MANILA, June 8, 2005
(STAR) TURO-TURO By Claude Tayag - Quite recently, Asia Society Philippines, together with the Australian Embassy, presented "Dine at the Red Lantern," a fund-raising dinner featuring Luke Nguyen, a top chef in Australia and owner of the renowned Red Lantern Vietnamese restaurant in Sydney. The dinner is part of Asia Society’s "Taste of Asia Series," events that celebrate Asia’s different culinary flavors, in line with its mission of building a bridge of understanding between the West and Asia. It was held at the Top of the Citi, Citibank Tower, Makati, with the help of our very own top chef Jessie Sincioco of Le Soufflé and her able staff.

The event was also a fitting first major activity of the new Australian ambassador to the Philippines Anthony John Hely. Welcoming some 80 guests, he said, "The event represents many things about Australia: Our country’s diversity and multi-culturalism; our active involvement and relationship with the region; our commitment to increase understanding and build partnerships between Australia and the countries of Asia; and our fondness for good food and good company."

The limited two-day special degustacion dinner featured authentic Vietnamese food, recipes that Luke’s mother handed down to him. In fact, the recipes for the sauces and marinades used in his restaurant are only known to him. The young but accomplished 27-year-old chef is the son of Lap and Phuong, who arrived in Australia as boat people fleeing Saigon. He says of his cooking: "Our family’s secret recipes, skills, and techniques have been passed down to us. We have learned that above all, sourcing good produce, simplicity in presentation and preparation with the slowness of good omen should be the core of our approach."

Throughout the eight-course degustacion, wines continuously flowed courtesy of Wine Depot, the largest wine showroom in the country that carries a variety of wineries from all over the world. The blanc sauvignon, Riesling, chardonnay and shiraz wines featured that evening were from the Grant Burge winery from South Australia’s Barossa Valley, considered one of the best wineries in Australia.

Starting with a traditional, steaming hot, fragrant Vietnamese beef broth, its full-flavored rich beef stock (the same broth used in the popular pho bo or beef noodle soup that is sold in the streets or market places all over Vietnam), achieved only after long slow boiling with herbs, warmed our appetites, leaving our table anticipating the next course.

A soft, rice paper roll, the signature Vietnamese fresh lumpia, followed. It was filled with prawn, pork, vermicelli, and perilla leaves. It was an otherwise bland dish served with a sweet-salty, syrupy sauce, but its utter simplicity and lightness were made more enjoyable with the strong nuoc cham (that ever-present sauce served in Vietnamese restos, which is a mixture of patis, lime juice, chili, garlic, and sugar) we requested.

What followed next was a platter of different dishes from South Vietnam: fresh oysters topped with shallots, coriander and sweet fish sauce; salmon sashimi scented with roasted rice powder and aromatic herbs; lemon-cured sirloin finished with leek and crushed peanuts (much like a kinilaw or ceviche, if you will, but given a Vietnamese twist with the crushed peanuts); and crispy quail spiced with ginger and star anise (quite tasty, but a little bit tough). Then, a salad of marinated scallops, pickled vegetables, holy basil, and mint followed. Next was a soft-shell crab fried in a flash, and served with grated green papaya salad; Mary Ann declared she would rather have the real hard-shell crab, oozing with fat, dipped in her favorite sauce of kalamansi, bagoong, and siling labuyo. I noticed that many diners enjoyed it very much. Since I am allergic to crustaceans, I cannot comment.

Next was a pan-fried barramundi fillet finished with fish sauce, chili and ginger, which was perfectly done, moist inside and with a crisp skin. And lastly came a cubed Scotch beef fillet tossed in a flaming wok with garlic, soy, sesame seeds and black pepper, and served with bok choy and red rice. It was everybody’s fave at our table.

If the meal was not prepared by a Vietnamese chef, I would think the dessert was a Filipino-inspired one. It was steamed banana and sticky rice with coconut milk and palm sugar syrup (much like coco jam) topped with a Pinoy favorite, pandan ice cream.

Vietnamese food is something Filipinos will naturally like because of its close resemblance to our cooking and our familiarity with its ingredients. The Vietnamese have a mix of Malay and Chinese origins. As in most Southeast Asian countries except the Philippines, there is a strong Indian influence on their earlier history, in the form of Buddhism. And then 10 centuries of Chinese rule left an indelible mark on Vietnamese culture and cuisine. To a lesser extent, so did the French who colonized it in the late 16th century, about the same time the Spaniards ruled over our country. Vietnam was called Indochine then. Hence, this history resulted in a distinct, sophisticated, and highly complex yet refreshing and delightful cuisine that shares many ingredients with Southeast Asian countries but showing a strong Chinese and French influence.

In that eight-course dinner, chef Luke showcased the outstanding flavors of Vietnam, its delightful combinations of contrasting textures and tastes – hot, sour, salty, and sweet – elevating its cooking to a higher plateau.

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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