Originally published on food52.com
Uyen Luu isn’t one for getting ruffled. That goes for when she is serving hordes of guests in her Hackney home, writing recipes for the UK’s biggest publications, and preparing to give birth in less than twenty-four hours. Which is exactly what she was doing when we visited her one windy Wednesday.
Uyen earned her stripes among London’s most exciting cooks when she began serving Vietnamese food to guests like Jamie Oliver and Ellie Goulding in her Hackney home. With her zesty, impossibly fresh cooking, Uyen not only pioneered the supper club movement in London, but Vietnamese food itself. Guests flocked to her open kitchen, which she filled with mismatched tables and chairs, for dishes like pork belly and perilla summer rolls, lemongrass sirloin steak, coconut and beer crepes, udon noodles with lime fishcakes and banana fritters with coconut custard. “I always wanted to have the supper club at home.” Uyen tells us, “I wanted to be able to do it on my time, without the binds of overheads and admin. It was a case of comfort.”
Uyen was born in Saigon, but moved to London in the early ‘80s after the Vietnam War pushed the country into extreme poverty. “It was really tough. As refugees you turn up with what you’ve got on your back.” Uyen tells us, “It was hard to learn the language and get work. But it was better than being in Vietnam.” In a faded photograph taken on a West London street, Uyen’s mother, dressed in a light raincoat, looks as if she was born and raised here. Yet Uyen tells us that it wasn’t easy for her, leaving the country she called home. “My mum missed Vietnam a lot when we first came to England.” She says, “Cooking definitely brought her home.” It was from her mother that Uyen learned to cook true Vietnamese food – the food that has made her one of the most talked about cooks in London. “I’ve just always enjoyed cooking, it’s who I am.” Uyen says, “I love to eat and feed. And Vietnamese is the food I feel most connected to.”
For seven years, Uyen’s home gave itself over as a venue for her increasingly popular supper club. Hundreds of dinners, one beautiful cookbook and a blizzard of good press later, Uyen has finally got her living room back. She is currently looking for a new space to host in. The tables and chairs that have seen the supper club grow over the years are now folded up in her leafy courtyard, and her living room finally resembles just that; cosy chairs, soft blankets, and bookshelves stuffed with novels and cookbooks. “It’s been nearly a decade, so it feels right to move on.” She explains, “Seven years was enough time to have a house full of tables. It actually feels like a home now!” We quickly catch on to one theme in Uyen’s house. From cushions and flowers to the sunny bicycle parked outside, bright splashes of yellow fill her home. “It’s such a happy colour.” She says, “If I have the choice I always choose the yellow thing!” A bundle of wool lies on the side table – a blanket Uyen is knitting for her new daughter, streaked with yellow. Other than her large bump and the soporific birthing music piping through the air, there are few signs that Uyen is about to welcome a baby into her home. She busies herself in the kitchen making us a Vietnamese lunch feast, smiling and chatting away just as she did when we met her a few months ago. We’re not sure how a woman about to give birth should act, but we’re pretty sure they’re not usually entertaining guests. “I’ve been working right the way through my pregnancy!” Uyen says breezily, “I suppose I’m quite a restless person. I need to always be doing things. I love being at home, but I can never stay for that long.” “I’m very excited.” She adds, “My next door neighbour just gave birth yesterday! We’ve been going through the pregnancy together.”
With little to no effort, Uyen fills the table with a palette of colours; a glass noodle soup with her staple chicken stock, a citrus-spiked shredded chicken salad, a garlic and fish sauce dipping sauce, sticky rice and clear jasmine tea. We gather around the food at her wooden dining table, bringing our bowls up to our mouths and scooping up seconds and thirds from the salad. “This is just how you would eat lunch in Vietnam.” Uyen says, “People there love having their own little bowls and sharing things in the middle.” To most people, Vietnamese food is synonymous with bright, punchy flavours. How would Uyen describe the cuisine? “Fresh, explosively flavoursome, and light.” She says, after pondering for some time. “It is all about that balance between sweet, sour and salty.”
We ask what ingredients a Vietnamese cook could not live without. “Premium fish sauce.” is her first answer, “Not just any old one from a supermarket. It has to be premium. It just tastes so much better. Then a really good vinegar. If I can’t get my hands on a top quality one then I use standard cider vinegar.” What else? “I always have ginger in the house.” Uyen says, “It’s great for tea and stir-fries, and goes in a lot of Vietnamese sauces. You should drink ginger every day. It aids digestion and enhances hunger.” “And I always have fresh chilies. I use bird’s eye and dry them myself. It’s good to have some fresh and some dry. There is also always homemade chicken stock in my fridge.” Fresh herbs are at the core of Vietnamese cooking. Uyen’s sunny courtyard houses a few herb plants, which she lovingly tends to. “I do grow a lot of my own herbs.” She says, “Coriander would have to be my favourite. I often put loads in to food and don’t taste it. Either British coriander is too weak or I am immune to it! In Vietnam the coriander is a lot more pungent. The courtyard makes me look like a far more serious gardener than I am, though! I love it out there. Last Christmas we had an eight foot Christmas tree in the courtyard and decorated it with lights.”
Uyen clears away the dishes and brings out a bowl of pandan ice cream. It is clean, light and delicate in flavour, with the indulgent taste of fresh cream. We leave Uyen’s feeling just as all of her guests over the years have felt; content, refreshed and relaxed. With a desire to fill our cupboards with fish sauce and chicken stock. We ask Uyen if the supper club changed her life. “It did.” She answers, “I’ve learned so much doing it and started photographing and writing about food on top of cooking. It opened a lot of doors. I’m really looking forward to continuing with it.” She pauses, “I hope my child enjoys cooking!”