Vietnamese cuisine continues its slow ascent onto the gourmet charts. First we have the globalization of pho, which has inspired restaurant names like Photastic, Pho sho’, Phoreal, Phoshizzle, Pho King or its variant, Pho King Delicious (pronounce these last two real slow–I’m not making them up) and which in LA you are more likely to eat at a Korean-owned pho shop in Koreatown than a Vietnamese owned one; and the immortal banh mi, which you can buy at an LA gourmet food truck or in the snazzy LA fusion restaurant Gingergrass for $8 (we who grew up in Vietnamese American enclaves remember the days when you could get these sandwiches for $1), and which has inspired the best banh mi I’ve ever had, at the Cambodian Num Pang in New York City, and the worst, at any Lee’s Sandwich shop (thanks, Lee family, for ruining Vietnamese food); or the ubiquitous spring roll, which any hip restaurant has to have a version of.
Now the Vietnamese abroad have their own cooking show, Luke Nguyen’s Vietnam on the Cooking Channel. If you’ve never eaten Vietnamese food before, you will want to after watching this show. If you’ve never cooked Vietnamese food before, you probably won’t really know how to afterwards. Luke Nguyen is an Australian Viet Kieu, and the Australians definitely have the coolest accent of all the far-flung Vietnamese. Plus, Luke Nguyen seems like a fun, easy-going guy who you would love to have for your roommate, since he would whip up all these incredible dishes in ten minutes or less. This is definitely food porn, for what Luke does is make Vietnamese food look extremely easy to make, which it isn’t. But he does at least show you what Vietnamese food should look like if you’ve done it right. And if you go online, he gives more complete recipes than what he shows on screen.
But really, what you are watching for is the combination of dazzling recipes with the Vietnamese scenery. He ranges all over Viet Nam to show you the country’s culinary hotspots, and he usually finds them in everyday markets and food stalls. The country is colorful, vibrant, alive; the people are charming, good-humored, lovable. All true, of course, but the show also edits out all the things that might interfere with your enjoyment–the history, the heat, the haggling, the noise, the annoying relatives (part of the show’s offerings are Luke’s relatives, food-lovers and gourmet cooks). That’s okay. This is food as fantasy, as distilled and powerful as nuoc mam (although here it’s fish sauce without the odor). I recommend viewers watch this show with a full stomach, or else they’ll be hungry for what most of them can’t have.
“Luke Nguyen in Viet Nam: Vietnamese Cuisine Goes Global” was originally published on DiaCritics.org on September 5, 2010