Spoiler: He really, really loves KL.
Luke Nguyen wears many hats. Not only is he a chef and owner of several restaurants in Australia, including Red Lantern, he’s also the author of four cookbooks, runs culinary discovery trips to Vietnam and Cambodia, and hosts travel and cooking TV shows, like the popular Luke Nguyen’s Vietnam.
Nguyen’s background is a fascinating one. He was born in 1978 in a refugee camp in Bangkok, after his parents fled Vietnam as refugees. Thereafter, his family moved to Sydney, Australia, and he grew up in an area called Cabramatta, which was home to many other Vietnamese boat refugees. “Growing up in a strong Vietnamese culture and environment meant we always had access to great fish markets, butcheries, grocery stores, and bakeries. The Vietnamese – and Asian – culture has been ingrained in me from a young age. When I travel back to Vietnam and the rest of Asia, I feel like I’m at home, he says.”
Go Away spoke to him during a regional phone conference just before the premiere of his new TV series, Luke Nguyen’s Street Food Asia, to find out just why he’s obsessed with street food from this region.
On his fascination with street food
“Street food is the real food of the country you’re in; the core of its cuisine. It’s not just about the food itself, but of the whole experience of standing on the street eating … That’s how you get a sense of where you are, that sense of history behind the country, and how you get the chance to meet and converse with locals.”
On his most memorable dining experience filming Luke Nguyen’s Street Food Asia
“I really, really enjoyed Kuala Lumpur. On one of the days that I was there, I woke up very early to go to Imbi Market. I arrived there at around 6.45am and was still half asleep when I met my friend there. But then I entered this busy space, with people everywhere, and it felt like there was this big food festival going on … and it was 7 in the morning! I had to best popiah there, some beautiful freshly baked custard egg tarts, and washed it all down with a cup of kopi. Needless to say, I was wide awake after that! That experience really gave me a sense of how people dine in KL.
I also enjoyed my visit to Brickfields (KL’s Little India). There were stalls selling Indian fried snacks, but there were also some Chinese stalls alongside them selling banana fritters, ice kacang and the like, and the stalls also had a huge Chinese clientele. To me, that was an interesting aspect of the culture to see.
Imbi Market is located along Jalan Kijang, next to Pudu Plaza Hotel.
Brickfields is located from Jalan Travers to Jalan Tun Sambanthan.
On the strangest food he’s eaten on his travels
“I must admit, there’ve been things I’ve really struggled to eat, but I try everything at the end of the day. The one thing that required a lot of guts to try was live coconut worms (a Vietnamese street food). They were really big and kind of just wriggling around. I think if you’re in a country, and people eat a certain food on an every day basis, you should try that food at least once. So, no, there’s really nothing in this world I wouldn’t eat!”
On why street food influences the dishes he serves at his restaurants
“I have several restaurants in Australia, and about to open one in Vietnam and in Hong Kong. All of the concepts are influenced by my street food travels. Street food vendors have been preparing that particular dish for generations, so they’ve really got the flavours down. Of course, I do it a little bit differently at my restaurants, by using premium ingredients such as Wagyu beef, kurobuta pork, and organic vegetables, but the flavours of the street food I’ve tried lies at the core of these dishes.”
On the five ingredients he’s bring with him to a deserted island
“Fish sauce, garlic, chilli, aromatics such as lemongrass and galangal, and fresh green herbs like coriander and mint. I could make quite a nice meal with root vegetables and seafood with these ingredients!”
On the scariest kitchen disaster he’s ever experienced
Growing up, my parents owned a restaurant in the area I lived and my father had started a master stock – a stock that is kept alive every day, and where its flavour is enhanced by the ingredients that are continually added to it. This stock was more than 10 years old by the time I opened my own restaurant, Red Lantern, in Sydney. Before my father sold his restaurant, my father gave me his master stock before he sold his restaurant, so I could continue to keep it alive at Red Lantern. One day, I was training an apprentice and was showing him how to cook chicken and whole ducks in the master stock. After we hung up the birds, I turned around and saw that he was pouring this precious stock away! Luckily, only about a third was gone. But my heart dropped at that moment because it took a decade of love and passion to create the amazing flavour of this stock. Thankfully, we salvaged most of it!”
Luke Nguyen’s Street Food Asia will be premiering on Monday 22 August, 9.25pm on TLC (Singtel mioTV Ch 254/StarHub TV Ch 427).
Win a 3D/2N trip to Ho Chi Minh City and attend a cooking class to Luke Nguyen’s restaurant, Grain!
Instagram contest mechanics:
1) Follow @TLCSEAsia on Instagram
2) Post a hawker/street food dish on Instagram with location tag of the stall and the hashtags – #TLCMyHood and #LukeNguyenSFA
3) Tell us what the dish means to you, in a minimum of 20 words
8 entries will be selected over 8 weeks, and Luke Nguyen will then choose the most impressive post in terms of authenticity, composition, creativity and copy. The winner and a plus one will get a 3D2N trip (accommodation and flight provided) to Ho Chi Minh and attend a cooking class at Grain. (The class will not be taught by Luke himself)