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Luke Nguyen and his experience with Asian street food

As an accomplished restaurateur, chef, author, television host, and also gastronomic traveller, Luke Nguyen knows everything when it comes to food – especially street food!

That is why the Vietnamese-Australian chef who is known as the “Street Food King” is now ready to return for a brand new series of “Luke Nguyen's Street Food Asia”, where he takes a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at the wonderful street food scene and uncovers unusual secret eats.

In this brand-new series, Luke will be exploring the cities all across Asia like Saigon, Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur and Jakarta, which have some of the best street food in the world!

In conjunction with the new series, TheHive.Asia got a chance to have a special interview with the talented young chef and owner of an award-winning Vietnamese restaurant in Australia, all about the street food in Asia.

(Photo source: sbs.com.au)

What was your most memorable experience filming the series?
Every city had a fantastic memory.  Let's see.  I really, really enjoyed in Kuala Lumpur, for example, I got, I woke up very early and went to a market called Imbi Market, and I remember being there, maybe at 6.45am and I was still half asleep when I arrived, I was meeting a friend there and it was so busy. There were people everywhere, it was like a big food festival before 7.00am and there was so many different dishes available and everyone was up, everyone was eating with their family and dining. For me to be able to that experience is fantastic. The excitement woke me up completely and gave me a great sense of how people dine in Kuala Lumpur.

Is there anything that you absolutely will not eat?
Well there have been things before in my previous travels where I've really, kind of struggled to eat it, but at the end of it, I always do try because I love to try everything.  And this thing I'm talking about is just live coconut worms, you know it was wriggling around and was very big and looks very, very milky.

But you know, I like to try everything so I can't say there's anything that I won't eat, I would always try it once and even if I don't like it I would always give it a go, for sure.  I think if you're in a country and people eat it, you know, on an every-day basis then you should try it at least once. So there's nothing else in this world that I would not eat.

What influences you as a chef and what influences have you drawn from street food itself and filming this series?
I have several restaurants now in Australia, Sydney, Brisbane and I'm about to set one up in Vietnam and also Hong Kong. So, all of these concepts and all of the dishes are influenced by my street food travels. The absolute core of the influence and inspiration is street food.  So I'm taking street food dishes from all over Asia and using say, you know, Wagyu beef or Kurobuta pork or organic vegetables and bringing it up to more of a restaurant experience.

What do you think of the street food or the hawker food culture in Singapore and since Singapore is not included in this season’s “Street Food Asia”, is there any plan to include it for the future series?
I absolutely love the street food in Singapore. I think it's very vibrant and I think it's very, very diverse as well. I can go to Singapore and I feel like I'm in three or four different countries when I'm there, it's such a melting pot of Asian cultures. I've always dreamed about doing a show in Singapore and I think when this programme airs and people love it, then my next series, I'll definitely include Singapore with that continuation of Street Food Asia.

What about Philippines street food? What have you heard about them?
I've heard that the street food is actually very, very vibrant and exciting, and actually the street food there is big on my list to experience for sure. I'll be very interested in all of the charcoal and the grilling. All the wonderful big, long skewers, all the chicken on the skewers there and barbecued and also the suckling pig. I know Philippines is very famous for that. I'm very excited to try the Balut because in Vietnam we eat Balut as well, but a smaller version of Balut.

What is your favourite street food from this series?
I have to say Kuala Lumpur. I found street food in Kuala Lumpur just so interesting and so different, and so diverse. I spent some time in Brickfields and even there alone was diverse as well. I went to this place called Amar's Food Stall, right in the middle of a car park, and they had all these different types of pastries and fried snacks like Pakora and curry puffs. They also had sweet and savoury and you can just come and choose. There was a lot of Indian clientele, but a lot of Chinese came as well and chose all the different fried foods and sweets and put it into their bag and I thought, “Wow, this is really interesting culture.”

And then you walk a little bit further and then you have a Chinese stall that's been there for 30 years, just making banana fritters. And then across the road was some sweet desserts like the Ice Kacang, it's called ABC Ice Kacang, so even there was Indians but many Chinese there as well. I really liked going to PJC, where I tried Nasi Lemak and Maggi Goreng and not far from there was Mr Hong's Flying Wanton Mee.

I really enjoyed going to Chinatown. I thought the dishes there were fantastic. I had the best Laksa that I've had for sure. I had the Asam Laksa and the normal curry Laksa – loved it! I really enjoyed everything about my locations in Kuala Lumpur. I remember driving quite far to Kajang, where I had Willy's satay at the Ramal Food Junction. They probably had around four or five little charcoal barbeques and it was just smoke and aroma from the chicken, the mutton, the beef satay, was really incredible and some fun dishes as well like Sup Gearbox.

So that was really interesting. So I think Kuala Lumpur was one of my most exciting street food journeys of this series because it was so different every day, it was so diverse.

(Photo source: sbs.com.au)

Any funny stories you've had while doing your show, and exploring street food in Asia?
I think one of the funniest experiences was when I was in Vietnam and a lot of street food, as you know, in Asia is mostly on wheels, right, either on a cart, or some of it's on a bicycle. And in Saigon, a lot of the street food vendors don't really have a permit to be there on the street.

