Whenever I yearn to jet off to an exotic locale or simply want a way to spice up my dinner menu, I reach for Luke Nguyen’s “My Vietnam” (Lyons Press, 2011). Part travel narrative and part cookbook, this colorful tome takes readers on a culinary and cultural journey through Vietnam. Along the way we discover the magic behind the country’s fresh, aromatic cuisine and learn how to create over 100 authentic, regional dishes. We also find out how diverse and charming this lush, Southeast Asian nation can be.
A Vietnamese chef, restaurant owner and Cooking Channel host, Nguyen uses “My Vietnam” to detail his trip through his parents’ homeland. As he proceeds from North through South Vietnam, he examines nine specific destinations and one region, the Mekong Delta.
Throughout the book, gorgeous color photographs enliven and illustrate Nguyen’s stories and dishes. Flip through its pages and you end up feeling as though you, too, are trekking through Vietnam. So superb are many of the photos that I could easily classify “My Vietnam” as a coffee table book. Yet, while the pictures may be stunning, the food and anecdotes are even more so.
Recipes connect to mesmerizing tales
“My Vietnam” begins in the country’s northern highlands. In the first chapter, “The Songs of Sapa,” Nguyen describes trips to lively local markets, a meal cooked with a Hmong villager and a brief venture into making tofu by hand. The recipes that follow, including Hmong Char-Grilled Black Chicken and Crisp Silken Tofu in a Tomato and Black Pepper Sauce, harken to his mesmerizing tales. Here is local, seasonal cooking at its best.
Although I was initially drawn by Nguyen’s writings on a country that I adore, I quickly realized that I didn’t have to be an avid reader or traveler to enjoy “My Vietnam.” Even without the back stories, I can still make his rich crab soup with glass noodles or zesty fish cakes. These creative recipes stand on their own.
In this same vein, I didn’t need to be an accomplished cook or have prior knowledge of this cuisine to master Nguyen’s dishes. As long as I knew how to chop vegetables, boil water and grill meat, I was able to make the treats contained within “My Vietnam.”
In addition to covering such familiar Vietnamese specialties as pho, bánh mì and the pickled vegetables do chua, Nguyen also spends time on lesser-known — but no less fabulous — delicacies. These include bánh quai vat, or shrimp and pork clear dumplings, caramelized mackerel, crispy “happy pancakes” and bánh chuoi, or (baked banana cake). Authentic yet quite accessible, these uncomplicated offerings are destined to become favorites of American cooks. I, for one, am already hooked.
No struggling to find uncommon items
Whether serving up recognized classics or more unusual fare, Nguyen provides clear, detailed instructions. Histories, preparation tips and ingredient substitutions all show up in his recipe head notes. Thanks to these helpful sections, I never have to struggle to find such uncommon items as dropwort and steamboat hotpots or wonder how to select the extraordinary ridged gourds and pumpkin flowers.
For those less familiar with — or without access to — everyday Vietnamese ingredients, Nguyen offers clarification and assistance in the book’s final chapter, “Basic Recipes.” As the name suggests, this last portion deals with the nuts and bolts of Vietnamese cooking. Recipes for everything from the country’s ever-present fish sauce nuoc mam cham and sweet coconut milk to fish paste and pork terrines close out this vibrant book.
Inspiring and intriguing, “My Vietnam” provides the ideal antidote to tired mealtime menus and burning wanderlust.
Kathy Hunt is a syndicated food writer whose work has appeared in the Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, Baltimore Sun and VegNews, among other publications. She currently is working on her first cookbook.
Photo: “My Vietnam.” Credit: Kathy Hunt