Trying to coax a recipe out of somebody can be hard work. Even after showing repeated allegiance and continued praise for the very same dish, people still like to keep their cards close to their chest. In the case of this recipe, a simple yet full-on bowl of briny heat and pungent umami, it took a multitude of visits to a Vietnamese restaurant in East London and the slow but steady befriending of a particular waiter. Who shall remain anonymous, because I can never remember his name.
Basically, things went like this. I would regularly go to this restaurant for lunch and more often than not, I would order the seafood and green vegetable stir fry. After lapping it up and slurping down on fiery prawns and cooling cucumber, I would always say ‘C’mon, how does the chef make this?’ and my friend would always grimace and curtly say ‘I am not telling you.’ and on it went, for a very long time and over many months.
‘Come on, tell me.’
‘Please, it’s lovely, I just want to know.’
‘Ah gowangowangowangowangowangowan…tell me!’
Now, I don’t know if I had broken the man’s resolve or whether he was a fan of Father Ted but finally he cracked and after scanning the horizon, he whispered over the table a list of ingredients and some instruction. The important thing was not to go too heavy on the shrimp paste and that I had to deseed the cucumber, the broth would become too watery otherwise.
After taking it all down and securing this new found knowledge in the recipe binder of my mind, I distinctly remember walking out of the restaurant feeling quite triumphant. And having cooked this very quick and easy stir-fry at home several times, it pleases me to no end that I can rustle up this favourite whenever the mood takes me. All it takes is just a little bit of preparation.
However, I do having the nagging suspicion that he didn’t give me the complete low down and that perhaps a key ingredient is still missing. I say this because I returned to the restaurant recently (for purposes of making sure that I get this spot on for Great British Chefs) and after ordering and eating the usual, it was just oh so better than my efforts.
So I caught my friend by his elbow just one more time and said:
‘Do you remember when you gave me the recipe for this? Are you sure you told me everything?’
To which he just nodded, smiling and winking for the first time ever, and said ‘Yes.’