Feb 22 2012

Hanoi people: The chef

Published by at 1:56 pm under Hanoi people

Tracey Lister, co-owner of Hanoi Cooking Centre, first came to Hanoi in 2000. Hoping to find voluntary work she was rebuffed by NGOs who didn’t “need chefs” but she came anyway, accompanying her husband, Andreas Pohl, who was working on an AusAid project.

Two birds, one stone

Two birds, one stone

When she arrived in Hanoi she met Jimmy Pham, founder of Koto (Know One Teach One), which was then a small-scale operation. Tracey joined forces with Jimmy and they opened an 80-seat restaurant on Van Mieu, next to the current location, and set up a more formalised training centre and programme. She spent three years working with Koto on the hospitality training side of things in Hanoi and back in Australia.

While in Hanoi, Tracey thought about setting up a purpose-built cooking school in the city; she returned in 2008 with the aim of setting this up. Hanoi Cooking Centre was opened in 2009.

One of the shiniest kitchens in Hanoi

One of the shiniest kitchens in Hanoi.

We started our chat by talking about Vietnamese food in general. Interest in Vietnamese cuisine is growing and Tracey said she believes it’s because “people are always after the next big thing and now they’re familiar with Thai, Vietnamese offers something different. Also street food is becoming more popular generally, and Vietnam is known for its street food, and the children of the Vietnamese who left the country after 1975 are starting to do interesting things overseas.”

So what defines Vietnamese food? “It’s very elegant, aromatic, herb-driven cuisine and it’s incredibly healthy — well, much of it is,” she said.

“By elegant, I mean there are only a few ingredients but they come together beautifully. People confuse this and think this means it’s not sophisticated, but it means there is nothing to hide behind. Thai food is more complicated, it’s more worked and they use more coconut milk, chilli and lemongrass,” she said.

While a green papaya salad in Thailand will be an explosion in your mouth, in Vietnam it will be more subtle: “You’ll be able to taste each of the flavours, and there are herbs in it, which you don’t get in the Thai version.”

And how does food in Hanoi differ from food in Hue or Ho Chi Minh City?

“Hanoian food is more influenced by China. Both Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City have Chinese influence but in Hanoi it’s about integrating Chinese ingredients into Vietnamese dishes, whereas in Ho Chi Minh City you will find Chinese food. And Hanoi has a winter cuisine,” she said.

Tracey described one winter dish, nem hai san, or seafood spring rolls. “It’s poached seafood, mixed with mayonnaise, wrapped in rice paper, covered in breadcrumbs and deep fried. It’s very hearty,” she said. What was that about Vietnamese food being healthy?!

The popular pho shop over the road

The popular pho shop over the road.

I discovered that Tracey and I – and probably half the population – have something in common: we both list bun cha as our favourite food. “It’s just that smell,” she said. “My daughter and I eat bun cha for lunch on Sundays. It’s like our Sunday roast.”

Although bun cha is not on the menu at Hanoi Cooking Centre, many other delights are. The cooking centre runs five different courses in Vietnamese cuisine and the attached restaurant-cum-cafe offers a select menu of Western and Vietnamese dishes.

In 2008, Tracey and Andreas co-authored Koto: A Culinary Adventure Through Vietnam. The book has sold 10,000 copies, with all royalties going to Koto. Late last year she joined forces with Andreas again to launch a cookbook called Vietnamese Street Food. It’s available in Australia and at the cooking centre, and sold 5,000 copies before Christmas.

Why did she decide to write about street food? “I wanted to do a book on spring rolls – everyone thinks they’re just pork and prawn but they’re so varied. But the publisher thought that was too niche and suggested street food. I was very happy to oblige.”

Finally, what food advice would she give to a visitor to Hanoi? “The best food is on the street, without doubt. Look for two things: is it busy? and is the space where they’re working clean? If yes to both then you’re going to get the best food in the world.”

Tracey reckons food on the street is safer and better than in the restaurants. “They’ve got 20 years’ experience and cook the same thing over and over again. The pho place over the road … she knows what stage the stock is at just by smell and they turn out 300 bowls a day,” she said. “Restaurants with huge menus make me nervous: somewhere offering 100 dishes covering Western, Vietnamese and Indian food … the ingredients can’t be fresh and they won’t know how to prepare them all.”

And a final piece of advice? “Have coffee with yoghurt.”

Hanoi Cooking Centre
44 Chau Long Street, Ba Dinh District
T: (04) 3715 0088

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