“See what you think,” said Georgia, the lovely editor of the Australian Healthy Food Guide. “If you don’t like the look of it, we can go to the café next door”. She was taking me out for lunch in Sydney after a tough morning of planning and figuring out when we were going to schedule all the great story ideas we’d come up with for the NZ and Aussie magazines.
The Naughty Chef is a tiny Vietnamese Pho place in Albion street, Surry Hills. It has no ambiance to speak of, with plastic chairs and utilitarian tables, and boxes of tissues for serviettes. But I loved it instantly because I sensed there was something good to be found behind the uninspiring facade. Plus I had spied some of the photos of the food behind the plastic display. “I love it”, I said, and asked the waitress what she would recommend. She described a hot and spicy chicken soup - the “007 hot and spicy” Bun bo Hue - that sounded pretty good to me, and Georgia, the new vegetarian, ordered a vege version with tofu. The bowls, when they came, were gorgeous: fragrant and steaming and studded with cabbage and mint and tender poached chicken (in my case) and fried tofu. The broth was clean and savoury; a spicy-sweet stock made by someone who makes it every day and makes a lot of it.
But it was the side dishes that were the most exciting thing about this meal. It was a help-yourself buffet of the usual pho condiments – lemon wedges, chillies, bean shoots, hoisin sauce. And the most inspiring and intriguing extra sauce. It was chilli, but mild, and smoky, with a smooth, thick texture. I couldn’t get enough if it. “It’s like these chillies have been roasted”, I said as I rolled it around in my mouth, and Georgia laughed and said “I love it that you taste that!” She could see the cogs in my little brain turning over, trying to figure out what was in there. Eventually I asked, and the smiling man who’d served us told me that he and his brother made the sauce (for which I didn’t get a name) themselves every week. I was right (yes!) about the roasted chillies, garlic, shallots, sugar etc, and completely wrong about the fish sauce. What I hadn’t picked was the peanuts, but as soon as he said it I mentally slapped my forehead; of course that’s what it was. I’m guessing very finely ground peanuts. He said it was very slowly cooked together over several hours, which made sense given its rich, deep flavour.
I briefly toyed with running the gauntlet of NZ biosecurity and bringing a jar home, but thought better of it. So the next step: recreating this at home! I’ve searched online and looked though all my Asian cookbooks without unearthing anything that seems quite right. I’m not a Vietnamese cooking expert, so clearly I need help. Anyone able to point me in the right direction, speak up!