Chef Tony Tan is a man of the world. Literally. Of Chinese descent, born in Malaysia, he moved to Australia 30 years ago as a student, and never left. Except to travel the world.
Now running his cook school, Tan is a respected expert in Asian cuisine, including Chinese, Nonya, Indonesian, Thai, Vietnamese, Indian and Malaysian. His school is ranked in the top 20 internationally by London’s Financial Times.
A self-confessed “food nut,” Tan also leads culinary tours of the world, including, this year, jaunts to China and Spain. Next year he will lead a tour to Vietnam, and it was on his radar at Savour New Zealand, where he was teaching a master class in Vietnamese cuisine.
It is a country he loves, and visits at least once a year.
“It is quite easy to fall in love with Vietnam,” says Tan, eager as a schoolboy. “It has a thousand-year-old culinary history.”
He whips out his cellphone to show images of the dishes he has been working on in the kitchens of the Langham Hotel.
There is the muc nhoi thit (stuffed squid or calamari) and ca ri ga (chicken curry). “The two dishes are distinctly different from each other,” says Tan.
The stuffed squid, from the north, is beautifully stuffed with pork, mushrooms and herbs, and cut into delicate slices and served with nuoc cham, a spicy dipping sauce.
The chicken curry, a southern dish, is more rustic and robust, with chunks of potato, chilli and coconut milk, served with a handful of coriander or Thai basil.
“Vietnamese is known for being really light and delicate,” says Tan. “But there is a big difference between the north and the south. The north is much more refined than the south. The north and central areas have an imperial influence, but further south, the food is much raunchier. It is big and tropical, and they go big on flavour.”
The people from north and south Vietnam have a friendly rivalry, not dissimilar to the two main islands of New Zealand. “My friend, who is from up north and very refined, said to me, ‘those people from the south are so vulgar! Their soups are so big!”‘ Flavours are a mix of sweet and sour, with lime, lemon grass, fish sauce, mint and Thai basil the key ingredients.
There are lots of vegetables, with an emphasis on freshness, and side dishes of fresh herbs and dipping sauces. “You get an explosion of flavour,” says Tan. The country is influenced by China to the north, and by its history of French colonisation, as well as neighbours Cambodia and Laos to the west.
The French influence is seen with Tan’s curry, served with a baguette as an alternative to rice and noodles. Like New Zealand, Australia has changed markedly in the last few decades, Tan says. “When I first came out to Australia 30 years ago, there was no coriander. It is amazing how it has changed. Now I can buy fresh pandan leaves at the Victoria Market.”
ca ri ga (chicken curry) Main course, serves four.
“Generally, Vietnamese curries are quite different in terms of their preparation compared to Thai, Malaysian and Indian curries,” says chef Tony Tan. “Although they share some similarities with their neighbours, the Thais and Khmers, these curries are relatively milder and more watery.
However, the following Cham-influenced recipe debunks all I’ve mentioned because it is thick, rich and heady, with the aroma of lemongrass. Serve it with a fresh crusty baguette, chopped coriander or Thai basil, chillies and a salt-pepper-lime dip and it will take you to the markets of Vietnam.”
50g lemongrass, finely sliced
2cm fresh ginger, about 20g peeled and crushed
2 cloves garlic, crushed
20g curry powder
750g free range boneless chicken, preferably thigh, cut into small pieces
Oil for deep-frying
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 onion, finely chopped
1 stalk lemongrass, inner bruised
20g curry powder mixed with 1 Tbsp water
1 long red chilli, deseeded and minced
200 ml coconut milk
400ml Vietnamese chicken stock*
2 tsp or about 10g of sea salt, to taste
1 tsp white pepper
250g potato or sweet potato, peeled and cut into 2cm cubes
Handful of coriander or Thai basil
Freshly sliced chilli
In a food processor, process lemongrass to a fine powder. Add the ginger, garlic and curry powder and process until the mixture forms a paste. Transfer mixture to a bowl and add the chicken. Mix well and marinate for two hours.
In a medium saucepan, deep-fry the potato pieces in hot oil until lightly browned and crisp. Drain on kitchen paper and keep warm.
Pour off all but two tablespoons of the oil. Over a medium heat, fry the garlic, onion and lemongrass until fragrant, about three minutes. Add curry powder and chill. Continue to sauté for another three minutes or until the spices are fragrant. Add the chicken and cook until it is opaque, about four or five minutes.
Add the coconut milk, chicken stock and season with salt, pepper and sugar. Lower the heat to simmer the chicken, uncovered, for about 15-20 minutes or until it is tender and the sauce is thick.
Check seasoning and add the potato before serving. Place curry in a serving bowl and offer baguette and garnishes on the side. Of course, it is also great with rice.
Muoi Tieu Chanh or Salt, Pepper and Lime Dip
2 tsp sea salt
2 tsp freshly ground white pepper
40ml fresh lime juice
Combine the salt, pepper and lime in a small dish. Stir well and use as required.
*Note: Vietnamese chicken stock is made with cloves of garlic, spring onions or onion and ginger. Vietnamese curry powders tend to be more aromatic with hints of star anise and one of the most popular is Vianc Indian Chef curry powder. Madras or Malaysian curry powders are acceptable substitutes.
Tony Tan’s chicken curry was served with a glass of Montana Terroir Series Riverpoint Gisborne Gewürztraminer 2007.