was really quite naive about it all, and just got on with posting stuff knowing very little about what I was doing. 

One thing I realised is that the old design I had been using (white/grey writing on a black background) might look good on screen, but is a terrible pain for people to actually read. Now, I actually WANT people to read the posts that I spend a fair amount of time writing, so I realised that had to change. Hence my recent redesign, which I hope works better than the old one.

What I have also discovered is that people who read blogs like to know a little bit about the blogger. So I've sat down and thought about what people might want to know. The result:   My brand new 'about' page!

I hope you all like it. If there is anything you think I should add, or anything else you want to know, do get in touch with me. 

I hope you are all cooking and eating well! 

love to you all