You don’t need to be a pro to create authentic Viet dishes. James Beard Award-winning cookbook author and instructor Andrea Nguyen Nguyen isn’t. She’s been demystifying Viet cuisine with clarity, cheer and fabulous recipes since her 2006 cookbook Into the Vietnamese Kitchen. She does a deep dive into Vietnamese classics with books like Asian Tofu, Asian Dumplings, The Banh Mi Handbook, and her 2018 Beard-winning The Pho Cookbook. Yet for all her culinary drive and talent, she’s entirely self-taught. She’ll teach you, too, with her new book Vietnamese Food Any Day.
Nguyen fled Vietnam with her family in 1975 and settled in California. The products in the local food stores “were all new to us. They were intriguing and we were curious. Strawberry Nestle Quick was so artificial tasting but Ovaltine was all right!” she recalls. Back then, fish sauce was unknown here and the only soy sauce was La Choy. Nguyen credits her mother with finding ways to utilize available ingredients to create the flavor and spirit of home. The author accomplishes the same thing with Vietnamese Food Any Day. That’s “the Vietnamese American experience,” she says. Nguyen insists none of the recipes in Vietnamese Food Any Day require a trip to an Asian market. Everything can be found in most supermarkets, and besides, “the aroma of a pot of rice cooking is the same whether you’re in Saigon or Santa Cruz.”
Nguyen and I live on opposite coasts but we both have the good fortune and good climate to grow lemongrass, one of Vietnamese cuisine’s bright, salient flavors, in our back yards. Mine grows like a haystack. Nguyen’s book offers the best advice for dealing with lemongrass I’ve come across, including prepping, freezing and mincing. “You can’t chew what you can’t chop.”
Exploring the Viet dishes she loves with readers is as natural and joyful as sharing a meal with family and friends. “I’m used to eating family-style and sharing food,” says Nguyen. “I once took a friend to a Chinese restaurant and she said, ‘I want my own dish, I don’t want to share.’ Our friendship slowly unravelled.” Nguyen smiles. “I tend to cultivate relationships with people who like to cook, eat, and talk.”
In addition to being a guiding light for Viet cuisine, the author endeared herself to me forever by editing the book about my culinary lodestar, Paula Wolfert “Good food is memory,” Paula has said. So are good recipes. Nguyen demands a lot of hers. Not only must they be doable and delicious, they should “serve a purpose, to teach, to tell a story or to take the reader and cook on a journey.”
With Nguyen as your guide, creating the authentic flavors of Vietnam is less about having ingredients direct from Hanoi and more about “thoughtfulness and intention, about having a foundation for cooking something the way that you do. It’s captured in the Viet term kheo.” Kheo translates as smart or skilled, and for Nguyen, it means kitchen smarts, too. “Cooking with care and consideration.”