In efforts to promote Vietnamese cuisine to the world, 17 highly acclaimed chefs from around the world flocked Hoi An to recreate some of their nations’ famous traditional dishes in conjunction with the third Hoi An International Food Festival at An Hoi Sculpture Garden recently.
Just like any cooking show, the week-long festival themed “Taste the World” came with a twist. Festival founder and chief executive officer Keerthi Hapugasdeniya, also known as Happy, said the chefs were only allowed to use ingredients they find at the city’s central market.
“With their experience, the chefs didn’t even bring their ingredients here,” the Sri Lankan chef said.
“Ingredients are the same wherever you are — beef is beef, chicken is chicken — it’s how you mix and put them together. So, all the dishes are made from what we have here.”
Celebrations were aplenty during the opening ceremony where the chefs from Switzerland, France, South Africa, Japan, China, Spain, the Netherlands, Cook Islands, Turkey, South Korea, Ecuador, Germany, Sri Lanka, Slovenia and Italy enjoyed a canoe ride along the Thu Bon River and later a street parade comprising lion dance performance, live music and dancing around the ancient town.
Asked about the festival’s origin, Happy said before its inception, festival chairman Trinh Diem Vy and himself have been travelling the world to showcase Vietnamese cuisine, highlighting what Hoi An is capable of.
“It was tough then, we went from one place to another that it took so much time to distribute the message. So, I introduced this to my friends including World Association of Chefs’ Societies president Thomas Gugler and we decided to take WorldChefs here,” Happy said.
“The first instalment was amazing because it was something new for the country. The second time, Thomas recognised Hoi An as the food capital of Vietnam. He was surprised with what we can do with the ingredients and how simple it is to make beautiful dishes.
“When the chefs visit, they enjoy the country’s customs, hospitality, food, and they take those values back to their restaurants, hotels and family. This is the message we want to convey. Most of the chefs implement menus from Vietnam. So, that’s the beauty of what we created.”
Hoi An native Vy, who is also the proprietor of 11 restaurants and the Maison Vy Hotel, said having been in the business for over 30 years, she felt the need to “do something” which is introduce her hometown to the world.
“This town has given me so much in terms of career success and exchange of ideas with everyone whom I’ve met. This is my way of giving back to the community,” she said.
At the festival, colourful booths and a “big dish stage” gave visitors a glimpse at how chefs operate their kitchen. One of Gugler’s big dish team members Uwe Micheel of Germany said: “(The festival) gets better each year. First year was different because we worked inside the kitchens of 10 restaurants.
“Last year, we started cooking outside where people can see us in action. With the additional big dish stage and music, the impact is much bigger.”
With each dish sold at VND60,000 (USD3), the event welcomed a constant stream of eager and hungry visitors trying out dishes like Zurich-style red snapper fillet, pennette con pestodi zueechine, fish and Ecuadorian coconut sauce with red rice, fish bisque with baguette and potatoes and Sri Lankan devilled chicken, all using ingredients from the Hoi An market.
Although it may sound like an impossible challenge especially for a person who hardly spends time in the kitchen, Cook Islands and Japanese chefs Sam Timoko and Isamu Iwasaki said it’s all about improvising and adapting to the local taste.
“I made my dish a little sweeter to adapt to the local taste buds because the end goal is to meet guests’ expectations,” Iwasaki said.
“Every trip is a learning curve where you should work on local ingredients while maintaining the original taste,” Timoko added.
“The idea behind this challenge is to promote Vietnamese food, especially central Vietnam, Hoi An,” Happy beamed with pride, adding that it proves Hoi An has all necessary ingredients to create a global cuisine.
“Hoi An’s signature dish, cao lau, is steeped in history that it has multiple cultures in a single bowl – croutons from France, udon noodles from Japan and cherry pork from China.
“So when it comes to improvisation, that’s the advantage of inviting world-class chefs.”
As the delegation attended the country’s inaugural International Food Tourism Forum hosted by Duy Tan University in Da Nang, they shared the efforts to revolutionise travelling trends.
Gugler, who travels the world 230 days a year, said: “Food is the most important thing in life because without it, we wouldn’t survive, we wouldn’t have the nourishment and the pleasure our beautiful life.
“I try a lot of flavours and cooking techniques during my travels. When I first explored Vietnam, I was impressed with the colours and variety of things available at the markets. One big advantage Vietnam has over other countries is that the cooking only uses natural products.
“Everything comes from a garden or field, and is cooked in a traditional way with little to no additives. Fantastic herbs, spices and seasonings create amazing palates available across the country.”
Happy echoed similar sentiments, urging people to embrace food that are unique to the destination instead of solely focusing on monuments.
“Everywhere in the world, destinations have been promoted as monumental tourism. For example, how many times would you fly to Paris to see the Eiffel Tower?” he asked.
“But when you go to France or any country with food in mind, you cannot get the same taste anywhere else in the world. You have to go to the place for the real taste. So that means people can visit the country many a time to relive that experience.
“The beauty of such a tourism is that you can teach people where food come from. If you ask a child in Australia where carrots grow, they may say the supermarket instead of the ground. A Vietnamese may not know how an apple tree looks like because the country doesn’t grow apples. So you have to go to a country that does, and that is kind of tourism we need to promote.”
Although the event doesn’t run on a fixed date, Happy expects Hoi An International Food Festival to run for years to come.
“The first year was a dream come true, second year was a wake-up call and the third year is all about turning all objectives into reality. We strive to make it better each year. The event invites different chefs every year and visitors can expect more activities for all ages.”
Follow the festival’s Facebook page and make sure you don’t miss out on this amazing event when you travel to Da Nang.
GETTING THERE AirAsia flies to Da Nang from Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok. For low fares and flight info, visit airasia.com.