Uyen Luu on Balance and Flavour in Vietnamese Recipes, and Vegetarian Favourites

Uyen Luu is a cookbook author and Vietnamese supper club host. Her book Vietnamese has fast become one of the go-to titles for simple but flavour-packed Vietnamese recipes. She mixes traditional and more modern recipes, using fresh ingredients that are easy to find.

Uyen Luu's book Vietnamese Vegetarian is out May 2023. Photography by Laurie Noble.

What's the one Vietnamese recipe everyone should try and why?

It's definitely a pho. I think that's a real Vietnamese favourite, and I think almost everybody I know loves it. It's easy to cook and it's a great way of using lots of vegetables and eating different plants. There's lots of herbs you can add in, lots of different greens and different root vegetables that you can use as toppings.

Vietnamese by Uyen Luu

But you can also use up lots of veg or root vegetables that you have lying around to make the homemade stock. If I have just any vegetable ends, I always put them in a freezer. Then when I'm making stock, I take them out and go to town!

Pho is a great breakfast dish. And once you've made a broth, you can freeze it and have it in the future - so you can thank yourself later on for something that's really soothing and warm and healing.

In a more traditional pho, you might use beef and or chicken. So in vegetarian versions, we would have tofu. So either fried tofu or tofu puffs. And lots of mushrooms for that meaty texture. And maybe a poached egg on top.

What sets apart Vietnamese cooking from other cuisines?

It's such a balance. It's like an art form

I think it's the unique freshness of Vietnamese food. It's so fresh and satisfying because it touches upon all the textures. It's very much about combining soothing textures, crunchy textures, crispness, silkiness. It's all about satisfying the ‘bite’, but then it's also about satisfying the palate. So it has to be sweet, it has to be sour, has to be salty, umami, and hot. And combining that with the textures, it makes such a perfect mouthful. 

There’s something of everything. And that's why I find that loads of people enjoy Vietnamese food. And then there's also the element of temperature. So there'll be one thing in it that's quite cool. And then there's one thing that's really hot. Vietnamese cooking creates a sort of balance. So ingredients like ginger are really warming for your body, but then flavours like herbs and lime create a cooling effect. It's such a balance. It's like an art form

What prompted you to write a vegetarian book?

Well, I cook a lot of vegetarian food. But the Vietnamese tradition is also vegetarian. A traditional Vietnamese meal would only ever consist of 20% meat, and all the other dishes would be vegetarian anyway. Also in these times, you just have to be more plant based, where you can. And I think not a lot of people know that or see Vietnamese food as vegetarian, but it really is.


Which ingredients do you always have to hand?

So, store cupboard-wise if you're not a vegan or a strict vegetarian, I'd always have a good quality fish sauce. So I'm really happy that you've got the Red Boat. And Three Crabs is another good one. It's really important to have good-quality fish sauce because that's the staple of Vietnamese cooking. And then I always have noodles. And I've always got to have 20 kilos of rice, jasmine rice. And eggs. Ginger, shallots and lemongrass too.

What vegetarian alternatives are there to fish sauce?

Or if you're a strict vegetarian, there are so many fish sauce alternatives to give your food umami flavour. I use things like soy sauce, and then there are dried mushrooms, vegetarian oyster sauce, or fermented tofu, which is sort of like that fishy fermented tang flavour. So it replaces fish sauce really well. Other ingredients like nutritional yeast and marmite are good alternatives to fish sauce too. 

What really inspires you and your recipes?

I find loads of inspiration on watching cooking shows, especially MasterChef. I love it when someone does something really crazy, and then you say, ‘oh, I could do something similar’, but leave out whatever crazy thing they put in. And I get lots of inspiration from my peers and their Instagram. And there's lots of Vietnamese home-cooks on Instagram that I follow, and they’re making the most fabulous meals for their families every day. So I get loads of inspiration from there. 

And I've started to watch loads of Vietnamese YouTube - in Vietnamese - videos of families cooking together. The last time I went to Vietnam was seven years ago, so that’s probably why I'm watching loads of YouTube!

What were your trips to Vietnam like, growing up?

I used to go every three to six months when I could - between 2000 and 2015. And that period when I was going regularly was when Vietnam was turning from the third world into the first world - in just ten years. It was just incredible to see so much food from the outside come into Vietnam. You’d just see so many new restaurants everywhere, like sushi, Korean, Chinese, Italian. There was Italian everywhere! It was a really exciting time for everyone.

Do any memorable meals spring to mind?

I will always remember going back to Vietnam and driving five hours to where my cousins live, and then they would just prepare the most simple rice meal. So it would be rice, and then some sweet and sour vegetables, like pineapple, tomatoes, celery and dill. And it'd be served with some squid and then a caramelised fish, just like a little steak, somewhere on the side. 

And then there'll be loads of morning glory, just fried with garlic and a tiny bit of oyster sauce, with loads of homemade pickles. And then there'd be six of us just sharing these very modest small plates together. About four or five plates of mostly vegetables, cooked in all different sorts of ways, all with different textures. And it was just so delicious. Then having a fresh coconut on the side. And at the end of the meal, scraping out the coconut for dessert.

How do you balance traditional Vietnamese recipes with more innovative, recent ways of eating in Vietnam?

Well, a lot of the traditional recipes use particular techniques and pans, or traditional methods such as wrapping. Often traditional recipes take longer and are the recipes you make if you have a lot of time or a special occasion to cook for. But sometimes you just need a quick dinner! So that’s when I try to balance my recipes with something more modern. Those are the more everyday recipes. I think, otherwise the book would be really hard to approach if it was all very traditional.

And finally, what are you most excited about in terms of food right now? 

I am so excited that I'm doing a lot of supper clubs at the moment. I do eight courses, and out of the eight, six are plant based. I’m amazingly excited to see how people enjoy plant-based food without advertising it as such, so without really telling anyone. It just seems like no-one is missing the meat. I’m making delicious things like roasted cauliflower wontons, with sushi, ginger and kimchi, and lots of chilli sauce and fresh herbs on top.


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