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My Day With Duc

Take Vietnamese cooking lessons: a humdrum resolution for many, but for someone who can burn toast perfectly (how black do you want it?), my resolution is revolutionary. It’s all thanks to Tran Thanh Duc (Duc for short), the dynamic Vietnamese chef extraordinaire who charms as he chops, slices, dices, and turns up the heat. Nigella better watch out as I leap from toast al la charred to Duc’s “Lust in Translation” (tuna rolls topped with yogurt, passion fruit, and mint).

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Before the cooking comes the shopping. It’s 7am, January 13, 2015. I’m standing on a street corner in the ancient Vietnamese city of Hoi An with friend and fellow traveler Cristina. It’s day 20 of our three-week Christmas holiday tour through South East Asia (courtesy of Trufflepig). We’ve lost many of our original group to work, school, and reality. Two of our remaining four have opted out of the early morning market excursion. They are sleeping in. I am jealous. I need coffee. I hate cooking. What am I doing here? Then I spot Duc with his hair tied back, spiffy red scarf, black button down shirt, and Nikes. He peppers his conversation with expressions like holy moly, God bless and right on, and best of all, deals with my coffee addiction at the laid back Mia Coffee. I cheer up.

The local daily market (there are no supermarkets here) is social scene central. Old ladies in conical bamboo hats sit on the curb selling strawberries, cucumbers, bananas, lemongrass, garlic, turmeric, fresh honey, melons, mangoes, ginger, flowers and so much more. Fishermen wearing waterproof pants bring in the night’s catch. Red snapper and tuna are common local fish here. Motorbikes weave through the throng of vendors, shoppers, and curious pedestrians. My ears are peeled for any honking from behind us. It’s a crazy scene, but the locals appear unfazed. Cristina and I try not to lose Duc as we walk on this busy, noisy street. He’s focused on shopping, which involves as much friendly banter as crouching down to inspect, sniff, touch, and taste; a real feast for the senses.

Duc samples the honey, pushing the dead bees aside. He shows us how to pick a mango. Don’t squeeze. Just hold it in the palm of your hand and gently feel if there’s some softness at the ends. After spending a good hour in the market, Duc calls out to a nearby motorbike driver who piles all of our purchases onto his bike—off he zooms. Next stop is Duc’s brightly decorated, bohemian Mango Mango restaurant, site of our cooking lesson and lunch.

Duc owns three restaurants in Hoi An serving Vietnamese fusion cuisine. A fourth called Big Fish is slated to open in nearby Da Nang in May. Italian with an Asian influence, Big Fish will feature dishes such as pizza with smoked duck and mango. Duc has bought a smoker and “is smoking everything”, including olive oil infused with coconut and lemongrass. When he was younger Duc traveled the globe for 12 years with only his backpack and surfboard for company. “I was a bum,” he jokes. He visited Washington, California, Texas, Mexico, Central America, Japan, New Zealand, Australia and Europe—always tasting and learning. The dynamic Duc has since appeared on several TV cooking shows.

The kitchen at Mango Mango looks immaculate. The counters are gleaming. The staff are all wearing their hair tied back in hairnets. Duc whips his scarf off from around his neck and ties it onto his head. That way, he explains, the smells from the kitchen get captured in his scarf, not his hair. The ladies serve us a delicious tea made from ginger, lemon, fresh honey, mint, kumquat, and a dash of cinnamon. We snack on lotus seed hummus. Delicious.

“This is my holy trinity – ginger, garlic and onion,” Duc says. “I use them on everything. You can add any spice as long as you balance it: sweet, sour, bitter, spicy and salty.” Duc tells me to stop taking notes and live in the moment. That moment involves lots of flashing silver. I can’t believe what Duc can do with a knife. Pineapples, mangos, carrots, and cilantro root are transformed into works of edible art in seconds. It’s amazing he has ten fingers. I worry I might lose a few digits progressing from toast to spring rolls.

After all this immersion in the cooking process, we lunch on pan-seared red snapper with mango tomato salsa, and seared prawns tossed in a green salad. Duc’s sauces are amazing, especially his fish sauce made from preserved fish and sea kelp. He plans to bottle and export it. I wish I could bottle Duc. Now that would be a resolution.

Elena is a Trufflepig traveller with a penchant for all things Vietnamese. She still retains all five digits on both hands (as of publishing time).

Take Vietnamese cooking lessons: a humdrum resolution for many, but for someone who can burn toast perfectly (how black do you want it?), my resolution is revolutionary.

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