Barbara Adam investigates what’s possible — and what’s not — when it comes to home cooking in Ho Chi Minh City. Photos by Jonny Edbrooke and Thang Pham.
In 2006, Paul Homfray spent a week scouring Saigon for a toaster to satisfy his craving for toast.
Paul was visiting his daughter Elizabeth, who had just set up home in Saigon, in a house with the traditional Vietnamese kitchen of two countertop gas rings.
“Eventually he found one lonely toaster at Nguyen Kim (electronics store). It cost about $70, which he found outrageous but he was desperate for toast. It still works, by the way!”
The irony of the Homfrays kitchen stocking expeditions was that Elizabeth had given away all her kitchen gadgets, gizmos and knives before she left Sydney because she’d seen so many “Made in Vietnam” labels on them, so she thought they’d be readily available in Ho Chi Minh City.
She arrived to find a kitchen gadget wasteland, and a shortage of accommodation with Western-style kitchens. “In those days you had to wait for someone to move out before you could get a house with a `proper’ kitchen,” she said.
Times have definitely changed in Ho Chi Minh City since Paul’s desperate toaster search. Now there is a wide range of equipment to help home cooks, and an equally-wide range of ingredients, in Saigon.
So there’s really no reason at all not to cook at home.
“You have to adapt, to a certain extent,” Elizabeth said. “The hardest thing for me when I go there, and I’m a country girl, was the meat.”
Back in her early days in Ho Chi Minh City, Elizabeth ate a lot of buffalo because the beef was, in her view, substandard. “ Now you’ve got a multitude of restaurants that do good steaks, and you can also go to Meatworks and buy whatever you want,” she said.
Cooking tutor Caroline Nguyen attributes the availability of cooking equipment in Saigon to the increasing affluence of Vietnamese society, as well as the post-Doi Moi awareness about the rest of the world.
Influence of Television
Chinese-American celebrity chef Martin Yan, who has hosted the television series Yan Can Cook since 1982, also contributed to the interest in cooking non-Vietnamese food, Caroline said.
“His TV show was on national television in the 1990s,” she said. “So at that time, people became encouraged to think about cooking not only as a hobby but also as a career.”
Caroline also said Vietnamese students returning from studying abroad had further boosted local interest in home cooking, as had the “blooming of YouTube” and international cooking shows such as Master Chef.
Caroline only bought a counter-top oven three years ago. Since then she’s experimented with baking and roasting.
Like many Vietnamese households, Caroline’s mum had some of Trieu Thi Choi’s cookbooks, written specifically for the Vietnamese kitchen, which, in most cases, has no oven. However, the cookbooks do have some baking recipes, for Vietnamese specialties such as cassava cake.
The traditional Vietnamese way of baking is to place a large pot on a clay burner filled with charcoal. The cake is placed inside the pot, which is sealed tightly, and then embers are piled on top of the lid, ensuring the “oven” is heated from the top and the bottom.
With this kind of oven there’s no need for a recipe to mention any temperature settings. Which caused a few problems when Caroline first tried to follow Trieu Thi Choi’s recipes with her new counter-top oven.
“I had to try many times,” she said. “I eventually learned that cakes need to cook at 165 to 180 degrees, never more than 200. And for meat, the temperature has to be over 200 degrees Celcius.”
While Caroline continues her experimentation with international cooking, she also works as a freelance cooking tutor, taking clients to local markets and explaining the local ingredients and how to avoid imported Chinese produce, then going to her client’s home to demonstrate Vietnamese cooking.
Kris Burgess is another enthusiastic home cook, and a former chef and restaurateur, who has cooked professionally in the UK and Europe.
“When I first came here in 2011, it was very hard to get hold of things,” he said. Kris’s first home had the standard Vietnamese kitchen consisting of two counter-top gas rings. “I did a lot of one-pot wonders,” he said.
Now his setup includes two halogen ovens, which he uses to cook classic British fare such as Yorkshire puddings and a lot of Mediterranean-style dishes.
Kris said the abundance of kitchen gadgets and gizmos available now in Vietnam was staggering, with everything from electric knives to pasta machines and commercial ovens stocked in stores and sold online.
Hard Habit to Break
“People can cook at home now,” he said. “It’s just a lot of people have gotten out of the habit.
“If people don’t get back into investing in cooking and especially investing in their children learning to cook, they’re all going to end up like they are in America, and the UK to some extent.”
Home cooking is also easier in Ho Chi Minh City now than in the past, Kris said, because of the much wider range of ingredients.
In the past, any attempt at cooking an international dish required a trek to the imported food shops in Ham Nghi Street in District 1, or Annam Gourmet, when it was predominantly an import shop. Even then such a shopping trip was a bit of a lottery because of the erratic restocking policies.
But now the gourmet shops in the expat areas of Thao Dien and Phu My Hung stock a much wider range of imported and local ingredients, as well as fresh vegetables from Dalat. The changes have made these shops less intimidating to Vietnamese cooks as well, Kris pointed out, which has in turn increased demand.
“The stuff that was being brought in before, the produce, you had to pick and choose to find the ones that were still at a useable stage,” he said. “Now you can be pretty confident you can go into Annam, Nam An or Black Market and find exactly what you want that day.”
