From baguettes and condensed milk to inside Buddhist pagoda kitchens

Fuchsia Dunlop and 2013 Yan-kit So winner Mirabelle Lý Eliot discuss Mirabelle's research trip to Vietnam

Fuchsia Dunlop and 2013 Yan-kit So winner Mirabelle Lý Eliot discuss Mirabelle's research trip to Vietnam

From baguettes and condensed milk to inside Buddhist pagoda kitchens

20 June 2014

By Naomi Canton

Some of 2013 Yan-kit So Memorial Award winner Mirabelle Lý Eliot’s earliest memories are of her French-Vietnamese mother wrapping spring rolls and preparing caramelised pork and chicken stir-fries.

“For much of my life I thought that the only connection my mother had with her culture was the food she cooked,” the London-based writer said.

It was partly a desire to explore her French-Vietnamese heritage that inspired Eliot to apply for the Asia House 2013 Yan-kit So Memorial Award, set up in memory of the renowned Chinese food and cookery expert Yan-kit So who died in 2001.

It was also because she wanted to learn new ways of cooking since she had gone vegetarian at the age of 16.

“My mum’s cooking is a weird mix of South Vietnamese flavours with French flavours. She uses a lot of condensed milk and she is addicted to baguettes!” she said.

Speaking at Asia House about her trip to Vietnam which was funded by the Award, the 23-year-old said: “I come from an indulgent foodie family. We have always had lots of food in the house and it’s always been quite special, so when I became vegetarian, it got me interested in cooking for myself because I had to make my own meals. It became quite a problem in fact as fish sauce is central to Asian cooking, so I began to get more interested in Asian cooking and in how to make the dishes without fish sauce,” she said.

Eliot grew up in Twickenham but most of her family still live in Marseille. Her grandparents are from South Vietnam and her grandfather was in the French Army.

“My Mum is French-Vietnamese and her parents lived in Saigon. They had to leave when the French were defeated and they emigrated to Marseille. So they went from living in a really nice building in Saigon to an apartment for French military expats with eight children,” she explained.

After winning the Award, a grant worth up to £2,500 given to aspiring unpublished cookbook writers interested in Asian cuisine to travel to Asia and research any cuisine first-hand, she spent two months travelling around Vietnam, venturing into kitchens inside people’s homes, as well as restaurants and Buddhist pagodas to learn about their ingredients and methods of cooking.

Comparing her recent trip to Vietnam to a trip there as a child aged 10, she said she noticed many more mopeds and less poverty this time.  “Vietnam has developed very fast. It is a lot more dense and busy than I ever expected. Everything happens on the streets and it’s very convivial,” she added.

Eliot and her photographer Luke Walker arrived during the monsoon, so were a bit taken aback by the relentless rain. But that was more than compensated for by the amazing experiences they both had, much of which was spent inside pagodas learning about and tasting vegan cuisine.

The vegan food in Vietnam was much plainer than the meaty Vietnamese food she had grown up with but the vegetarian fare served in restaurants there was very fresh and used lots of fragrant herbs like lemongrass and lemon balm. Every dish came with a plate of fresh herbs to add. Home-cooking on the other hand was less fragranced, she said. Typical street food was beef noodle soup, but tofu and mushrooms were used to replace beef in vegetarian recipes. “There is quite a lot of French influence so on every street corner you will see baguettes and Laughing Cow cheese!” she said.

She had no difficulty getting access to the kitchens of pagodas, restaurants or homes, as everyone thought she was studying Buddhism not food, she said.

The duo started their adventure in Hanoi and travelled south. Vietnamese food varied as they travelled down, owing to climatic differences, she explained. “Further south they have more tropical fresh fruit like dragon fruit, guava, passion fruit and a lot of coconut products, so there is coconut in everything from cakes to savoury dishes. We went to the local market and saw herbs we had never seen before, including Vietnamese coriander, called Rau Ram,” she said.

“Vietnamese food is very healthy and there is not much fat in it and it’s very fresh,” she added.

Vietnamese breakfast is typically sticky rice with beans and further south it has less of an oniony taste and was more of a sweet snack. “The vegetables were more colourful and seemed sweeter too,” she added. Most Vietnamese food served in London is from North Vietnam, she explained.

“The tofu is sold in bags fresh. Sometimes we ate delicious fresh tofu and sometimes we ate it fried,” she said, showing the audience a photo of a slice of tofu crushed with lemongrass, ginger and chillies, served with a dipping sauce of chillies and ginger.

The Buddhist food was always vegan and could be quite elaborate. They would have lots of vegetables but not use onion, garlic or ginger, she explained.  Light soya sauce or fermented tofu was used to replace fish sauce.

“I did not expect to find such a deep entrenched sense of veganism in Vietnam. Vegan food was so easy to find as nearly every pagoda has a restaurant attached to it,” she said, showing the audience a picture of salads containing banana blossoms, a rose carved out of a tomato and a dragon fruit carved into a cockerel stuffed with spring rolls.

Ms Anh Tuyet's royal Hue cockerel, with dragon fruit for a body and chillies for a crown. His feathers are made from vegan spring rolls. Photo by Luke Walker

Ms Anh Tuyet’s royal Hue cockerel, with dragon fruit for a body and chillies for a crown. His feathers are made from vegan spring rolls. Photo by Luke Walker

“In Vietnam, they don’t really have desserts – it’s more sweet snacks they eat on the streets such as sesame seed dessert,” she said, showing a photo of a sweet bean filled rice dumpling where the rice had been steamed and turned purple. Doughnuts with a range of fillings including peanuts, banana, red bean and sesame are popular snacks,” she added.

Caterer and chef Paul Bloomfield, a close friend of Yan-kit So’s, prepared food, under Eliot’s coaching, which was served after the Asia House event.  “It took me back in time as if I was with Yan-kit!” he said.

He then explained how he met Yan-kit and became her close friend.  “When I was a 30-year-old man I was asked to cater for a Guild of Food Writers event and I was terrified. Yan-kit was there and she was a formidable woman. She came up to me and said, “Did you prepare this food?””

After nervously replying he had, he immediately became her Commis Chef making food for her dinner parties on Thursdays and Saturdays.

“We would go to Chinatown, have dim sum and then shop for the evening’s meal. She was an extraordinary legacy and for me and through her I met the likes of Egon Ronay, Anton Edelmann and others in a very famous circuit,” Bloomfield said.

Eliot has not got a book deal yet but is writing a proposal for a cookbook that is part travelogue and part the recipes she learnt. “Food from the Jade Cave is the working title. I am writing a chapter about lemongrass crème brulee at the moment,” she told the audience.

“I loved the fact the Yan-kit So Award was very open and had no strings attached. I applied because I was desperate to get to Vietnam and had already started a blog that had food, poetry and recipes in it,” she said.

“But I don’t think vegetarian cooking is seen as trendy in Vietnam,” she pointed out. “It’s seen as grandma food. The trendy stuff is spaghetti, pizza and kebabs.”

To listen to the audio of the event click below


To read Mirabelle’s own blog about her food adventures click here.

To read Mirabelle’s story before she set off to Vietnam click here. 

To read Mirabelle’s account of her trip in her own words click here.

The Yan-kit So Memorial Award is an annual grant worth up to £2,500 which is given to a first-time unpublished cookery writer to travel to an Asian country of their choice and learn about that country’s cuisine. Applications are invited for the 2014 Award. For more information click here.