Friday, July 29, 2011

Vietnamese Cooking Club By Leluu

By Leluu - Leluu is moving blog - Please follow at
In the small town of Phan Thiet, a small town by the sea, where the traffic isn't as condensed and the noise isn't a hum that vibrates your body like in Sai Gon there lives my mother's family. She came from the fish sauce town where if you step a bit out of the centre, the smell lingers of rotten fish and seeps into your soul and somehow rotten fish becomes like perfume.
I come here every year or so and my favourite thing is to have a typical everyday meal with the family.

A plate of fried morning glory with garlic, pan fried mackerel with sweet and chilli fish sauce or sweet and sour squid with a bowl of hot and sour pineapple fish soup.
This is how Vietnamese people tend to eat every lunch time and dinner if they can be close to their home and family. At home, there is usually incense burning by the fat laughing Buddha. It is a delight to worship a god thats into eating and enjoying life!
Everybody is set a place, the rice pot is usually bought to the table and before you can start enjoying the meal, sometimes, grace is said. To be polite and if you are a guest, you must say, "Moi…aunt, uncle, father, mother" starting with the eldest member. If you are the youngest, you will have  a lot of Moi-ing to do. Its a greeting like bon appetite, or a welcome or enjoy-your-food.
When I was there last in April, I noticed that my aunt, my mother's sister always had a place set aside for someone but they never appear to be coming. So I asked her, why is there a place here and who is it for whose always late? And she told that it was a child she had who passed away when he was a baby. I stumbled, shocked and frozen in surprise. We don't forget him, we always remember him at every meal and pray to him that he is also eating and not hungry in his next life.

My cousin goes on to say that she believes in his spirit as a guiding soul who always pulls them out of bad times and prays for him every day.

Humbled, we all start to eat. As a guest, I am always given the best pieces of fish. If someone sees my bowl empty of food, they hand me a delicious piece of something. Its hard to turn down even after a while when you are full as you'd be insulting someone's kind gesture of love. The trick is to always have your rice bowl with contents but don't overload it. Only take what you are about to eat but it is also affectionate if you take a good piece of something like meat or fish and place it into someone else's bowl - the person you favour or most fond of.
The soup is poured into the bowl when you are finishing off the rice, clears and cleans it so you can give the person nearest to the rice pot a fresh bowl to serve you more rice. No grain should go un-wasted as it is sinful when people outside go hungry.

Its a lovely family etiquette and often when I eat with my Far Eastern friends, we do the same, a special thing between us to serve each other.
Join my Vietnamese Cooking Club where we show you how to make typical dishes and enjoy it like -a family- Vietnamese breakfast, lunch and supper, 8- 10 dishes to cook and learn. We will be talking about yin and yang - the elements of food and its interaction with our bodies, Vietnamese traditions and ettiquette as well as unraveling ingredients and recipes.

Next dates are
28 Agust
18 Sept
2nd Oct

Friday, July 22, 2011

Blood Cakes & Banana Blossom

By Leluu
A View From Hue
I don't remember going to prison. I was too young.  But I do remember my mother carrying a bag of rice with us onto a boat and that is it. Apparently we got caught and that was that - perhaps a blessing in disguise as we probably would have died at sea.

She often talks about how it would have been if we would never have made it across to England. How she would not have been able to afford an education for me, I would have ended up selling something in the market but I would have a family by now with lots of children.

I have just been in California to visit my grandparents - a family reunion for their 60th anniversary. We had a five day emotional packed event, reminiscing the past, comedy, music, performances and giving thanks. There were over 20 of us, their sons and daughters, in laws and grandchildren. When we all had to take our turn to speak - something to say about our love for our grandparents, it was full of bravery and tears. We dived into the deepest parts of ourselves and gave them everything we had, even the locked away feelings we rarely touch upon.

