Of all the countries that I visited in South East Asia, it was Vietnam that revolutionised my understanding of flavour and texture in cooking. Their diverse cuisine is light and bright and fresh: mountains of fresh herbs, deeply umami broths and the use of crunchy vegetables or crackers to create textural balance. Giant pancakes, overflowing baguettes, delicate dumplings, silken tofu with ginger sauce – all available from the side of the road. I was captivated.
We are fortunate that we can buy excellent Vietnamese food in England, particularly in East London. Perhaps nowhere more authentically than at the supper clubs held by Uyen Luu – writer, photographer, film maker and fashion designer turned supper club host and food stylist. Luu didn’t grow up cooking Vietnamese food, but began experimenting a little over 5 years ago as a way of reconnecting with her roots. After receiving her friends’ seal of approval, she now hosts 25 people at her home most weekends.
The supper club is held in her simple, elegant front room, where white walls and white-washed floor boards are warmed by the light from tens of tea lights. Groups can request a private table, but it is much more fun to pile on to the long wooden benches and make friends with your new neighbours. On our table there are guests of all ages, ethnicities, religions and nationalities, united by the experience of their first supper club. We accept that our encounter will be fleeting, that we will share a meal, anecdotes, laughter and chopstick tips, and that we will go our separate ways come 11pm.
A stream of plates flows from the galley kitchen; no sooner have we finished one delicious morsel, than it seems the next is arriving. Some courses are familiar, such as summer rolls bursting with prawns and fragrant herbs or an aromatic beef Pho. Other dishes offer new flavours – pork and prawn satay on sugarcane sticks or spiced vegetable puff pastries. My favourite is a chicken salad with hot mint, coriander, pickled onion and julienned vegetables. Sweet, sour, salty and scooped up with prawn crackers, it is addictive. Desert is a subtle pandan ice-cream with bold coconut-lime curd and shortbread biscuits, which is so delicious it disappears before I remember to take a photograph.
Uyen Luu’s serene flat may feel a world away from the chaotic, exotic charm of South East Asia, but the subtle flavours and harmonious textures of her cooking are as compelling as the finest food vendors in Vietnam.