From banh mi to beef pho, 19th century French occupation shaped some of Vietnam's most famous dishes. But London-based duo Liz Nguyen and Joseph Tam want to show another side to the cuisine.
Every Friday, Liz Nguyen and Joseph Tam bring bags of fresh vegetables, nuts, beans, spices, and herbs to a spacious, white-tiled kitchen behind Broadway Market in East London. Over the course of the evening, they prepare two days' worth of vegan Vietnamese food to sell at their new food stall, Eat Chay.
Using the Vietnamese word for "vegetarian" or "vegan," Eat Chay showcases Nguyen and Tam's take on both vegan and Asian food, combining the two in a way that actually harkens back to Vietnam's pre-Colonial cuisine.
"A lot of the 'authentic' Vietnamese dishes that Westerners know about—usually the French had a lot of influence over that," says Nguyen.
Originally hailing from Hanoi (Nguyen) and Hong Kong (Tam), the pair swapped their jobs in marketing and economics to create all-plant versions of the dishes they grew up eating.
Whether it's banh mi sandwiches—made using French baguette—or pho, a noodle soup with beef bone broth, Vietnamese food is full of French influences. The first French missionaries arrived in the 17th century, and France began occupying Vietnam in the 1860s, making it part of French Indochina and staying in power until Vietnam gained independence in 1954.
Along the way, Western European staples like coffee, milk, and much more meat made their way into the local diet (until the Vietnam War, at least).
"Throughout the year, my grandparents didn't used to eat a lot of meat at all. My parents didn't at all, growing up during the War," Nguyen says.
She grew up hearing stories of her family using every part of the vegetable in their cooking: boiling it in water, eating it with fish sauce, and using the leftover water to make a clear soup eaten with rice.
One exception is the lunar new year, or Tết (pronounced "tate"), which takes place around the same time as Chinese New Year and sees many Vietnamese celebrate with cold cuts of pork and vegetable spring rolls with minced pork.
Traditionally in Vietnam, Nguyen says, meat was eaten during celebrations, "because it's that time of the year that people gather to have a big feast. But it was never like, 'We need to eat meat for the daily survival,' simply because we couldn't afford it."
Nguyen and Tam are both influenced by this plant-based approach. Though neither are vegan, they now eat meat rarely and no longer cook it at home.
"It's not just a fad where it's going to go away. It is a modern movement," Nguyen says. "We're trying our best to go through the transition, but it doesn't happen overnight for everybody."
Eat Chay's entirely vegan menu has four main dishes: a noodle salad with a sweet, tangy fish-like sauce and fresh vegetables, baguette with mushroom pâté (instead of pork liver), vegetable spring rolls, and their bestseller: Korean barbecue seitan over a lettuce wrap. The baguette and noodle salad come with a choice of black bean "not-beef" patties, chickpea and turmeric "not-fish" patties, or grilled mushroom and aubergine.
Eat Chay also serves cold-brewed Vietnamese iced coffee and Thai iced tea with a cashew-maple "condensed milk."
In the spirit of bridging both meat-eating and veganism and Asian and Western cuisines, Nguyen tells me inspiration for their food stall ranges from nearby vegan taqueria Club Mexicana to David Chang's Momofuku.
For Nguyen and Tam, cooking vegan is also an opportunity to be more creative than if they used meat: less has been done, so there's much more experimenting and inventing to do.
"We're really passionate about creating good food, and for us, vegan food is kind of a creative outlet," Nguyen says.
She adds: "We just want to make damn tasty, plant-based food for meat-eaters to enjoy, and also for vegans obviously—so that meat eaters could stop saying, 'You just eat tofu and noodle salad all the time?'"