Yan can cook in Vietnam

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Celebrity chef Martin Yan's new Vietnamese show explores the "˜precious stories hidden behind every single dish'

  Martin Yan enjoys bun cha (vermicelli with grilled pork) at famous shop on Hang Manh Street in Hanoi.Photos courtesy of Dien Quan Media

It was around 8 a.m. and nobody in line at the famous pho restaurant on Hanoi's Bat Dan Street realized that the hungry and excited Chinese-American man waiting with them was Martin Yan.

He was about to leave after waiting an anxious hour for his beef noodle soup when the owner announced that the pho was clean out.

"Although I was very hungry, I love waiting for a bowl of pho like this. Interesting!" Yan said.

The scene is from Yan's new show "Taste of Vietnam," locally produced by Vietnamese company Dien Quan Media.

Eventually, the restaurant owner recognized Yan, 60, and his fame got his a special free bowl of soup. The chef polished off the pho quickly and with gusto.

In another scene, Yan seemed to understand the cultures of the hill tribe communities at the remote Bac Ha market in the northwest mountains better than Vietnamese locals, even though he'd never been there before.

 "When you come here, you can catch images of boys and girls who follow their parents to the market. Look at their faces, how timid they are. Can you hear the khen (pan-pipe) player, looking for a girlfriend? The horse market day is also a must-see," said Yan.

Chef Yan is famous for his American TV cooking show "Yan Can Cook." It garmered him legions of global fans and recognition from the international culinary community.

The show was extremely popular in Vietnam, where it was aired seemingly non-stop in the 90s.

Now, his new show has taken Yan across Vietnam to explore different regional culinary traditions.

Yan said he had been enchanted by the stunning landscapes of Vietnam ever since he first visited a decade ago. He said everyone knows he fell in love with the country when he visited Ho Chi Minh City in 2002 to host a locally-produced program called Ngon hon voi Yan Can Cook (More Delicious with Yan Can Cook.)

He not only hosted the show and shared cooking tips; he also discovered several traditional Vietnamese dishes he'd never had before.

Yan returned to Vietnam several times, including as a special guest at the 2010 International Culinary Festival in the coastal town of Vung Tau, some 125 kilometers southeast of HCMC. He also visited Vietnam to participate in the opening ceremony of his friend Duong Huy Khai's restaurant early this year. Khai is a local Vietnamese celebrity chef.

Stories behind the food

Vu Hoang My (L) and celebrity chef Martin Yan in the culinary exploration in Sapa
The new 26-episode series has taken Yan on a trans-Vietnam journey, with his beautiful co-host Vu Hoang My, first runner-up at Miss Vietnam 2010, and Vietnam representative to Miss World 2012.

In the show, the duo undertakes an epic culinary adventure across the country, not only to explore its food but also reveal its people, history, culture and soul. Yan and My told a press conference held on August 30 that the show will be full of passion and surprises, not melodrama and tears like most reality shows.

According to Dien Quan Media, Hoang My was chosen as Yan's sidekick for her energetic charisma after an open public casting call.

"Her intelligent enthusiasm adds a bit of spice to Yan's work," said Dien Quan Media representative Thanh Thuy.

My and Yan are in Sapa shooting now, and My wrote on her Facebook page that she has already had the experience of a lifetime working on the show.

"I am so lucky to meet Yan and explore new regions, cultures and customs. This has helped me understand my country's rich culinary culture. Vietnam's deeply rooted culinary tradition, with its sheer diversity, is distinct from other nations."

My said she's learned things she never would have known without the show.

"I did not know that Nha Trang's To Vinh Dien Street has a 50-year-old sidewalk nem nuong (grilled meat roll) shop until I participated in the show. I also had the chance to watch people grinding fish to make cha ca (fish cakes) and I also climbed a tree to see the swallow's nest and learn how people make a nutritious delicacy from it. How stunning!" My told Tuoi Tre newspaper.

Thuy from Dien Quan told Vietweek that she'd never met a celebrity that was as friendly and accessible as Yan.

"He encounters many people from the north to south, from shopkeepers to housewives, and explores with them the precious stories hidden behind every single dish."

On the show, Yan and My do not only taste regional specialties; they learn how to cook them. Most of the show is shot outside, at and around local street restaurants and eateries.

Yan told Tuoi Tre that he was not only interested in learning about the spices and ingredients of each dish, he wanted to learn the meaningful stories behind the foods and culinary customs.

Yan said he'll always remember meeting a family that has spent three generations making simple but delicious banh khoai (plain rice pancake) from modest means.

"This delicious food will be on the top of my list. Sometimes, a delicious cuisine does not need a good name or florid description. Just good origins can make it," he said.

The series, with 20-25-minute episodes, will be aired next year. According to Dien Quan Media, it will be broadcast not only on local channels but also on the Asian Food Channel (AFC) in nine Asian countries. Buu Dien, head of Dien Quan, said he hoped American channel Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) might also air it.

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