Tell me what you eat and I’ll tell you what you are……
In April this year, I travelled to Vietnam aiming to lose myself in amongst its history, culture and culinary landscapes while completing a food writing course with the Australian Writers Centre. Towards the end of our nine day food odyssey around Vietnam, we left the maze like streets and swarms of humming motorbikes of Hanoi and arrived in Hoi An, a stunning 15th century fishing village on the east coast.
Once a major port and home of Chinese and Japanese trade merchants, Hoi An is now a UNESCO World Heritage protected site. In the Old Quarter, uneven cobbled streets wind through ancient merchant homes and temples. Vibrant yellow, blue and green walls hold up slanted tiled roofs and are lined by row upon row of colourful paper lanterns which gently sway in the sea breeze. Here in the relative calm of the summer monsoon, the river, rice paddies and beach greet each other like old friends. Come the wet season however, one must swap their bike for a boat as the streets become temporary canals.
By day,the local market is a hive of activity and a visual moving feast of fresh meat and live fish, rice noodle making, coffee and kitchenware. The intoxicating scent of fresh exotic herbs, dried spices, tropical fruits and hawker ‘buffets’ embrace me as I slowly move from one stall to the next, consuming everything with my eyes. By night, the river is lit by a spectacular parade of paper lanterns, fairy lights and bright neon dragons.
On my final evening, weathered smiling ladies beckoned by the side of the river to light a candle and send a wish for good luck downstream and into the night. Feeling particularly ravenous off the heady aromas of Hoi An, I wished for one last memorable feast in the village.
My lantern was answered.
On a tip off from our tour guide, we crossed the river for dinner at the popular fusion restaurant Mango Mango. Soon after the first dish arrived, an unexpected fusion of Vietnamese produce, Japanese techniques and Mexican flavours, Chef Tran Thanh ‘Duc’ joined us at the table. As one incredible dish flowed after another, Duc revealed his life story for the first time over the next five hours. Captivated by Duc’s breathtaking tale of an unimaginable journey, at some point I looked down to realise I was firmly gripping the edge of the dining table in nervous suspense…
These are the moments for which I live to travel.
This is how sharing the gift of food can transcend any border.
This is Duc’s story;
“I should have died three times Chef ‘Duc’ recounted. The first time when I fell into a well and almost drowned in Vietnam, the second time coming close to suffocating in an ice box hiding from pirates enroute to Malaysia and later, in Texas I had my legs bound to a block of cement and was thrown into a pool to die after being mistaken for a Mexican drug dealer.
It sounds like something straight out of a Hollywood movie but Duc attributes his incredible luck down to being “watched over by a good spirit or two”. He also references the good will and help borne from others with whom he shared his love of food on an unimaginable journey around the world, to pull him through the darkest of days. “It was exciting to be alive and I knew I just had to keep going” Duc remembered.
Duc’s cooking career began after he fled Vietnam in 1985. Soon after arriving in a Malaysian refugee camp alone as a 15 year old, he started helping in the camp kitchen. One year later the Red Cross facilitated his sponsorship by a Mexican/ American family in Texas. It was here his love affair with Latin American food began as well as an appreciation of locally sourced, fresh organic produce as he hunted for wild deer, pigs, ducks and geese with his adoptive family.
Proving that the shortest way home is sometimes the longest way round, Duc’s journey from Saigon, the city of his birth via Texas to his eventual homecoming a few hundred kilometres away in Hoi An, took no less than 20 years. Often travelling with nothing more than a hammock, a motorbike and a one burner camping stove his journey took him to Europe, South America, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and Mexico.
As Duc travelled the road, fishermen, surfers, rich Texan housewives, backpackers and even a shaman or two amongst others were inevitably drawn to Duc’s camp stove from which he produced improbable meals with relentless passion. Dinner was often served on a plastic frisbee and with whatever utensils diners had at hand. However, it was eventually love and the desire to reconnect with his extended family and the Vietnamese culture that saw Duc come ‘home’ in 2003.
Nowadays, Duc provides his guests with a dining table in his restaurants as well as the eating utensils but, the customers flock to his now permanent kitchen overlooking the river canal in Hoi An. Even Mick Jagger can be counted amongst Duc’s fans. “Mick enjoyed his meal so much one night, he went home and made a recording of a jam session that evening just for me in appreciation” Duc recalled with mild disbelief.
Duc’s menu at Mango Mango reads like loving travel diary with obvious reflections on his time in Japan, France, Mexico and home in Vietnam. Dishes are also dedicated with great love to his wife and two young daughters. Seafood, various meats and asian vegetables are effortlessly married with the sweetness of local tropical fruits of pineapple, cumquat, passionfruit and green mango. Dishes are then complemented with Vietnamese five spice, garlic, ginger, lemongrass, cloves, limes and hints of dark chocolate.
Duc stays true to the signature Vietnamese balance of salty, sweet and sour while dutifully nodding to various European and Japanese cooking techniques. Eating Duc’s food is a joyful experience. The tongue sings with a playful staccato of flavours from the freshest local produce and a sublime balance of textures that leaves you waiting to taste the next adventure borne from Duc’s camp stove.
In November this year, Duc will realise his dream of opening a traditional Hoi An villa style bed and breakfast. The villa will live in the middle of a vast rice paddy field outside of town facing the ocean. Finally, Duc says “I will be home”.
(Background) Pumpkin Tempura, mango puree with cumquat and passionfruit juice and roasted garlic
(Front) Prawn Tortilla with mango, smoked tomato sauce, chilli & soy sauce
(Front) Duck breast with passionfruit, dark chocolate and vietnamese five spice
(Front) Rice with coconut, turmeric and cinnamon
(Background) Stir- fried green beans with Vietnamese spices
Flambe Mango with spiced rum and coconut cream