Delivery services like chopp.vn mean that you don’t even have to leave home to get hold of quality cooking ingredients.
A Taste of Home
It’s possible to get a taste of home in Ho Chi Minh City, no matter how far away from home you actually are.
Russian expat Fedor Pigletov sells home-made Eastern European specialties through the DumplingsOi Facebook page, offering a range of pierogis, dumplings, sausages and cheeses. The pierogis and dumplings are delivered frozen and half-cooked, so some culinary skills are required.
South Africans pining for some authentic biltong can also get beef and ostrich versions delivered by Bokkie’s Biltong. The gluten-free, sugar-free and MSG-free biltong is made by authentic South African Ronald Frank right here in Ho Chi Minh City. (To order, call 01215612026.)
There’s also a new delivery service called Go Cheffie, which delivers all the ingredients required for a meal, along with detailed recipe cards.
My eight-year-old daughter and I trialled the service, cooking a meal of chicken parmiagana, buttered broccoli, and lemon and rosemary brown rice.
Our bag of goodies arrived right on time, and we eagerly began unpacking the components of our dinner: eggs, onions, fresh and dried herbs, spices, chicken fillets, flour, breadcrumbs, fresh mozzarella cheese, and dinky little jars of olive oil.
We started prepping the vegetables and it wasn’t long before I announced I was going to start a YouTube channel called I Hate Chopping. My eight-year-old assured me she’d be my first subscriber.
Most of the dishes in my home cooking rotation are the one-pot wonders that Kris used to cook, interspersed with casseroles and quiches from our mini-oven. It’s very rare that I attempt an elaborate multi-dish meal requiring so many pots and pans.
It took us more than two hours from unpacking to plating up. Partly because of the brilliant assistance of my child and partly because having three dishes on the go — even if one was only boiled broccoli — stretched my end-of-the-day mental powers.
We ended up with waaaay more food than we needed: four giant serves of chicken parmigiana, and mountains of broccoli and herbed rice. And just like an Ikea assembly, we had quite a few random items left over, including two cups of olive oil. (I think I was supposed to deep-fry something.)
The chicken parmigiana was incredibly delicious. The herbs and spices in the tomato sauce and the fresh cheeses made a remarkable difference to the pub-grub parmies I’ve tried in the past.
I’m pretty sure this dish would be a lot quicker to prepare second time around and I’d definitely consider ordering a Go Cheffie delivery for special family meal or a dinner party.
More home cooking hacks
Lyra Maleon Dacio, who’s lived in Ho Chi Minh City for nine years, regularly enjoys Filipino home-cooked favourites, such as chicken adobo, which uses vinegar, soy sauce and oregano, and sinigang, which is similar to Vietnamese sour soup.
“Filipino dishes are both Spanish — 333 years of colonisation — and Chinese inspired, because of our history of trading,” she said. “Since Vietnamese cuisine has a close resemblance to Chinese cuisine, being a former Chinese colony, it’s easy to find ingredients similar to what we have in the Philippines.”
Lyra said she only encountered minor problems sourcing equipment to make Filipino dishes. She said she had a great deal of trouble finding a tool to make strips of coconut for Filipino fruit salad. She also initially had problems sourcing an ice shaver to make halo halo. “But now you can buy ice shavers easily. I got mine from a Japanese shop.”
A full-time working mother, Lyra says she’s “no domestic goddess” and resorts to the most common of all kitchen hacks in Vietnam. “I have a Vietnamese helper,” she said. “I was able to teach her how to cook Filipino dishes. She now cooks even better than I.”
Lyra’s Filipino home cooking is now also assisted by deliveries from Filipino restaurants and grocery stores, such as Loriekot’s Lutong Bahay (Loriekot’s Homecooked Meals) and Casa Manila.
Apart from hiring a helper, there are a range of MacGuyverish tricks you can use in Vietnamese kitchens.
More than just rice
The most basic is to use a rice cooker to cook more than just rice. Rice cookers can be used for cakes, curries, poached pears, oatmeal porridge, fritattas, boiled eggs, roast pork, even giant pancakes. There are even recipe books dedicated to rice cooker recipes.
For more cooking hacks, tune in to Ms Yeah’s YouTube channel for inspiration. Ms Yeah is a young Chinese office worker who films herself cooking using office equipment. Her videos, which regularly go viral, show her using an iron to grill beef, an air conditioning element to barbecue meat, taking apart her computer to use the housing as a grill, and using a kettle to make boiled snacks. She’s even branched out into hair care products, using a curling iron to make pastries and a hairdryer to make waffles.
And then there’s Will
Will Knight is a keen home cook whose busy work and social life means he eats out for nearly every meal.
“My schedule is always packed from 8am until 1am,” he said. As well as Will’s day job in finance, he assists his dancer girlfriend with salsa social events in the evenings.
“There are so many great options, day or night, that are really very affordable in Saigon. Between local and foreign restaurants, we really are spoiled for choice here. ”
“I like eating around people, so generally I’ll only eat at home if my girlfriend and I are both there or if we organise a barbecue for friends to join,” he said.