I thought I was familiar with Vietnamese food before taking my first trip to the country many years ago. I had enjoyed numerous meals with my Vietnamese friends, both at Vietnamese restaurants in California and at their homes, and they also taught me to make dishes such as fresh and fried spring rolls, head cheese, jellyfish salad, and sour and spicy soup. But, of course, the food in Vietnam is very different from what I had been eating at restaurants overseas. For one thing, the portion size tends to be much smaller: one bowl of pho in San Francisco, Los Angeles or Paris is equal to at least two bowls in Vietnam. Also, the dishes in Vietnam are served with a generous and varied selection of fresh herbs and other greenery. Elsewhere, restaurants skimp on the herbs, giving a paltry portion of mint and basil. Vietnam is one of my favourite places to visit – and not just for the fantastic food – although I’ll never get used to the terrifying walks across busy intersections. Vietnamese rice noodles with lemongrass chicken (bun ga nuong) I use chicken thighs for this dish, and remove the bones myself – shops usually sell boneless whole legs, with the thigh and drumstick together. The drumstick has a lot of tendons that need to be removed. Cutting out the bone from the thigh takes about 30 seconds, but if you can find just boneless thighs (without the drumsticks) then use those, if you prefer. If you substitute boneless chicken breasts, take care to not overcook them – they will need about 10 minutes under the grill. For the lemongrass chicken: 4 bone-in chicken thighs, about 200 grams each (or 180 grams each if they are boneless) 90ml fish sauce 30 grams granulated sugar 2 lemongrass stalks, the juicy lower stem (about 8cm) only 4 garlic cloves, peeled 2 spring onions ½ tsp freshly ground black pepper For the nuoc cham (dipping sauce): 45 grams granulated sugar 60ml fish sauce 25ml fresh lime juice 2-3 garlic cloves, peeled 2-4 red bird’s-eye chillies For the noodles and to serve: 250 grams thin rice noodles 45ml cooking oil 3 spring onions 50 grams roasted, shelled peanuts 150 grams shredded carrot 1 Asian cucumber Lettuce leaves Fresh herbs, such as mint, Thai basil and fresh coriander Bean sprouts 1 Marinate the chicken. If using bone-in thighs, use a sharp paring knife to cut down to the bone on the meaty side of the thigh, slicing it along the entire length of the bone. Use the tip of the knife to detach the meat from one end by cutting it around the joint, then scrape the meat from the bone until you reach the other joint. Detach the meat from the second joint end. Put the boneless thighs in a medium-size bowl. 2 Mix the fish sauce with the sugar and stir to dissolve. Mix in the pepper. 3 Use the flat side of a meat mallet (or the side of a cleaver) to lightly crush the length of the lemongrass stalks. Mince them as finely as possible and add the pieces to the bowl with the fish sauce and sugar mixture. 4 Finely mince the garlic and spring onions, then add them to the bowl. Pour the mixture over the chicken thighs and mix well. Refrigerate for about three hours, mixing occasionally. Remove from the fridge about 30 minutes before you want to cook the chicken. 5 Put the rice noodles in a large bowl, add tepid water to cover them by about 2cm and leave to soak until needed. 6 Make the nuoc cham . Pour the sugar into a bowl and add 50ml of hot water. Stir to dissolve the sugar, then cool to room temperature. 7 Add the fish sauce and lime juice to the bowl with the sugar. Mince the garlic and thinly slice the chillies, squeezing out and discarding the seeds as you go. Add the garlic and chillies to the bowl, then set aside until needed. 8 Prepare the noodles and other ingredients for the lemongrass chicken. Drain the soaked noodles in a colander. Bring a large pot of water to the boil, add the noodles and cook for about 30 seconds, or until just tender. Drain in a colander, then put them into a mixing bowl. 9 Finely mince the spring onions, then put them into a small pan. Add the cooking oil and place over a medium flame. Heat the oil until it sizzles, then turn off the flame and cool slightly. Pour the oil and spring onion over the noodles and mix with chopsticks or tongs until the noodles are lightly coated. 10 Roughly chop the peanuts, then put them into a small bowl. Slice the cucumber in half lengthwise, then cut into thin slices. 11 Put the lettuce leaves, bean sprouts, herbs and cucumber on a plate. Add a small amount of the shredded carrot to the bowl holding the nuoc cham , then put the rest on the plate with the herbs and lettuce. 12 Heat the oven grill to high. Place the chicken thighs, skin-side down, on a grill rack placed over a pan and slide it into the oven so the meat is about 3cm away from the heating element. Cook for about six minutes, or until the chicken is brown in spots. Flip the pieces over and slide the grill rack back into the oven. Grill for another nine minutes, or until the chicken is cooked through and lightly charred in spots. If the chicken browns too much, put the pan further away from the heat. 13 Leave the chicken pieces at room temperature for about five minutes, then slice about 1cm thick. 14 Take a few strands of rice vermicelli and dip them into the nuoc cham , then taste. If the sauce is too strong, dilute it with a little water. 15 Divide the rice vermicelli between four individual serving bowls and place one chicken thigh over each portion. Let the guests add the peanuts, vegetables and herbs to their bowl as they wish, mixing them in along with some nuoc cham .