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Culture: For the love of Lilian, by Nicola Miller

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Screenshot (4013183)
Screenshot (4013183)

Despite several forays to south-east Asia and the Far East, I have never travelled to Vietnam, a state of affairs I lament each time I eat Vietnamese food and marvel at its freshness, flavours, and immediacy.

Watching its preparation can be as pleasurable as the eating and this is very much the result of what food writer Pauline Nguyen states is her compatriots tendency to prefer to watch their food being cooked, be this ‘deep-fried, steamed, chargrilled, barbecued or tossed in a flaming wok’. Nguyen claims ovens weren’t used that often apart from the tabletop version her family owned which allowed diners to gather round and watch the meat brown and crackle.

I recently had the pleasure of meeting Lilian Hiw, chef and owner of local business Lilian’s Kitchen. Having grown up in Singapore, one of the most eclectic and food-obsessed nations in the world influenced by its many immigrant cuisines, colonialism, and post-colonialism, Lilian’s rich culinary heritage has helped her build a business which not only draws on the food of her natal place, but delicious recipes from Korea, Japan, China and Thailand too.

She has worked as a chef at some of the most prestigious hotels in south-east Asia and the Far East, including time as catering sales director at the iconic Raffles Hotel in Singapore and, after moving to the UK, established her very popular classes at Baythorne End and Cambridge Cookery. She also runs street food pop-ups and provides personal cookery classes in your own home. I really hope Lilian writes a cookery book soon because her food is vibrant, delicious (I have been cooking from her recipes) and delightful to look at.

Lilian has generously shared two recipes with this column: Vietnamese fried spring rolls packed with pork, crab and fresh vegetables and herbs, and the famous Vietnamese dipping sauce, nuoc mam cham to accompany them. This is the country’s principal sauce and Nuoc mam translates as ‘fish sauce’, whilst ‘cham’ means ‘to dip’. It can be a simple extraction of fermented anchovies and salt, or flavoured, as Lilian does here, with aromatics. Nuoc mam cham’s magic is its ability to enhance flavours rather than overwhelming them and, as Pauline Nguyen writes, ‘it is the heart of Vietnamese cooking’.

Lilian can be contacted via lilianskitchen.co.uk.

Vietnamese Crisp Fried Spring Rolls

Makes 12-14 spring rolls

Prep time: 30-40 minutes

Cook time: 20-30 minutes

12 to 14 Vietnamese rice paper wrappers

500ml vegetable oil for deep frying

1 small egg beaten, for sealing spring roll

For the filling:

50g glass noodles, dried weight (see tip)

10g woods ear, dried weight (see recipe note)

150g minced pork, 20% fat

50g Carrots, coarsely grated

50g white crab meat (or raw prawns cut into

2cm dices)

1 clove garlic, crushed

1 small shallot, grated

½ teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon white sugar

½ teaspoon white pepper

1 teaspoon cornflour

1 teaspoon fish sauce

To serve:

Iceberg lettuce

Fresh mint

Fresh coriander

Nuoc Cham dip

Preparing the filling

1 Soak the glass noodles in boiling water for two minutes, refresh in cold water and cut into roughly 5cm lengths with scissors. Drip drain in a sieve.

2 Soak the black fungus in hot water for ten minutes, remove any stems, wash off any grit trapped in the folds of the fungus; drain and cut into thin strips roughly 2 cm long.

3 Combine the glass noodles and black fungus with the rest of the ‘filling’ ingredients in a bowl, mix well.

Making the spring rolls

1 Immerse a rice paper wrapper in a wide bowl half filled with room temperature water for 20 seconds, remove and place on a clean dry teacloth. (See tip)

2 Place a spoonful of filling onto the bottom half of the moistened rice paper wrapper.

3 Lift up the edge of the rice paper wrapper nearest to you with thumbs and forefingers, in the same movement, use your middle and ring fingers to tuck the filling under the rice paper wrapper. Roll away from you and keeping the filling tight together till the rice paper has fully covered the filling and is tucked under in this first rotation.

4 Fold in both sides of the rice paper towards the centre, continue to tuck and roll towards the end of the rice paper to form a cylinder shape, brush some beaten egg on the end before the final rotation to seal the spring roll.

5 Place the spring rolls on a tray lined with cling film, ready for frying. (See tip)

6 Repeat above steps to make more spring rolls till all the filling is used up.

Cooking the spring roll

1 Preparing the oil for deep frying: Fill a wok or deep saucepan with oil; always fill just under ⅔ full. Heat up the oil to an ideal temperature of 180°C if you have a kitchen thermometer. Or test fry with a small piece of food – the oil should immediately bubble around the food and the food should float to the surface quite promptly.

2 Cooking: Use tongs or a slotted spoon to lower the spring roll gently into the hot oil, placing the food into the oil away from you. Fry only a few spring rolls at a time as overcrowding would lower the temperature and the rice paper will absorb too much oil and get greasy and soggy. Turn the spring roll occasionally to ensure even browning. Drain away any excess oil on kitchen paper.

Serving the spring rolls

Encase the freshly-fried spring roll in a fresh lettuce leaf, the herbs, and serve with Nuoc Cham dip.

Take note

Glass noodles are also known as cellophane noodles/bean thread noodle/mung bean noodles/ Chinese vermicelli.

Wood ear is also known as tree ear or black fungus. If you are unable to find it, use another dried mushroom or omit, Lilian says.

Do not soak the rice paper wrapper in water for too long, it will turn soft, sticky and difficult to handle.

When storing the spring rolls, leave a space in between each roll to prevent them from sticking together. To stack the second layer, simply put a sheet of cling film in between each layer.

These can be made ahead (to point 6) and frozen for up to a month.

Vietnamese Nuoc Cham Dipping Sauce

250ml warm water

60ml fish sauce

2 cloves garlic, finely minced

or crushed

2 tablespoons sugar, castor

2 tablespoons lime, zest and juice (from 1 large lime)

1 teaspoon rice vinegar

2 medium red chillis, finely chopped (remove seeds if you prefer it less spicy)

Measure out all the ingredients into a jar, cover, shake well till sugar is dissolved.

Take note

To get the zest, grate only the green bits off the lime, the white pith is bitter.

You can replace sugar with honey or agave syrup.

Great make ahead party dip, will keep in the fridge for a couple of weeks in an airtight container. Use a clean dry spoon each time you scoop out some dip.

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