My Uncle Hien started the tears rolling. To his surprise as well as ours, Hien could only stutter his words, struggling with the emotions that came thrusting forward like a wave of tsunami - engulfing his whole persona. He thanked my grandfather for the time which was over 30  years ago when he visited him in prison every month, bringing him food for two years without fail. It is not like Uncle Hien to cry because he is a man who always smiles, who always laughs and who always jokes. He only mentions the positives. He told in Vietnamese to his father how he is most grateful, thankful and humbled by the visits.

After the fall of Saigon, Uncle Hien was on a boat to escape with 127 other people. After a week at sea, the Communists caught them and threw them into a 100sqm cell with a mezzanine floor at head height to bed the other 400 people whom eventually crammed in. He said that you had to sleep on your side right next to each persons because that was how you could fit.

For men, the normal time to spend in prison is 1 year. For women and children, 3-6 months but for the 127 people, it was 2 years. There was a woman on the boat, she had a male name for some reason and she got 2 years with the rest of them.
My uncle, Hien, is the spitting image of my father. He reminds me of him and all I see in him are the positive aspects of what could have been for me - a father. I have never had a relationship with my father except the one where I felt I missed him so much when he left us for years and decades until I eventually gave up missing and filled the void with a photo album of pictures taken by Uncle Hien.
My Grandmothers, Mum, Brother & Uncle Yung on our terrace - Photos By Hien Luu
All my memories of childhood in Vietnam contain that of my Uncle Hien and even on my right hand, I have a scar that will never let me forget him because when Hien was in prison, he cut from a stainless steel bowl, a bracelet for me. He engraved it beautifully with my full name and patterns, polished it and sent it back to Saigon with my grandfather for me. I loved it and wore it all the time.

But one day, a day I will never forget, even though I was very young, I fell on the marble stairs as I ran either up or down to play. The stairs are always well lit with daylight in our 5 storey house. It spiralled in a square overlooking a large water well where my kittens would often hang out. I tripped somehow and the bracelet cut sharply into the centre across my little hand.
Uncle Yung, Aunt Mai & Me on our terrace- Photos By Hien Luu
My mother, my grandmother, my aunts and all the neighbours were screaming and panicking high pitch fever. It was as if they were terrified I would loose my hand but luckily, the cut sliced on both sides of the artery but not the artery, missing it completely. Now, that I grew up and so did my hand and the scar appears smaller than before,  the artery is like a bridge that crosses the scar.

"I was lucky," he tells me. We sat privately in a room for 2 hours talking about his prison experience,"I was really lucky because I could sing, I could dance, I could play the guitar and the drums so they made me the entertainer. I didn't have to work so hard in the fields." They made the prisoners build a canal. The prisoners had to dig non stop into the dirt in a valley. You couldn't escape because you'd have to climb the valley and that was where they would see you and shoot you.

They often made example of people who tried to escape by displaying corpses till they would rot. And after all the digging, they were given half a bowl of rice with salt twice a day. Once at 10am and once at 3pm. "Life was really really hard…"

My grandfather used to travel for the whole day to reach him. The visit lasted only 5 minutes every month and this was when my grandmother packed all sorts of food for him to last a month.
Bun Bo Hue With Beef, Pork, Blood Cakes, Trotters & Banana Blossom
My grandmother set up a cafe in our home selling Bun Bo Hue - a hot and spicy noodle soup with lemongrass and beef with pig's trotter broth. This would fund the monthly prison visit trips.

One day in July, unknown to my uncle and the 127 prisoners, they were told that they could go. After 2 years. It was a total shock to the system. "we ran back to our cell and we gave everything away to the others and we ran with just the clothes on our backs. We ran as fast as we could in case they would change their minds. We didn't even know where we were going - we just ran."

