Phan Ngoc Anh, who trained as an artist and now works as an editor, is also a renowned home cook. She has written two best-selling cookery books and is the author of the Facebook blog E-sheep Kitchen. Recently, she reached the final of the 2015 Global Taste of Korea Contest in Seoul. Minh Trang spoke to Anh about her life-long passion for cooking and food.
Inner Sanctum: Have you always enjoyed cooking?
Since I was very small, I have been fond of cooking. As long as I can remember, I have been looking for new recipes. A culinary turning point in my life, however, occurred five years ago when I created a cookery blog named E-sheep Kitchen, which received a lot of interest from fans.
Inner Sanctum: How did you hear about the Global Taste of Korea Contest?
I heard about the competition by accident. A fan of my blog emailed me about the competition, which I discovered was open to all nationalities. I learned I could submit my entry at the Embassy of the Republic of Korea and the Korean Cultural Centre in Viet Nam.
I received an email the day before the closing date for registeration. I quickly submitted my entry and fortunately, I was selected to take part in the competition.
In my letter of application, I explained that my great passion was food and cooking, and mentioned that I had launched the blog Esheep Kitchen and published some books.
When I met the top 10 Vietnamese contestants, I was totally overawed. Most of them knew something about Korean cuisine. Some were chefs or professional cooks and some had about 20 years of Korean cooking experience. Some were just students, but they knew a lot about Korean culture. This made me feel quite nervous and tense.
Inner Sanctum: You demonstrated your creativity in the competition by using lotus flowers in your dish. Why was that?
In the competition in Viet Nam, we were told to reconstruct one of four traditional Korean dishes: bulgogi (grilled beef), tteokbokki (stir-fried rice cakes), bibimbap (steamed rice mixed with meat and assorted vegetables) and japchae (stir-fried noodles with vegetables and meat).
Fortunately, I did know something about Korean food because I had been asked by the Korean Food Foundation to review a number of Korean restaurants in Viet Nam in a project to promote the cuisine world-wide.
That was why I knew that bibimbap is the embodiment of Korean culture and is considered the perfect balance of yin and yang in terms of colour, nutrition, harmony and the five elements.
I decided to use lotus flowers to make bibimbap because I knew I had to create something very special and new to stand a chance of winning against such stiff competition.
Furthermore, I also knew that Koreans attach great importance to seasonal ingredients. The competition took place in summer when lotus flowers are in full bloom. I chose to use white lotus flowers, not just for their colour, but because of the particular flavour of their seeds, stamens and roots.
In the run up to the competition, I would buy lotus flowers every day and mix them with different raw ingredients to discover which combinations worked best. Perhaps this was why the judging panel awarded me first prize in Viet Nam. However, I was still astonished when I won.
Inner Sanctum: When you represented Viet Nam in the semi-finals in South Korea, what difficulties did you face?
My biggest problem was not being able to speak Korean. Fortunately, the org-anisers found a Vietnamese person to help me.
On the plus side, the competition was a grand affair, and I was able to make friends and share culinary experiences with the 15 other contestants from all over the world.
The best thing for me though was the unbelievably enthusiastic reception I got from the Vietnamese community in South Korea and the local people there. That helped when I had a problem with the rice paper I had brought with me from Viet Nam. Because of the different climate in South Korea they were ruined. Fortunately, when I told my new Vietnamese friends about my predicament, they went to great lengths to help. A girl even actually got some rice paper for me to replace the ruined ones I had brought from Viet Nam. Her generosity helped me to win the semi-final in Jeonju and become one of top five contestants to compete in the final in Seoul. Although I didn't win, the experience was invaluable.
Inner Sanctum: You have written two cookery books about European cuisine titled Love code - Ngot (Sweet) and Vi Yeu (Taste of Love). Both of them are best-sellers in Viet Nam. Do you intend to write another book?
Yes, definitely. I am going to write a book about Korean cuisine first and another one about Vietnamese food.
Though it takes a long time to write a book, I love to share my experiences and recipes with others. — VNS