“Vietnam is still developing, people spend too much time working – they have no time for family or friends, but I want to show people they can make the time to cook and drink at home,” says Nguyen Manh Hung, as we discuss his new cookbook and how it aims to alter the course of Vietnamese drinking culture. Nguyen’s vision of Vietnam is one that’s been formed by his experiences out of it, having spent years working aboard cruise ships as a chef, he’s travelled around Southeast Asia and his exposure to the culinary cultures of Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore and beyond has shaped his perspective of his home.
“When I came back to Vietnam, I tried to combine ideas about food and eating, drinking – all of the habits and culture that I’d seen overseas – and I wanted to create a fusion.” Having just released his latest cookbook named “2, 3, Dzôôôôô” which sports a titular homage to the popular Vietnamese cheers that often rings out in your ears the morning after a night lost at any given bia hoi, Nguyen’s inspiration came to him from watching the way that Vietnamese culture entwines food and beer.
“The first idea was to create food that you can enjoy at home, at the moment, lots of people just go to drink out on the streets – they forget their families, so I want to bring them home, I want them to cook with their families and friends. The idea is to enjoy a drink with some homemade food.” It’s a given fact that eating plays a huge role in Vietnamese drinking culture. From Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, people rarely grab a beer without the necessary snacks.
“Nhau culture started in south Vietnam and came up to the north,” Nguyen explains. “We go out for drinks, but with snacks – drinking food, I guess is the best translation – nowadays though it’s popular all over Vietnam, whenever we go out to drink and eat, we call it Nhau.” This culture of combining food and drink not only protects the Vietnamese from the worst excesses of alcohol, but also brings out new flavours by finding combinations of booze and bites that complement one another.
Insisting that home is a better place to drink and dine, Nguyen argues that the difference in setting produces a different atmosphere. “Restaurants have professional kitchens, professional chefs – they make different food to what you would at home, so I wanted to bring people closer together by having them cook together.”
“Besides, when people drink out on the streets in Hanoi, there’s a lot of accidents, people drink then they drive and the traffic here is crazy,” he continues. “But it’s mostly men – I want men to get into the kitchen and have some fun cooking at home with their families.”
Having eschewed the traditional restaurant based work as a chef, Nguyen considers himself a culinary freelancer, spreading the love of Vietnamese food across the world on food training tours in Southeast Asia, but he confessed, “Restaurant work is very demanding on your time, so I wanted to work for myself – I spent a lot of time on the book, getting the recipes together in a way that they’re good quality, but easy to make for Vietnamese people and familiar as Nhau food.”
Moving ever forwards, Nguyen has already picked up the pen and is once more back to attacking the blank page with the fury of a chef possessed. “I’ve got a new book that I’m working on, which should be out early next year, I have so many ideas, so I just keep cooking!” Nguyen is full of some sort of cheery energy, there seems to be no limit to what he’ll try. “I want to draw from international cuisine and Vietnamese methods, so it’s easy for people here to make and eat – new recipes for a new generation.”