Luke Nguyen on getting to know a culture through its food

Luke Nguyen
Luke Nguyen

Luke Nguyen knows better than most that to truly understand a culture you must eat how the locals do. In his latest TV show, Luke Nguyen’s India, he dishes on some of the most delicious – and memorable – trips he’s ever taken

LT: What’s your idea of a perfect holiday?

LN: The perfect holiday for me is a destination that is all about the food. I learn so much about the culture, history and traditions through what the locals eat and drink. I travel where the food is…

LT:  What is your favourite travel memory?

LN: On my first trip to Vietnam, when I was 19, a met a lady from the Red Dzao tribe in the mountains of Sapa, in northern Vietnam. She was selling silken tofu in the local wet market. On her large bamboo tray lay fresh tofu, which had just been made and was still steaming hot. I asked if she could teach me her authentic recipe, and she said yes, and asked me to meet her at her home at 5am the next day. It was still dark when I arrived.

We ground the soybeans in a stone mill, then squeezed all the milk from the soybeans by hand, before bringing it all to the boil in a large wok over woodfire; the kitchen walls were blackened from smoke. We used sour soymilk from the day before to naturally coagulate the tofu, creating lovely soft curds, then pressed the curds between old planks of wood, creating blocks of silken tofu.

By 8am we were finished. I sat outside her home overlooking the cascading rice terraces of Sapa, sipping on piping hot soy milk and eating a bowl of freshly handmade silken tofu for breakfast. An incredible travel experience that I will never forget.

LT:  How do you try to travel as sustainably and responsibly as possible?

LN: Firstly, I always pack light. Travelling with less reduces the fuel needed, so I travel with a minimal lifestyle in mind; I even hand wash most of my clothes. When travelling, I prefer to walk rather than taking taxis or Ubers. I see more when I walk, and I can burn calories and reduce my carbon footprint at the same time. If where I need to go is more than a 10km walk, then I’ll catch a train or subway. When I’m at a market buying produce, I always have my own shopping bag, so I can reduce the use of plastic, especially in developing countries.


LT: Tell us about an unforgettable dining moment you experienced recently?

LN: I was filming recently in the south of India for my new SBS series, Luke Nguyen’s India, in a charming town called Chettinad. We were lucky enough to be invited into a local home,

where the family prepared a traditional Thali [multiple dishes and courses served on a long banana leaf] for us. I’ve had many thalis before, however, this one was unique. It featured ingredients and produce that I had never seen before and, above all, everything was perfectly cooked, with flavour that was incredibly balanced. I tried 12 different dishes that day, and through eating that Thali I learned so much about the history, traditions and culture of Chettinad. That’s what I love about food.


LT: What has been one of your favourite and most authentic travel experiences so far?

LN: Definitely, Southern India would be my most authentic travel experience yet, and I purposely chose lesser-travelled places in the region – places where most Indians have never been ­– to film for Luke Nguyen’s India, so that I could capture the most authentic travel experiences. I searched and found local cooks to share their cooking secrets with me, entered kitchens that were 100 years old and cooked recipes that were passed down through generations.

LT: What are three key luxury items you always pack for your travels?

LN: Bose Noise Cancelling Earphones, a Louis Vuitton Monogram Canvas Double Leather Casual Bracelet and my many Kuboraum specs.


LT:  Which emerging food trend inspires and excites you the most right now?

LN: Dry-ageing whole fish. It looks very cool hanging from hooks in the ageing cabinet, but it also improves flavour and texture! If you have only tried dry-aged beef or duck, you must try dry-aged fish, and eat it sashimi-style.


LT:  What do you love about India, and what are some lesser-known experiences you recommend to visitors to the country?

LN: I embarked on a food journey in southern India, but it became a spiritual one for me as well. I will return to India to delve deeper into Ayurveda practises, and recommend others do the same. Ayurveda is a natural system of medicine that originated in India more than 3000 years ago. It translates into ‘knowledge of life’ and is based on the idea that through eating well, using herbal remedies, massage therapy, yoga and meditation, we gain a great balance between body, mind, spirit and the environment.

Luke Nguyen’s India is now streaming on SBS On Demand.

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