It was a day that changed his life and his whole outlook on life. "We ran into people and they helped us with some food and someone gave me a little money to get home."
Present Day, Uncle Hien Playing With His Niece Megan.
Uncle Hien came home out of the blue and covered in dirt. He spent a good few years continuing the Bun Bo Hue business to help the family and repay his debt to them whilst he was imprisoned. He got up at 3am to prepare the broth, prep the herbs, banana blossom and noodles. My grandmother would then sell it. He would then prep the meat in the afternoon for the next day and shop for all the ingredients, prepare the blood cakes and start over.

He was like a father to me and still is like a father to me from afar. He always sang and taught me songs. He drew pictures and made paintings and encouraged me to do the same. He took pictures with a Canon AE-1 and one day, he gave me that camera and I carried it around the world.
Uncle Hien with Uncle Thu & Uncle Thu's Wife
My uncles Thu & Vinh in Brooklyn managed to sponsor the entire family to America. Uncle Hien & Yung, Aunt Mai & Van had to go to Indonesia to learn English. It was where they learned that people who loved and missed them tried to escape to be with them but they didn't make it. They died at sea.

*Title: Blood Cakes & Banana Blossom courtesy of Jonathan Luu

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Stories from Uncle Thu, His Escape From Vietnam

By Leluu

My Grandparents on their 60th Wedding Anniversary
When my family first came to England, I remember my father asked my brother and I, aged 5, to sit in the car and wait. I remember waiting for a very long time. So long that a policeman knocked on our windscreen. We didn't know what he wanted or what he was saying but both of us cried in horror, in silent horror. We both pushed our bodies to the other side of the car away from him and hid our faces in our hands and each other. We feared the police because when we grew up in Vietnam, the police-the communist were men whom everybody feared.

They would check our homes every day to make sure that we were clear of betraying their regime and behaving accordingly as they wished us to like good comrades. I feared the man in a hat and his green uniform with a red badge more than anything. He would carry a gun and he would always shout and tell people off.
Uncle Thu sent this picture home when he was in Brooklyn
Thirty years later, holding back a tear in his eye, my Uncle Thu hadn't realised that when I asked him about the elephant man, he would be trapped into an hour long interview with his eldest niece about the past, something he hardly ever talks about, about a time that would determine his life or death and all of our destinies. In his most serious tone (this rarely happens), in his Texan, Vietnamese accent,  Thu, whispered, "you knew that if you step on the boat, you chose to die, you know that right?"

As I child I knew no better, I was making daisy chains with my teenage aunties, singing songs and being stroppy with fellow toddlers. They did their best to distract me and made sure I had a happy childhood. But in actual fact, Vietnam after the war was a place no one wanted to be in, that millions and millions of people would all rather die than face a future with a communist government. I was too young to remember when Uncle Thu left but I always knew of him because he would always send me something from America.

Everybody had to escape in secret, not even telling their own families what they were up to sometimes in case the family would get into trouble with the police. My uncles, including my father tried to escape many times, mostly unsuccessful.
One day, Uncle Thu and Uncle Vinh made it onto a 5 metre long boat with 15 or so other people. They had made it out. After a couple days in the open sea they ran out of food and water and eventually, they ran out of fuel. They waited anxiously for some rescue and finally, to their surprise, an Indonesian boat passed by. "We were so happy, we felt so lucky and couldn't believe it."

The boat refused to help them, even though people tried to climb onto it, the boat pushed the people back into the sea and abandoned them. It was such sadness, like all the hope they had was pulled from under their feet. "We were so tired, the most exhausted I have ever been. We just thought we would die but that night, the boat came back."

This time, the men on the boat who must have felt their conscience grip tightly bought back food and water and some fuel and told them to go in a certain direction as they had no navigation tools.

Unknown to what was ahead, they faced a big storm. The engine broke and all they could do was cling on for their lives onto the edges of the flimsy boat they sat on, vigorously pouring water out of the boat with their hands and a few buckets they had on deck.

