Chef explores bounty of Mekong River

AUSTRALIAN-Vietnamese chef Luke Nguyen sets out on a trip across the Yunnan Province of China to Myanmar and Thailand, following the flow of the great Mekong river, in search of the secrets behind the culinary masterpieces that can only be found in this region of Southeast Asia.

Aong the way, he joins the Mekong fishermen of Thailand and hill tribes in Myanmar to learn more about the food they eat as well as prepare some special local dishes.

As he bonds with the locals through their mutual love for food, Nguyen also discovers the age-old traditions and cooking techniques that have played a big role in Asian culinary traditions.

His encounters are documented in a new series called Luke Nguyen’s Greater Mekong, which features 10 half-hour episodes covering three of the six countries that share the Mekong’s fertile waters.

Nguyen was born in a refugee camp in Bangkok in 1978, shortly after his parents fled Vietnam for Thailand. He grew up in Sydney, Australia.

Nguyen said when his family first arrived in Australia, they were again placed in a refugee camp. But his parents worked long hours in a factory to earn enough money to eventually open their own restaurant selling traditional Vietnamese hawker-style food.

“As soon as I could walk, I was working in the restaurant helping mum and dad with the broth, as well as cleaning and washing the plates.

“Although it’s hard work, I really enjoyed working at the restaurant because I was surrounded by fresh produce and fantastic food. My parents had the restaurant for almost 20 years.”

Nguyen opened his own restaurant, the Red Lantern, at the age of 23. Today, he has two other establishments in Australia. He also wrote four best-selling cookbooks, including Secrets of the Red Lantern and Luke Nguyen’s Greater Mekong – a print version of his TV series.

Nguyen has hosted other travel and cooking series in the past and has also appeared on MasterChef Australia besides hosting the first season of MasterChef Vietnam, which aired this year.

During a tele-conference interview organised by TLC, Nguyen revealed that the idea to do the Greater Mekong series came about when he was spending time with his relatives in Vietnam who live next to the river.

“I just realised that this mighty Mekong river sustains their whole livelihood. They wake up in the morning and go fishing for all the the prawns and all the fish. Then they collect the river water to water all the durian and jackfruit trees as well as the rice fields. They also wash everything in the river first.

“This was their whole life and I kind of wondered where this mighty Mekong river begins, how many countries it flows through and how many lives does it sustain.

“Later, I found out that it flows through seven countries and some 60 million lives depend on this river.”

Nguyen said he was 18 when he first set foot in Vietnam, adding that “actually, I was the first person in my family to return to Vietnam”.

He said: “My father was quite a high-ranking lieutenant in the Vietnam War fighting against the communists. So, for those who were in the war, it’s hard for them to come home or come back to Vietnam because they are afraid what would happen to them.

“[But] I really wanted to open my own Vietnamese restaurant and to do that, I need to learn more about the Vietnamese cuisine. Vietnamese cuisine is very regional – it changes from north to south.”

Nguyen said Vietnam felt like home even though he had never lived there. That trip helped him learn about who he is and understand his parents better.

“I think I grew up and matured much more by coming back to Vietnam.”

When asked to recollect the very first Vietnamese dish he savoured when he was there, Nguyen said: “It was a crispy turmeric coconut milk crepe, filled with mung beans, pork belly, some tiger prawns, beans sprout, shallots, and it’s cooked in a large wok.

“It’s served with lots of fresh herbs like mustard leaf, perilla leaf, Vietnamese mint, coriander, green mint.

“I remember cutting up the crepe, wrapping it up in a lettuce and dipping it into some sweet sauce called ‘nuoc cham’ which is made from fish sauce, lime, vinegar, chilli, garlic, and it was delicious.

“I remember that meal was so fun and I had it with my aunties that I’d never met before.

“So I was meeting new family members, eating a very traditional dish on the streets of Vietnam.

“It was a very memorable experience for me.”

Luke Nguyen’s Greater Mekong will premiere on TLC (Astro channel 707) on Aug 5 at 9pm.