Vietnam is a country of culinary appropriation. Almost to a point of pride. Admittedly, there were long periods when the people didn’t have much say in the matter, wave upon wave of conquerors—Chinese, Mongol, French, Japanese, some Portuguese missionaries for good measure—forcing indelible thumbprints on the country’s cooking.
But chef Peter Franklin—owner of Ănăn Saigon, a Ho Chi Minh City restaurant where traditional cooking is respected, but also updated—considers it almost a good thing, an example of the feisty, adaptable spirit of the Vietnamese.
“We take what we want, then we kick them out,” he says during an afternoon cooking session in which some of those thumbprints are particularly evident. “You got some cooking technique? We’ll take it and then kick your [butt] out. But we stay true to ourselves. I’m not a believer in authenticity. We try to respect the cuisine and culture, but also move it forward.”
Movement, in fact, played a key role in the development of one of the dishes he demonstrates that day— Vietnamese chicken curry, a vibrant, almost creamy take on the Indian classic. Rich with turmeric, but brightened with citrusy lemon grass, a true child of the trade between India and Vietnam dating back centuries.
As the story goes, over time Indian men stayed on in Vietnam, marrying Vietnamese women. Trying to give their husbands a taste of home, the women adapted Indian curries to match Vietnamese sensibilities. More turmeric, ample star anise, less heat and—of course— plenty of the country’s staple salty seasoning, fish sauce.
Franklin’s recipe is simple, less structured than traditional Indian curries, which focus on layering flavors by controlling when ingredients are added. Vietnamese cooks tack more all-in. Chicken is marinated in a blend of curry powder (in Vietnam an aromatic mix of turmeric, annatto, chili powder, coriander, cinnamon and anise), garlic, ginger and fish sauce.
Eventually, the whole thing goes in the pot, along with lemon grass, carrots, water and more fish sauce. A finish of lime juice, and the dish— bright, deeply savory and rich—is on the table in 35 minutes. All of which made it easy to adapt back at Milk Street. Our only change was to use individual spices rather than harder- to-find Vietnamese curry powder