The storm eventually calmed and passed and they were still alive after 7 days, after 10 days… they drifted into more starvation and thirst. On the brink of death, drifted like logs into the Indonesian Navy who rescued them, watered them, fed them and showered them. The Navy bought the people back to land but as soon as some people stepped onto land, they collapsed and died. "It was the opposite of seasickness - after the storm and drifting at sea - and after all we went through, it was ironic that arriving on land killed them."

Mu uncle tells me he was reborn the moment he stepped onto land. Not believing his luck to still be alive. The young handsome brothers spent a year working in the Navy in Indonesia until they met a nun who decided to help them out. She had some relatives over in New York who would sponsor them. I imagine the two young men would probably win the hearts of many. So with the navy, they went.

They came to harbour in New York with the clothes on their backs, a toothbrush and $20 each from the Navy. "Go! They said. This is where we part."

"It was freezing," said Uncle Thu, "we didn't have anything, no jacket, no home, no place to go, no food...we just followed some others, explained our situation and kind people helped us."
Uncle Thu
Uncle Vinh
The brothers moved from home to home, mainly sharing small rooms with other people in Brooklyn. Eventually Vinh got a job as a mechanic on minimum wage and supported his brother Thu through to college as a Computer Engineer. "We used to go to the beach and hunt for crabs," says Thu with a warm chuckle for his brother,"whatever he had, he always gave me half. He loved hunting for crabs and lobsters. They were free and delicious."

Whatever they had, which was very little, they still managed to send me chocolates - I remember M&Ms, money for my grandmother and gifts for everyone else.

Meanwhile, my grandmother had an idea to sell Bun Bo Hue in our house. She had to help her other son, Hien, who tried to escape.  The 127 people on his boat were all thrown into prison in a valley (so they can see it when people tried to escape). They often displayed corpses til they would rot to make an example and to enhance fear.

My grandparents needed to earn enough money to travel monthly to visit him. It was a trip that required many transfers and took the entire day and Bun Bo Hue was funding this. My grandfather made the monthly trips carrying food to last a month til his next visit. One day, my grandfather bought home a stainless steel bracelet with my name on it, a gift from Uncle Hien. He had made it for me in prison…
Uncle Hien
Uncle Vinh still lives in Queens, New York with his wife and two sons. Uncle Thu moved to Austin, Texas and has a successful business in electronics. He has a wife, two sons and a young daughter.
My Grandparents receiving a book of photos of their family
My Grandparents watching a slide show of photos of their life

Thursday, July 14, 2011

The Monsoon, Bun Bo Hue, Elephant Man & My Uncle Thu

By Leluu (
Me & My uncle Yung shared a chicken heart
The earliest memory I have is of the monsoon rain falling hard and fast on to the pavement outside our house in Saigon. I was sitting on my aunt's lap and she was bouncing me. It was June and it was my birthday and she had bought me a sponge cake with cream on top and a strawberry syrup drink. She sang to me into my ears-songs of prayer and read Vietnamese poems to me.

The rain kept falling as if it were nails dropped down from heaven. The noise was deafening as many people had metal roof tops. I was mesmerised by the sound, by the hundred and millions of drops that bubbled up on the ground and made many exploding balloons everywhere you looked. The grey grey days of the monsoon was a relief to everyone although it was still very humid, there was a welcoming breeze and I always sat on my little table in the Bun Bo Hue street cafe that was the living room of our home and watched my grandmother serve bowl after bowl. She would smile all the time at the customers. She tells me now, that she always saved her youngest son, my uncle and I a heart and a liver from the chicken, "I would cut it in half for you every day because you both loved it."

I remember seeing her somewhere among the cloud of steam - that would surround her by her stall. Her hair was always up in a bun and she was a round and handsomely chubby woman who would at any given opportunity sniff me whenever I came near her. The Vietnamese's kiss is a sniff. Instead of using their mouths to kiss, they kiss with their noses, a sniff kiss.

