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December 25, 2015

Recipe: Vietnamese BBQ quail and watermelon salad

Sisters Bich and Linh Nguyen are best known for introducing the like-a-sandwich-but-better bao to Adelaide. But it’s the creativity and authenticity in their food that keeps their store – Mamachau – busy and makes their stint on the BBQ a success.

  • Chefs: Bich and Linh Nguyen
  • Photography and styling: Andy Nowell
  • Words: Farrin Foster

While neither Bich or Linh Nguyen are chefs, they are both seriously committed to food.

“I live down near Hanson Road. I live down there because of the food,” says Bich.


Mamachau’s namesake, Bich’s two-year-old son Leo, is very helpful while we cook on the BBQ – disposing of surplus strawberries and watermelon by eating them. While Bich didn’t take Chau – her husband’s name – when they married, she did decide to use it for the business, saying it is “more catchy” than her maiden Nguyen.

“It’s not the best area, but they have the best food so for me that trumps anything else. It’s a bit scary at night, but all the food is so fresh – the butchers cut to order and everything, it’s so much better like that.”

Two years ago, it was this commitment that led the sisters to open Mamachau – a hole in the wall lunch stop on Pirie Street from which they introduced Adelaide to the wonders of the light and fluffy taco-cum-sandwich treats called bao.

“I’ve always been drawn to hospitality. Sometimes I wonder why I picked this industry because it’s so labour intensive and there’s a lot of stress, but there’s something about it,” says Linh.

“We’re both real foodies and we’re pretty creative people, so there’s good job satisfaction from being your own boss and having a creative outlet.”

“We’re mixed with what we like so we reflect that in our food.” Bich Nguyen


Bich and Linh Nguyen

The sisters are Australian-Vietnamese and their background has a clear influence on their menu, with the chilli, coriander, fish sauce and lemongrass palate well represented. However, their modern version of Asian takeaway is not limited to Vietnamese traditions and the pair cast their net wide across the region to build dishes with a difference for their CBD customers.

“We’re mixed with what we like so we reflect that in our food,” says Bich. “People are going to their roots – that’s definitely happening with Asian food at the moment, people are really getting past that honey chicken and sweet and sour pork phase and the flavours are more authentic.”

“That’s what we believe Asian and Vietnamese food should be – really clean and lots of good textures and colours,” adds Linh.

The marinated and butterflied quail the pair is cooking on the BBQ is demonstrative of their eclectic approach. Linh, who mostly works in the kitchen at the store, says she “made this recipe up”, but that quail “is always in banquets and on the table when there’s a family gathering”.

The birds caramelising on the BBQ were bought earlier in the day from the Central Market, and the herbs being mixed through the watermelon salad are direct from the garden of Bich and Linh’s father – an arrangement that mimics how they source produce for Mamachau.

“I go to the Markets everyday in the morning,” says Bich. “We buy everything there. I go and buy the produce and wheel it back in my trolley. It’s actually easier because you just go on the tram and when you forget things you can just go back down there.”

“And we always get the herbs from our garden,” says Linh. “Sometimes Dad gives us so much watercress we don’t know what to do with it.”

It’s put to good use in the salad though, where the crispy freshness of the watermelon provides a perfect foil to the finnicky and flavoursome quail on a sunny summer’s day.


A few bubbles make the final dish extra fun



  6x fresh quail

  ¼ seedless watermelon

  2 large handfuls of mixed asian herbs (mint, thai basil, red perilla)

  1 large handful picked watercress leaves

  ¼ cup fried shallots

  1 red chilli – seeded and julienne

  100g sugar

  50ml fish sauce

  Juice of 1 lemon

  ½ garlic clove – grated

For the marinade

  ½ cup light soy sauce

  1 tblsp dark soy sauce

  ¼ cup water

  2 shallots, minced

  1 tblsp rice vinegar

  1 tblsp brown sugar

  ½ tblsp fresh ginger, grated

  1 tblsp dried chilli flakes

  1 large pinch szechuan pepper


For the marinade

Combine marinade ingredients in a small pot and heat over medium-low heat.

Allow to simmer for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally, then take off heat and allow to cool back to room temperature.

To prepare the quail, split quail in half using kitchen shears, cutting through the breast bone and the back bone. Cut off the wing tips and flatten each quail half with the palm of your hand.

Pour the strained marinade over the quail in a bowl and allow to marinade for at least 1 hour.

At the BBQ

For the salad, cut the watermelon into bite sized cubes and set aside.

To create a dressing, heat the sugar and fish sauce in a small pot over medium-low heat until the sugar is dissolved and of a runny honey-like consistency. Allow to cool slightly, then add all the lemon juice and garlic.

Remove quail from the marinade and pat off excess liquid with a paper towel. Grill quail over a med-low heat for 4-5 minutes on each side until just cooked and still pink.                                  

Gently combine the watermelon, herbs, watercress, fried shallots and chilli with a few tablespoons of the fish dressing in a large bowl. Pile on the grilled quail and drizzle with a little more of the fish dressing and a few more herbs and fried shallots.

Serve immediately. Fast, fresh, fragrant, delicious!

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