Arriving in Vietnam seven years later, I remembered why I wanted to come so badly — that steaming bowl of pho, enjoyed streetside on plastic stools and tables that could have been taken from my primary school. So delicious it was, I was keen to find out whether the food in London really was as good as I remember.
Although my eager group of friends in London said there were lots of good new places to try, my search didn’t start well.
Recently, the legal team of restaurant chain Pho attempted to trademark the name of Vietnam’s national dish and force any other restaurant with pho in the name to change it. Thankfully, they have since decided not to take action against places like Mo Pho, in Lewisham, South London, which has gained widespread popularity in a borough where Vietnamese has become the second language.
The bowls of pho are just as contentious as the name choice. Pho, the chain that is flying the flag for Vietnamese fast food, with seven outlets in London and more opening around the country, serves the most flavourless bowl of dishwater I’ve tasted. If this was the benchmark, I was to be disappointed.
It may be because there is no discernible Little Vietnam in London. There are a few pockets but none can be compared to the ‘Little Saigons’ of any major US city and neither can the populations. Census data estimates that 1.7 million people of Vietnamese descent reside in the US, compared to just 55,000 in the UK, around 30,000 of whom live in London. There are more overseas Vietnamese in the Czech Republic and only 5,000 less in Poland. Facts that surprised me as Vietnamese cuisine is one of the fastest growing trends in tasty affordable food in the capital of the UK.
Supper Clubs and Street Food
Luckily, one Vietnamese-born cook and food writer/stylist is bucking the trend. Uyen Luu started her supper club in 2009 as a result of friends wanting her to cook the food she grew up with. She started a blog at roughly the same time and the supper club has transformed into a weekly event booked up sometimes weeks in advance while the blog has prompted the release of her first recipe cookbook in early October.
Over a bowl of delightful, fresh and aromatic pho, she spoke of her childhood memories and what it was like growing up, learning to cook from her mother who only fed her and her brother Vietnamese food. Eating at McDonalds was a once-a-year treat.
Saigon born, she came to Hackney, East London at the age of five with her family in 1983. At the time, there were an estimated 5,000 Vietnamese living in London, and Chinatown was the closest thing to home.
The manager of Que Viet on Dalston’s Kingsland Road — where the largest concentration of Vietnamese restaurants exists — thinks that the food will never be authentic perhaps because of the link with Chinese food. “When we opened up, people [living in London] didn’t know about Vietnamese food, so we had to make it more like Chinese food,” he said. “But now there is a bigger demand for it, we have been able to make it more authentic and more restaurants have opened up — this was the only street [Kingsland Road] now there are restaurants and cafes all over the place.”
Kingsland Road remains a very popular destination for Londoners searching for a slice of Vietnam and Uyen has fond memories of the street as a student. “Shoreditch, before it became fashionable, was where all the students lived and it’s right next to the Vietnamese area. The cheap restaurants opened up and they naturally blossomed.”
But in her opinion, the food doesn’t possess the authenticity of her home country. “Tay Do was the first good restaurant [on Kingsland Road], but I haven’t eaten there for ages. I actually feel a bit resentful and angry about the many places doing Vietnamese food a disservice. They fail to balance the five key flavours of Vietnamese food. The ingredients unique to Vietnam are more expensive here, so they tend to cut corners and it’s just not the same.”
Uyen, who has given Jamie Oliver and Raymond Blanc a masterclass in Vietnamese cooking, also has an unfavourable opinion about the city’s street food scene which she said doesn’t compare with Vietnam’s equivalent. “Street food is serving common staples from around the world at expensive prices for the privilege of having sauce dribbling down your fingers while standing up. It’s a massive trend, so people rave about it but it will never be done properly in this country.”
The other people I met on my journey bore no hint of the state of the first wave of refugees that arrived 40 years ago who found it hard to assimilate, were forcibly dispersed and struggled to find work in anything other than a sweatshop. Today, the culture, language and food is an important part of a community which has spread its warmth throughout the UK, even if only on a small scale.
The Vietnamese population is certainly one that is growing in strength, number and vibrancy. The UK is now home to 8,000 students from Vietnam and has seen an significant increase in Vietnamese tourism. There have been various summer weekend festivals of culture, music and food over the past few years and there are a growing number of Vietnamese societies and other cultural events.
One thing is for sure. You won’t have to look hard to find a piece of Vietnam in London, despite it not shouting from every street. And while the food may not be quite up to scratch, the burgeoning interest in the country and its culture will no doubt spark a rise in demand for anything and everything Vietnamese.
The Real Deal?
Not wanting to take Uyen Luu’s word for it, I went on a hunt to find some decent Vietnamese grub in London. Here’s a summary:
The Kingsland Road Favourite
Tay Do — This Southern Vietnamese restaurant packed out with East Londoners and Vietnamese alike is akin to a busy Bui Vien backpacker joint. We went wild, with a feast of eels in lemongrass, fried frogs legs in chilli, bun thit nuong and a beef clay pot.
Verdict: The food was passable but it didn’t scream Vietnamese authenticity and my fellow diners felt a little short changed on the tastebud-explosion of flavour that they expected. 5/10
The Street Food
BanhMi 11 — Van Tran and Anh Vu, owners of this Broadway market stall as well as more shops around the capital are arguably the godmothers of Vietnamese street food in London. Baguettes and fresh soup are the order of lunch in this trendy outlet.
Verdict: The crunchy banh mi hit the spot and brightened my afternoon. Certainly slightly Anglicised with Asian flavours, but tasty nonetheless. Summer rolls were also good. 7.5/10
The Suburban Trend
La Du Du — Based in a central, affluent suburb of London, this newish restaurant boasts that it’s not just food but an experience. Passionate owner Teresa Le aims to introduce London to the true taste of Vietnam.
Verdict: Fail. The experience was indeed fantastic in this comfortable, well-decorated eating house, and the starters took me right back to Vietnam but the mains were greasy and devoid of any real flavour. Shame. 4/10
City Caphe — The tiny cafe located in London’s financial district normally has queues out the door. Serves banh mi, bun bo Hue, pho and various rice and noodle dishes in fast food efficiency.
Verdict: Vietnamese food made easy for city workers in a hurry. A good selection, and the two dishes I tried bordered on a taste of Hanoi. Certainly nothing to complain about. 6.5/10