Then I would remember practicing my alphabets and I would see the elephant man who lived nearby. He always walked across from the street - never on the same side but always over the road. He had a very big deformed head and he used to walk from the left to the right of my view with a straw bag. He always wore a white shirt with short sleeves and a beige pair of shorts. I would see him very often and I think I must have just stared at him. I knew he was different but I didn't know why.
My Uncle Thu- (the most handsome man I ever saw)
One day, the family received a parcel. My uncle, Thu, had escaped Vietnam with his brother Vinh. He had arrived in New York. My grandmother received a few dollars, my aunts received some fabric for clothes and he had sent me, his first niece some chocolate. It was the first time I ate chocolate and only was it such a special occasion, that it is engraved in my memory- the delights of the succulent unknown from a far away land. It melted in the heat of Saigon and ran all over my fingers. My teenage aunts were panicking over the melt. I was covered in brown and the house was enchanted by the news that our beloved Thu & Vinh were alive and well. A celebration. Times were hard just after the war. The Communists were watching every household.

I am in California now - somehow we all exiled eventually. After over thirty years, I sit with my uncle on my grandparent's American couch at his parent's 60th wedding anniversary and he tells me his story of how he escaped, in his early twenties; his weeks at sea facing storms, starvation and almost death. He ends up in Brooklyn with a toothbrush, the clothes on his back and someone gave him $20…

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Catalan Cooking Supper Club

By Leluu

Thanks to Codorníu - I got invited to Beas Of Bloomsbury for an event my lovely friend and fellow Blogger peer, Rachel McCormack was running - the Catalan Cooking Supper Club.

I took my Spanish/ Mexican loving friend Zack (he wants to be Latino and will always speak Spainsh whenever he can to show off... he he), and upon arrival until we left hours and hours later, we were showered with cava. It made for a very joyous evening but to be honest, I couldn't taste the difference in the many selection we drank after about the 3rd bottle - if it was fizzy and in a flute - it was fantastic!
Rachel is a small Scottish lady with a very strong Scottish accent. One could be intimidated. She might punch you in the nose is one of my first impressions of her - but (thankfully) I was proved wrong almost immediately. Rachel has a mesmerizing accent and the tone in her voice is full of grace and seduction. You'd want to listen to her, you'd want to hear what she is telling you. You'd want to be in her company. The lady kicks ass in a big way - I have grown to be very fond of Rachel.

Rachel has been running monthly Catalan cookery classes at Bea's. She also does public demonstrations at various food places and festivals. She also does private classes in people's homes so you can book her for a fab fun day of cooking where you can go shopping together and make dinner with your friends and for your friends. I have not been, this would be my first encounter with her cooking.

Spainish food is not my favourite food - there I have said it - I have other favourite food such as Italian - I will always choose Italian, but I have worked with (Simon) Fernandez who is a great Spanish cook and has cooked a lot of wonderful Spanish dishes such as his brilliant paella - has geared me towards liking it much more. There were too many bad food experiences in Spain where I probably just went to the wrong places over and over again for greasy aubergines and oily chorizo. I have since become entirely critical about Spanish food and most people say I am crazy for not loving Spanish food.

But good food is always good when its done well as in the case with Simon Fernandez and in the case with Rachel McCormack. I will eat their Spainish/ Catalan food any day because its good.

Rachel spent most of her 20s in Barcelona. There she learnt from eating, cooking and being a local. She tells me she wants to raise more awareness of her beloved cuisine to the UK as she faces many people like me who just love Italian food and will choose that over Spanish food. In the UK, French and Italian are more known, just like Chinese and Thai is over Vietnamese.

Tapas is such a great idea though and Rachel teaches these amongst other themes such as rice dishes on her courses. She just wants Spanish food and wine to be respected just like French & Italian. Maybe one day, I hope to see a big massive statue of Rachel McCormack - she says it would have to be in Placa San Jaume in Barcelona for services to Catalan Culture in the UK.

