In a series first, Vietnamese-Australian chef Luke Nguyen takes us on a visual feast of southern India

Chef and TV host Luke Nguyen delights and dazzles viewers on an 11-city Indian odyssey.

Chef and TV host Luke Nguyen delights and dazzles viewers on an 11-city Indian odyssey. Photo: SBS

Over the past 14 years, acclaimed Vietnamese-Australian chef Luke Nguyen has taken us on visual TV feasts through his home country, Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia, and across France and the UK.

He’s cooked on the banks of the Mekong Delta, chargrilled salt marsh lamb chops in Normandy and even bravely wok-fried beef on a 10-hour train trip from Da Nang to Hoi An.

Everyone knows and loves his chatty cooking style, his passion for local flavours, smells and people, and his sense of humour.

In a series first, Nguyen has taken on the challenge of circumnavigating southern India “through fresh eyes” in a six-part series for his original broadcasting collaborator, SBS.

“Each of my series is very different in exploring locations and culture with its cuisines and traditions … this was my first time travelling southern India,” he tells The New Daily before the premiere of Luke Nguyen’s India on October 5

“I feel many
 Australians are familiar with northern Indian cuisine – as delicious as it is, I didn’t see one butter
 chicken in my whole time filming, and I looked for it!

‘Australians aren’t as familiar with southern Indian cuisine, so viewers can get ready to learn some incredible new recipes and traditions.”

Nguyen’s family escaped war-torn Vietnam by boat in 1977 – he was born in a refugee camp in Thailand a year later before settling in Sydney’s west as a little boy with his family.

He recounts to us the stories of his childhood working in his parents’ restaurant as a six-year-old, and in the first episode references the importance of a mortar and pestle while checking out a wrestling gym where he helps prepare mountains of mutton biryani.

“When South Vietnam fell to the North, my father needed to escape Vietnam, so he built a fishing boat with a hidden lower deck to hide the children and women.

“He would have on the boat some fishing nets, a lot of bait and a makeshift kitchen stocked with the essential ingredients, my mother’s
old blackened pots, and her aged mortar and pestle.

“Together with his army friend, they would escape
Vietnam in the middle of day, dressed as fishermen, right in front of the northern Vietnamese

“They were lost at sea for over two weeks, so the mortar and pestle came in handy … they caught 
a lot of squid, so they would simply pound some sea salt together with chilli, garlic and lemongrass,
coat the squid and chargrill it.

“The mortar and pestle is still with us today,” he tells TND.

Each series from Luke Nguyen explores very different locations and culture. Photo: SBS

An unscripted, spiritual journey

Nguyen, 45, who shares two children with wife Lynne Nguyễn that while he and the crew did a lot of research before landing, the series is “completely unscripted”.

He introduces viewers to the local shop owner who make thousands of samosas a day, to the 100-year-old coffee houses, to heading out the back of restaurants and where rice and dahl are soaked in water and steamed for breakfast (with a side of chutney).

He walks up to a local truck packed with pallets of fresh, pure white eggs, and helps carry them inside, laughing to the camera about making sure he doesn’t drop any.

“We met countless incredible people who have been cooking and sharing their amazing techniques for many years … that’s my favourite part in being able to create a series like [this],” Nguyen said

“It’s really important to get in the kitchen and meet the very people who are creating the flavours you can see and smell. I searched
 and found local cooks and chefs to share their cooking secrets with me, we entered kitchens that
were 100 years old, recipes that were passed down from generation to generation.

“Speaking to the cooks and chefs in their kitchen, you get an eye into their life. I
learned so much about the history, traditions and culture through my conversations with them.

was incredible.”

The Nguyen family were among two million Vietnamese to escape the Communist regime when it came to power in 1975.

He and his family settled in Sydney’s west, in Cabramatta, and so his journey with food began.

“Growing up in Cabramatta was tough, with working in my parents’ restaurant from the age of six. I
 remember having to clean and scrub all the beef bones for my father’s Pho broth,” he said.

“Wash dishes, clear tables, sweep and mop the floors. I did not enjoy it at all.
It was not until I was around 10 years old did my parents start teaching me how to cook, which was when I fell in love with cooking and hospitality.”

By the age of 12, Nguyen knew what he wanted to do, and he was already dreaming big, opening Red Lantern in Surry Hills, Sydney at just 23 years old.

“Since then it has always been cooking, restaurants and travelling for food,” he said.

He made Luke Nguyen’s Vietnam in 2010, followed by 2012’s Luke Nguyen’s Greater Mekong, Luke Nguyen’s France in 2014 and then a 10-episode series in the UK in 2015.

His next series, the eight-episode Luke Nguyen’s Street Food Asia took a look at street food in Ho Chi Minh City, Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur and Jakarta in 2016.

He’s also found time to be a guest judge on MasterChef Australia and written several books.

His trademark cooking in rivers and paddocks is what sets him apart from a lot of leading TV celebrity chefs in the business.

“As much as I love my big kitchens with all my utensils, it’s great to get out and cook by rivers and paddocks. To cook in the moment, respecting the local produce and cooking it where it is from,” he said.

“There have been times where my ingredients, pots and pans fall into the water, but that’s the fun of it.
 My shows are authentic and real.”

The first mouth-watering episode starts in Bangalore. Photo: SBS


So what did he love most about India?

“It is vibrant, rich in culture, surrounded by friendly,
 passionate people who are so very proud of their traditions, arts and cuisine,” he says, adding his food journey became “a spiritual one” for him as well, respecting Hindu traditions and blessings along the way.

For good luck.

He travelled through three southern states, visiting 11 locations, from the streets of Bangalore and the historic harbour town in Fort Kochi, to the tranquil paradise of the Kerala Backwaters.

“The discovery ahead of me, I must admit was daunting. India is entirely foreign to me, so the anticipation for everyone to go on this journey with me is personally so exciting,” he said.

We’ll get to see him cook dishes that are the end product of his Indian experience, mixed with his Vietnamese heritage.

As he says, enjoy!

Luke Nguyen’s India premieres October 5 at 8.30pm on SBS and SBS On Demand

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