We went for lunch at Masterchef runner up Carol Pham’s Da Nang restaurant, Nu Do Kitchen, to sample her unique take on a Central Vietnamese classic. And we quickly became part of the family…
Đọc bài viết bằng tiếng Việt.
Mi Quang, like the one served at Nu Do Kitchen, is a staple of Central Vietnamese street food. As any foodie worth their salt – or indeed fish sauce – knows the dish combines a wealth of different tastes and textures, capturing the gentle warmth and spice of northern cuisine with the sizzling sensations one would usually find bubbling on the street corners of Saigon.
Peanuts, a rice cake, chicken and egg all swimming together amongst the noodles and the broth. This is Central Vietnam in a nutshell. Sweet and spicy. Hot and cold. A dish for wrapping up warm, a dish for those chilled days by the beach. The best of both worlds. Everything you need.
And Carol Pham has pushed this classic concept to accomplish something remarkable, taking stock of years of travel outside of Vietnam (to places like India and Malaysia) to galvanise and redefine the noodle dish and become part of a blossoming Danang and Hoi An foodie scene.
The Spice Girl
“The people of Điện Bàn, where I grew up, between Hoi An and Danang, don’t eat much meat,” she tells us, “they eat fish and so they use spices like turmeric, ginger and onion. So I grew up with those flavours. They’re my flavours. I’m a spice girl!”
Later, after school and a stint in Saigon, Carol decided to leave Vietnam for Malaysia. “I felt that this was an opportunity to earn some money. I followed the opportunity overseas. And I learned a lot there.” But surprisingly she didn’t enjoy the food, at first… “Everything was spicy, salty, too strong.” It took her a while to become accustomed. But gradually she began ‘accepting’ other favours including those of Indian and Chinese food before the end of her contract.
When she returned to Danang to work in tourism she started to cook at home for her friends. They noticed a change. Her food was more flavourful – something that’s true of her noodles today.
There are hints of other cultures in her food too, but nothing overpowering. With a sprinkling of cinnamon in her beef noodles, the sweetness tingles, just a little. With the fish, there are gentle whispers of Malaysian curry. “Often people don’t know,” she tells us, “they are surprised so it’s a way of getting them to accept other cultures that they might not have thought of, without overloading them.”
“Different people cook the Quang noodle in different ways but it is a traditional food so for me, the noodle itself has to be good, that’s the most important thing, then the sauces and the fresh veggies…”
Carol’s Quang noodle treads that fine line between tradition and innovation with masterful skill. You feel as if you are eating something familiar but new.
Where Hoi An Meets Da Nang
Carol’s Nu Do Kitchen restaurant is in the front yard of her specially designed home, as is the traditional Vietnamese style. It’s perfect for entertaining dinner guests in the evening and for serving hungry workers and beachgoers looking for their lunchtime noodle fix.
“If I didn’t have Masterchef Vietnam, I think my life would have been in Australia with my husband. I think Masterchef kept me here,” she shrugs happily in the Nu Do Kitchen garden.
“I went to Hanoi to do a TV show and I met an architect. The way he designs, he doesn’t have plans or expectations. He follows his feeling. I thought his style was cool. And he didn’t speak very much, which I liked. I got his phone number and after just two conversations we met up in Danang and he builds me this house that became Nu Do Kitchen.”
With its bright yellow walls and leafy front garden, stepping into Carol’s house and Nu Do Kitchen, down a side street, you almost feel as if you have left the bustling city behind you and arrived in the countryside.
“We love Hoi An and we love the traditional houses there…with the house at the back and the restaurant at the front. I said to the architect that I wanted something that has a kitchen and a restaurant attached to it as well and he said “don’t think about your business, people are going to come here for the experience, for you, so just build a little kitchen in the garden…”
And that’s exactly how it feels. With the kitchen in a small hut-like structure with a hatch in the corner of the garden and huge glass windows draping down the front of the family home, you can chat to Carol as she cooks and watch her two young children zooming around the living space.
Family Time At Nu Do Kitchen
Indeed, family time is very important to Carol.
“Many people comment that I’m sharing my business and family all the time. My parents had a noodle shop before and I grew up in the house behind the restaurant. And I remember every day I would run to the kitchen and help my parents bring the noodles to the guests, I was happy! For me, I hope that my children are as interested in the food as I was. Sharing the food, sharing life with people is very important. The kids can learn, they can learn real life.”
Now that she has her restaurant up and running and has checked off her Masterchef experience, Carol is ready to conquer her next challenge, introducing healthy eating to the next generation.
During Masterchef, Carol would be up at 5am every morning sharing a house with 15 other contestants. She wasn’t allowed contact with the outside and worst of all she had to eat canteen food for two months; the contestants weren’t allowed to eat their creations once they’d cooked them and had them judged.
Carol was tired and wanted a different challenge.
“I spent three years doing nothing, being a mum. When I had children I was really nervous. I saw Vietnamese kids all around who were getting into big trouble with their eating habits. They’d cry a lot. They’d dislike eating. I thought why do children not like food? Food is amazing. I read a lot of books and talked to kids and I realised that most Vietnamese kids don’t know how to eat food. They don’t learn anything about it. The parents are busy, they go to work early and they don’t have any knowledge. They think that children have no teeth so they need everything in a shake. But kids need to learn how to eat. But they don’t know how to chew or even to use their tongue.”
“Kids love flavour, real flavour. They love to learn about real food but because they are given shakes by their parents they never learn. They grow up in that way, they start to hate food and don’t like to eat. The parents think maybe the food is not smooth enough and start to shake it even more.”
“Every day I introduce different kinds of food and fruit to my children and I taught them how to use a fork and spoon after one year and chopsticks after another. They love everything…they love food. All the mum’s who follow me love food after six months too. So next year I want to start writing a book that will have healthy recipes for children, to change the mindset of mums and to give opportunities for Vietnamese kids to eat food properly…”
Photos by Khooa Nguyen