So I was dining in very early morning and having one of my great street food dishes, my noodles with chargrilled pork and vermicelli and Vietnamese herbs and I was sitting there enjoying it with my soy bean, hot soy bean milk and suddenly everyone just jumped and took their chairs and their dish and just ran away. And I thought “Wow, what's happening? I'm just sitting here alone.” And even the stall owner just pushed her cart and left.  And I was sitting there by myself with my noodles in my hand, I didn't know what to do, so I just picked my chair, picked my dish and ran as well and I just followed everyone. And the cameraman was like, “What's happening?” so the cameraman ran with us and we just ran and I looked behind us and of course, the authorities of that area was coming through and moving all the street food vendors away.

What about kitchen disaster stories, do you have any that you can share?
Yes, yes I do. When I was growing up as a boy, I grew up in my family restaurant and my father started a master stock. So this master stock was alive every day, we'd look after it, we'd cook all of our whole chicken, our whole ducks, quails, that kind of thing, every day in this master stock and then he'll top it up every day.

So this master stock was more than ten years old by the time I got older and when I opened my own restaurant, Red Lantern in Sydney, I took this master stock that father gave me to keep it alive even further because he sold his restaurant. And one day we had an apprentice – I was training an apprentice and showed him to cook the chicken and the whole ducks in the master stock. And then we'd hung up the birds so they could dry and then I turned around and he was pouring the master stock away in the sink because he didn't realise that you had to keep the master stock alive and luckily he only poured around a third of it away. But my heart just dropped when I saw that because this is more than a decade of love and passion and cooking to create this amazing flavour through this master stock. So that was a big disaster and it could have been a bigger disaster if I didn't catch him in time.

What exactly is a master stock?
In Vietnamese and Chinese cooking there's a stock called the master stock. And some master stocks are kept for maybe 60, 70 years and can be sold for hundreds of thousands of dollars. Now this stock is a stock that you keep alive every single day.

As much as you poach and cook ingredients in it, the flavour develops day by day, so you never throw the master stock away, you keep it alive. You bring it to the boil, you skim the impurities, you add more herbs and flavouring to it, and then you put it in the cool room. And then in the morning you bring it to the boil again, you cook more and so the older it is, the better quality this master stock becomes. So my master stock was over ten years old. So if he'd poured all of it away then that would have been really bad.

You've had a lot of experience with your street food adventures and we just want to know what are your tips on how to make the most out of a street adventure? 
Well, before I go to any country, I like to learn the basic words, you know, so you can actually converse slightly. I don't mean like to do a month or two month course, but just basic words where you can talk a little bit.

And so the locals are always key. Follow the locals, ask the locals and see where they eat and where they recommend. And that's what I always do and I think with my programmes, I love to find authenticity. I don't want to go to places where you can simply get online and to know where to go. I'd rather hear it from the area that I'm in. A lot of it is trial and error, of course, and I eat in a lot of all the different areas. But the first thing is to see where all the locals are going, where there are people sitting there from morning to night and what’s always the busiest stand.

I always look at the produce as well. So with street food, the beauty of street food is that you see all the ingredients in front of you, they're cooking right in front, so I always look there. And I love to eat street food where it's close to a wet market because then you know that every morning, they just go to the market, buy their produce and they set up right there, so you know it's really fresh.  And if they run out of something they always go back to the fresh market and then cook it again.

(Photo source: sbs.com.au)

To wrap it up, here’s a little bit of a fun question. If you were stranded on an island, what five ingredients would you bring with you and why?
So, first of all, I would probably bring some sauces with me. I would say fish sauce because I love fish sauce. I would have to bring some garlic. I would bring some chili as well. I would bring some aromatics, like lemongrass and galangal. And the last one would be lots of fresh vibrant types of herbs like different types of Vietnamese mint, or Laksa mint, coriander, sawtooth coriander, all those lovely mints and herbs that that I have in my fridge all the time.

So if I'm on an island, I'm thinking that I would be able to find some root vegetables, so that's fine, that's covered, I would be able to go fishing, so I can get some fish and some other seafood, so that's covered as well. So as long as that's covered and I've got all of my aromatics and sauces and fresh herbs, I'm very, very happy.

“Luke Nguyen's Street Food Asia” is set to premier on Monday, 22 August 2016 at 9.25pm (SEA/PH), 8.25pm (BKK/JKT), and 29 August at 9.25pm (MY) on TLC channel.

Also in conjunction with the premiere of the brand new series, TLC Asia will be running an Instagram contest, and the winner of the contest will win a 3-days-2-night trip for TWO to Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam (accommodations and flight provided) and attend a cooking class at Grain which is owned by Luke Nguyen.

Just follow the steps below.

1. Follow @TLCSEAsia on Instagram.
2. Post a hawker/street food dish on Instagram and make sure the location tag the name of the stall and hashtag - #TLCMyHood #LukeNguyenSFA.
3. Write a minimum of 20 words on what the dish means to you.
4. TLC will select the top 8 entries over the course of 8 weeks and then Luke Nguyen will choose the most impressive post in terms on authenticity, composition, creativity and copy.

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