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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 U.K.’s biggest publications, and preparing to give birth in less than twenty-four hours. Which was exactly what she was doing when we visited her home 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 fresh cooking, Uyen not only pioneered the supper club movement in London, but introduced the the city's food scene to 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 crêpes, udon noodles with lime fish cakes, and banana fritters with coconut custard. “I always wanted to have the supper club at home,” Uyen told 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. It was hard to learn the language and get work. But it was better than being in Vietnam.”
Looking at a faded of Uyen’s mother on a street in West London, you might never know she wasn’t born and raised in the U.K.. Yet Uyen tells us that it wasn’t easy for her mother to leave the country she called home. “My mum missed Vietnam a lot when we first came to England. Cooking definitely brought her home.”
It was from her mother that Uyen learned to cook the Vietnamese 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. I love to eat and feed. And Vietnamese is the food I feel most connected to.”
For seven years, Uyen’s home served as 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, with cozy chairs, soft blankets, and bookshelves stuffed with novels and cookbooks.
“It’s been nearly a decade, so it feels right to move on. Seven years was enough time to have a house full of tables. It actually feels like a home now!”
From cushions and flowers to the sunny bicycle parked outside, bright splashes of yellow fill her home. “It’s such a happy color. 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. “I’ve been working right the way through my pregnancy! 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.”
Her home is studded with quirky little finds: tiny figurines standing in a mirrored box, miniature farm animals in glass domes, a huge golden ‘U’ which she picked up in an antique shop in Islington. There is a delightful mix of old and new in her kitchen, from an aged clay pot and the antique Vietnamese bowls we eat lunch from, to her faithful rice cooker.
“My rice cooker is from the ‘80s,” she says, proudly patting the faded pink plastic. “I’ve had more expensive ones but they’re never as good as this. It cooks it perfectly.”
“I am also very attached to my KitchenAid. Mostly for making pasta.” A couple years ago, she returned to Vietnam and made her family a giant Italian feast. “Italian food is my second favorite thing to cook.”
With little to no effort, Uyen fills the table with a palette of colors: 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. People there love having their own little bowls and sharing things in the middle.”
To most people, Vietnamese food is synonymous with bright, punchy flavors. How would Uyen describe the cuisine? “Fresh, explosively flavorsome, and light. It’s all about that balance between sweet, sour, and salty.”
As for the ingredients a Vietnamese cook could not live without, “premium fish sauce” is Uyen’s 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 told us. “It’s great for tea and stir-fries, and goes in a lot of Vietnamese sauces.”
“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. Coriander would have to be my favorite. I often put loads into food before I can taste it. Either British coriander is too weak or I am immune to it! In Vietnam the coriander is a lot more pungent.”
Uyen cleared away the dishes and brought a bowl of pandan ice cream: clean, light, and delicate in flavor, with the indulgent taste of fresh cream.
We left Uyen’s feeling just as 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 asked Uyen if the supper club changed her life. “It did. 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 paused. “I hope my child enjoys cooking!”
For the red onion pickle and the chicken salad:
- 1 chicken (preferably whole corn fed free range/organic)
- 1 red onion
- 5 tablespoons cider vinegar, divided
- 1 tablespoon superfine sugar
- 1 pinch each salt and pepper
- 400 grams sugar snap peas (can also be carrot, kohlrabi, daikon, zucchini, mange-tout, or a combination of these)
- 10 hot mint sprigs, plus more for garnishing
- small handful cilantro, plus more for garnishing
- 5 tablespoons crushed peanuts, cashews, or pistachios
For the dipping sauce:
- 2 bird's eye chiles (de-seeded and finely chopped)
- 1 clove garlic (finely chopped)
- 1 thumb ginger, peeled and finely chopped)
- 3 tablespoons maple syrup
- 2 tablespoons cider vinegar
- 5 tablespoons premium-quality fish sauce
- Prawn crackers and/or steamed chicken rice, to serve