Recently in the kitchen, I have been busy rustling up various Vietnamese dishes, including one of my favourite soups called Bun Rieu – a pork broth flavoured with crab and tomatoes, and served with vermicelli noodles and a pile of aromatic herbs. I love to make a big pot of this soup so that we can eat it over several days, even if the sun is sweltering outside and we sweat uncomfortably while enjoying the mix of vibrant flavours and textures.
While it is traditional to serve Bun Rieu with fried tofu puffs and even stir through beaten eggs while the broth is simmering to produce ribbons of omelette in the soup, my mother always served it with a fish cake flavoured with Vietnamese seasonings. I set about making my own version at home, winging it from taste memory; I have vivid memories of my mother buying a whole fish to make these fish cakes whenever she had friends coming over for a Chinese-style steamboat, and I would help by adding the seasonings while she worked the mixture together with her hands. Often, she made fish balls but would also use the same mixture to fry in large pieces to make fish cakes like in the photo below. I still have to play around with the seasoning a bit, but I can’t believe it has taken me this long to try and make this myself at home.
One dish which I had fun recreating recently was a spaghetti bolognese with a Vietnamese twist which was, not surprisingly, the only version I knew during my childhood until I discovered Pizza Hut in my teenage years. Most people are surprised to learn that I have a lot of family who have lived in Switzerland for many decades, including quite a few who emigrated here in the late 1960s. I am convinced that, for a good while, the entire Vietnamese community in Switzerland was comprised solely of my family. As a child of divorced parents, I spent a lot of time shuffling between continents to fulfil custody requirements, and it was always an eye-opening experience to see how one side of my family had integrated in this land-locked alpine country.
You could imagine that, back in the 1960s and 1970s, it would have been near impossible to find Asian ingredients in this tiny European land, so my family would cook dishes taught by the locals, but adapt most of them to suit their Asian palates. A traditional raclette, normally consisting of grilled cheese on boiled potatoes, would be given a Vietnamese spin with grilled meats marinated in (long-haul imported and frozen) lemongrass and chillies served in place of the usual sausages or cold cuts.
But my fondest memories are of my family sitting down to a meal of spaghetti bolognese, eaten with chopsticks with the full noodle-slurping sound effects which are entirely acceptable (and expected) in Asian cultures. Often, there would be a bottle of Maggi Seasoning nearby. I don’t know exactly how my family made their spaghetti bolognese; the version they cooked in my childhood has varied over the years and is now more aligned with the proper Italian version. But in discussions with my aunts and uncles, they all admitted to using fish sauce in place of beef stock, and one of my younger uncles claims that a dash of soy sauce is necessary for both colour and taste.
I had seen quite a few Italian recipes which use anchovy sauce as an ingredient, but specify Asian fish sauce as a substitute. So I figured that adding fish sauce to a bolognese sauce was probably not taking fusion food too far. And I was right. The fish sauce adds a bold savouriness which you can’t get from salt alone, and you wouldn’t know this was a non-Italian version unless it was served, like in my grandfather’s home, with chopsticks.
For a traditional spaghetti bolognese, I always turn to this faithful recipe which is perfect served on its own with pasta or used in, say, a lasagne. But for a shortcut version (and Asian cooking is quite often about fast food), this Vietnamese-inspired version was devoured by my family over several meals with much enthusiasm (and little care about its origins!).
- 1-2 tablespoons vegetable oil
- 1 red onion, finely chopped
- 2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
- 2 celery stalks, finely diced
- 2 small carrots, finely diced
- 500 g (1 lb) minced beef (best to mince your own)
- 300 g (11 oz) button mushrooms, sliced thickly (I like to add a lot of mushrooms but you could use less)
- 150 ml Noilly Prat or similar
- 2 tablespoons fish sauce, plus more to taste
- 500 g (1 lb) fresh tomatoes, quartered (or substitute with 400 g (14 oz) tinned chopped tomatoes)
- 400 g (14 oz) tinned chopped tomatoes
- 250 ml (1 cup) beef stock
- Sea salt, to taste
- Freshly cracked black pepper, to taste
- 400 g (14 oz) dried spaghetti, cooked according to packet instructions
- Parmesan, freshly grated
- Herbs such as parsley, basil and oregano, finely chopped
- 2 bay leaves
- Heat the oil in a large saucepan and cook the onion, garlic, celery and carrots over low-medium heat for about 10 minutes until the vegetables have softened.
- Turn up the heat to high. Add the minced beef and cook until the meat is no longer pink.
- Add the mushrooms and cook for a few minutes until they have softened slightly.
- Add the Noilly Prat and fish sauce and cook for about 5 minutes over medium heat until the liquid has reduced.
- Add the fresh tomatoes (if using), tinned tomatoes and beef stock. Turn down the heat to low-medium and simmer gently for about 45 minutes. If the mixture looks too thick, add some water until you have a consistency you like.
- Taste for seasoning.
- To serve, cook the spaghetti according to the packet instructions. Serve the sauce with the spaghetti and generously garnish with herbs and Parmesan. Chopsticks are optional.
There are lots of types and brands of fish sauce on the market, but the only one I use is Squid Brand Fish Sauce. It’s the one I grew up with, and the one which my mother faithfully cooked with when I lived at home (although she has since moved onto another brand which I find to be too strong in flavour and smell). Any good-quality fish sauce will do, but I would lean more towards the ones sold by Asian grocers than those in your usual supermarkets.
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