For the Codorníu event, Rachel served up a fantastic 4 course meal and my favourite were the delightful fluffy, hot cod doughnuts - crispy on the outside:
Here is Rachel's recipe for the cod doughnuts (which I think she is crazy for giving away) They are sublime! I will try these as soon as possible and make batches for the freezer.

Bunyols de Bacalla (Cod Doughnuts)

3 medium eggs
75 g self-raising flour
60 g butter
2 cloves garlic
125 ml milk
200g salt cod soaked for at least 24 hours
1tbs chopped parsley
1ltrs oil for deep frying

Weigh the ingredients. Chop the garlic and parsley until they are really tiny. Put the milk, the salt and the butter in a pot and put on to simmer. Cut and pull the cod until it’s in tiny strips. When the milk is about to boil and the butter has melted put all the flour in immediately and keep stirring. Take the pan off the heat and put the mix in a food processor or a blending bowl. Add the eggs one by one (whole is fine), then add the cod, the parlsey and the garlic. Mix with the food processor or hand blender until they are all blended and leave for 30 minutes to rest.

Heat the oil in pan for deep frying and add the batter to the hot oil a teaspoon at a time, leaving enough room for the bunyols to inflate.

Once cooked remove from the hot oil and place on kitchen paper to drain.

Then I had the tuna tartare - both Zack and I had nothing to say throughout other than "hhhmmm" til we polished the thing off. Utterly delicious. Rachel has kindly written the recipe for us to enjoy:

Tartar de Tonyina (Tuna Tartar)
Serves 4 as a starter

350 g of boneless skinless tuna
1 ½ teaspoons of wholegrain mustard
1 ½ tablespoons of soy sauce
½ tablespoon of sherry vinegar
Extra Virgin olive oil
2 spring onions
Chopped chives
1 ripe avocado
Teaspoon lemon juice

Chop the tuna into small pieces and put in a bowl. Add the soy sauce, the mustard the sherry vinegar and a splash of extra virgin olive oil.

Cover with a plastic film and leave in the fridge for at least 30 minutes

Mash the avocado with a fork and add the lemon juice and some salt. (you want quite a rough texture)

To serve: either use a metal ring or an empty can of condensed milk and place a couple of soup spoons of avocado at the bottom, press down, then a couple of spoons of tuna and press down. Remove the ring or can and sprinkle some chives in top. Serve with croutons.

Alternatively you can shape the tuna and avocado into quenelles with two dessert spoons and serve them side by side.


I think Rachel should have her own radio show or TV show. I would love to watch her and thank goodness I like her cooking as I really love her.

Thank you to Clarion for inviting me and Zack to this event - he really loved it and even managed to speak Spanish (very well indeed I must add). We did not pay for the meal and we drank a lot of wonderful Codorníu Cava. Thank you Thank you for a wonderful evening.

You can check out what Rachel does here on her blog:
Twitter/ Instagram @R_McCormack


Saturday, July 2, 2011

Jamie Oliver's The Big Feastival

I went to The Big Feastival today. As I was trying to get some Japanese pancakes, as you get drawn to a crowd - I saw Jamie Oliver. I managed to disturb his filming and said hi- too : )

I was looking at this...
then saw this...
I am not sure how it all works but all the proceeds to The Big Feastival goes to charity. I got a lovely burger from Gourmet Burger, some Chicken Satay from Awana and delicious scotch eggs from Trinty.

You have to exchange your cash for token in order to purchase things and each plate of food is worth £5 in tokens. A little bit expensive for half a scotch egg I would say. If things were say, £3, I would have ventured out much more.
It was a lovely afternoon out with my best friend Aggie. We really enjoyed walking around and picking what to eat. There was a really nice atmosphere of music and food. Everyone sitting on the grass and there were even lovely tables and couches set out for us to sit on (but I didn't manage to get a good photo
I was invited as a member of press and did not pay for my entry and was allowed 3 tokens in exchange for food. Thank you to Danny McCubbin from for the invitation.

The Big Feastival is on til 3rd July in Clapham Common


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