A very apt title, Into the Vietnamese Kitchen. The author, Andrea Nguyen, invites the reader into a kitchen that is both personal and representative of all such kitchens across Vietnam and in Vietnamese homes across the world.
Americans have a familiarity with Vietnamese due to migration of the Vietnamese population at the end of the Vietnam War. France, of all European countries, probably boasts the most Vietnamese restaurants. They are the ex-colonisers who also left vestiges of their own cuisine. A baguette filled with paté might not seem very Asian but it’s a popular street food in Vietnam.
Andrea fled Vietnam for the safety of America. The family travelled light but amongst their few possessions, Andrea’s mum packed a small orange notebook containing favourite recipes. Food is one of the most important elements in retaining identity and it takes on even greater significance when one is forced from one’s homeland.
We in Britain have not had close ties with Vietnam so the cuisine is not as ubiquitous as, say, Chinese or Japanese. If we want to eat authentic Vietnamese dishes then we will likely have to make them ourselves. The ingredients are easily accessible as there are a wealth of Asian supermarkets and specialist food aisles in regular grocers in every high street. If you cook Chinese food then you’ll already have much of what you need.
Vietnamese food isn’t, however, Chinese food under another name. Yes, there is a strong Chinese influence but there is also much that is unique. Into the Vietnamese Kitchen is the first Asian cookbook that I have come across offering a chapter on The Art of Charcuterie. This section in particular demonstrates the French influence. Perhaps these were some of the original fusion dishes. There are selections of sausages here that have Multipurpose Meat Paste as their base. I must admit that the title is rather off-putting and smacks of something made of nameless and nasty cuts of unspecified animal. In reality it’s a harmless preparation of chicken and fish sauce which can be made, with the addition of other spices and meats, into delicious meat balls or cold cuts. Garlicky Sandwich Meat starts with the Meat Paste but has garlic, black pepper and Chinese Five-Spice powder to enhance the flavour. Fill a baguette with this preparation; pour a cup of strong coffee and contentment will be assured. A great Sunday breakfast, I’d say.
Caramel Sauce is a mainstay of the Vietnamese kitchen. It’s a simple sugar-and-water concoction that is simmered till the correct hue is achieved. The resulting syrup is added as a flavouring to a variety of dishes including Beef Flank and Ginger Simmered in Caramel Sauce. This might sound alarming but actually there are only 3 tablespoons of the bitter-sweet liquid for 2 pounds of meat. Tasty and simple to make.
Pho is one of the most iconic of Vietnamese dishes. It’s popular because it’s delicious. The secret is a good broth and it’s worth taking the time to make yourself or to find a good quality beef stock. Don’t even consider a stock cube, dear reader. Take your biggest soup bowls and add noodles, beef, green onions, coriander. Pour over your flavourful stock and add garnishes of bean sprouts, mint, basil, coriander, chilies and lime wedges. This isn’t just a bowl of soup, it’s an event.
Into the Vietnamese Kitchen has a good number of desserts. Mandarin Sorbet has the flavour of the East but also of Christmas. This would be an ideal replacement for the traditional Christmas Pudding which I hate with a will known to few. It’s light and tangy and perfect for the end of any rich and heavy meal. Coconut Sorbet is also another easy and exotic cooler but Lemongrass Ice Cream has the edge on sophistication and would be marvellous to finish any Vietnamese, Chinese or Thai meal.
Into the Vietnamese Kitchen – Treasured Foodways, Modern Flavours is a sumptuous book and a culinary revelation. The dishes are accessible to cooks world-wide and they offer a glimpse into a cuisine which is subtly different. This is Andrea Nguyen’s first book but I hope it won’t be her last.
Into the Vietnamese Kitchen – Treasured Foodways, Modern Flavors
Author: Andrea Nguyen
Published by: Ten Speed Press
Price: $35.00US, £35.00
Cookbook review by Chrissie Walker © 2018