Flavours of Vietnam infuse TaiwanFest 2019

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      Hong Kong, Japan, and the Philippines: these places have all been in the spotlight at the annual TaiwanFest in Vancouver, a cultural extravaganza that likes to feature other Asian nations. This year, Vietnam will steal the show when the popular festival returns to the city from August 31 to September 2.

      Riding the Waves With Vietnam is the theme for 2019, and a Vietnamese flair will be incorporated into the event’s musical performances, exhibitions, film showcases, and arguably the most anticipated aspect: food.

      One of the main culinary programs at this year’s festival is the Friendship Kitchen: cooking demonstrations and classes led by local and international chefs. Familiar names like Hidekazu Tojo (Tojo’s Restaurant), Chi Le (Chi Modern Vietnamese Kitchen), and Ching-Lung Hung (Chef Hung Taiwanese Beef Noodle) will dialogue with various chefs from abroad.

      One of the invited guests is Manh Hung Nguyen, a celebrity chef from Hanoi. He has his own cooking shows and has written several cookbooks, but it wasn’t an easy path to get to where he is today.

      Chef Nguyen is widely known in Vietnam for his cooking shows and cookbooks.

      “I grew up in a small village outside Hanoi, and we were very poor. My dad died when I was very young, and my mother worked every day to make enough money for me and my sister to grow up,” Nguyen told the Straight on the line from Vietnam. “We didn’t have enough money for food. I was always watching cooking shows on TV, which was the best way to see food.”

      These daily shows inspired him to pursue a career in the culinary arts. He’s worked in authentic Vietnamese restaurants as well as a French dining establishment, which has influenced his western and traditional cooking techniques.

      For TaiwanFest, Nguyen has taken up a few challenges presented to him by Vancouver’s own Chef Tojo. The visiting celebrity chef will incorporate Vietnamese cooking styles and flavours into Japanese cuisine. Attendees can expect to see Japanese soba, tempura, and sushi made with spring rolls and fish sauce.

      “The meaning of the festival is to bring cultures combined together to show the people about Vietnamese food, so I’m very happy to do that in Canada for the first time,” added Nguyen.

      Vietnamese flavours will be featured prominently in the culinary creations at TaiwanFest.

      Another guest chef will be Josie Chang, owner of Petit Été Vietnamese restaurant in Taichung, Taiwan. She happens to be Nguyen’s friend, and the two have visited each other’s home country to learn about its cuisines.

      Chang originally worked in the finance industry, but decided to pursue her dream of professional cooking. It helped that she had roommates from Vietnam who knew how to create delicious meals, which motivated her to learn how to make Vietnamese food for Taiwanese people.

      “My customers enjoy my interpretation of Vietnamese food,” Chang told the Straight in a phone interview. “They tell me my food is as competitive as other restaurants in larger cities, [and] they give me support in helping me pursue my dream.”

      Josie Chang is the owner of Petit été restaurant in Taichung, Taiwan.

      Chang has come a long way since she first entered the gastronomic world, when people would often ask why a Taiwanese person would even think to prepare Vietnamese fare in Taiwan. “I said, ‘If Taiwanese people can cook French, Italian, and Japanese, why can’t I make Vietnamese cuisine?’ ”

      She’ll be integrating Taiwanese-style cooking into her Vietnamese creations, such as spring rolls made with shrimp and shredded chicken, paired with fish sauce for dipping.

      “Food is a common language,” explained Chang. “We want to meet Vancouver people through the sharing of food, and by cultural exchanges with different types of food.”

      Allie Huang, a Taiwanese chef and owner of the Alley No. 11 café in Tainan, Taiwan, will also be leading several cooking classes at this year’s TaiwanFest. She’s looking forward to some of the unique blend of flavours that will be showcased.

      “I’m excited to see Taiwanese and Canadian chefs create Vietnamese dishes using local ingredients because it’s hard to see in Taiwan,” Huang told the Straight on the line from Taiwan.

      The Alley No. 11 cafe's Allie Huang uses local and seasonal ingredients.

      Originally a white-collared worker, the Alley No. 11’s proprietor decided to pursue a career in cooking because she couldn’t find any food and flavours that suited her palate. After training in French cuisine, Huang opened up her café that focuses using seasonal and local ingredients.

      “My food would be healthiest and taste the best when I used ingredients from farmers who used more natural methods without any chemicals to plant crops,” explained Huang.

      One of the dishes that the young chef will be preparing in Vancouver at the end of the month uses an ingredient known as sea agar—a jelly-like substance from red algae.

      “I think it’s rare to see in Canada, but it’s very common in Taiwan to use and cook it for jello,” said Huang. “I’ll cut it into small cubes and use it in bubble tea.”

      The beverage topping will no doubt be popular in a city full of bubble-tea aficionados, who are always scouting for the latest Taiwanese drink trends.

      TaiwanFest takes place from August 31 to September 2 at various downtown Vancouver locations, including the Vancouver Art Gallery Plaza, the Orpheum Annex, and sites along Granville Street.

      Follow Tammy Kwan on Twitter @ch0c0tam and Instagram @ch0c0tam.