Cooking from Nguyen’s new cookbook shows that it is more than a collection of recipes.
I figured this cookbook would be different when I heard Andrea Nguyen’s voice in my head as I considered a container of leftover pad Thai, wondering whether to eat it or throw it away. When I ordered it for lunch the day before, I knew what flavors it was missing as I picked at it in disappointment.
“This has zero fish sauce or tamarind,” I complained to my husband. Adding a splash of fish sauce as I reheated it in a skillet would remedy one deficit. But what about that missing tang of tamarind? As I dangled the container over my open garbage can, I recalled that Nguyen had faced a similar dilemma. “Why is a recipe for a Middle Eastern ingredient in a Vietnamese cookbook?” she writes. “Because I needed an accessible substitute for tamarind …”
And so did I. To my delight, the substitute she recommends, the pomegranate molasses that has remained in my pantry since the dawn of Ottolenghi Cookbook Era, brought the stir-fried noodles into the exact balance I craved. That’s the moment I realized that Nguyen’s new cookbook, Vietnamese Food Any Day: Simple Recipes for True, Fresh Flavors, is more than a collection of recipes.
Though, of course, it is also a collection of recipes, and they’re centered around the idea that you don’t have to special-order ingredients online or make a trip to your nearest Asian supermarket to enjoy the herb-forward, spicy, fragrant flavors that define Vietnamese food for Nguyen.
In many ways, this book is an homage to the much-derided American mega-mart. In the book’s introduction, Nguyen describes with tenderness her earliest exposure to California grocery stores in the 1970s, after her family came to the United State as refugees, fleeing the political turmoil of Vietnam.
Nguyen watched her mother, an accomplished cook in her own right, puzzle out swaps for the key ingredients she couldn’t then buy at the supermarket, like fish sauce. “Incorporating American workarounds while not compromising Vietnamese integrity created foodways that helped to define the Vietnamese American experience,” she writes. This unprecious approach to cooking is a theme that runs through the book, giving me permission to make my own substitutions while also honoring the spirit of the recipes.
For example, Nguyen’s recipe for Baby Kale Stir-Fried with Garlic is a speedy, easy side dish. You wilt those tender leaves and add a minimalist glaze of oyster sauce, fish sauce, sugar, garlic, and jalapeno. The flavor of the finished dish is beyond the sum of its parts.
I’m not a fan of the wet-tissue texture of cooked baby kale, but I loved the overall flavor so much I wanted to try again with different greens. One reason Nguyen chose baby kale for the recipe, according to her headnote, is that it requires almost no prep. The small leaves need no chopping, and you can usually buy them pre-washed. But she says in Vietnam, water spinach is the stir-fry green of choice. I am happy to do a little chopping and washing for a heartier bite, so I made the recipe again with mustard greens. Another time, I used grown-up kale. Now, instead of a single recipe I might or might not cook again, this has become a back-pocket technique for cooking whatever greens I get at the farmers market or Asian market, Viet-style.
Of course, there are recipes I will make to the letter again and again. I knew Nguyen’s Curry-Scented Grilled Beef Lettuce Wraps would become an instant favorite in my kitchen as they sizzled away in my skillet, perfuming my house with curry and beef fat. The seasoned meat mixture is studded with chopped peanuts, a twist I hadn’t encountered before that made them a notch more interesting.
Nestled into butter lettuce cups on cushions of rice noodles, splashed with Nguyen’s Nuoc Cham Dipping Sauce that could enhance almost any recipe in the book, and topped with a few fresh herbs, this dish is worth the price of the book. I wouldn’t change a thing, though I’m sure Nguyen wants you to feel free to. In fact, when I Instagrammed about this recipe, she replied that there are “many uses” for these crave-able bites and that one reader made them as straight-up full-size hamburgers.
I guarded the leftovers jealously, refusing to let my husband pack them for lunch. I had other plans. I wanted to explore “rice paper rolls 101.” This isn’t a recipe at all, but a two-page spread with photos that lays out Nguyen’s template for making these absurdly good, somehow both light and satisfying, snacks. Her instructions are specific, vivid, and usable (for example, she writes the water you twirl your wrappers in should be “a little hotter than bath water”). She warns that soaking the wrappers could lead to the heartbreak of mid-bite breakage, and a quick dunk followed by a one-minute wait works best.
She doesn’t mention all that many specific ingredients for filling, but I availed myself of leftover beef patties (cut into pieces), leftover rice noodles, herbs, that aforementioned Nuoc Cham, and some Any Day Viet Pickle, which I also had hanging around my refrigerator. Thanks to her guidelines, I rolled with great confidence and gusto and now feel pretty accomplished in the rice paper roll making department, like I could improvise with ease given any assortment of filling ingredients.
Many of the recipes in the book push the boundaries of what we think of as Vietnamese food. There’s an of-the-moment riff on Cauliflower “Wings.” You’ll find the cross-culture remix that is Vietnamese Empanadas. There’s a Viet-Cajun Seafood Boil, Nguyen’s California-influenced take on a tradition with roots in the Vietnamese community of Texas.
My favorite such curveball recipe is the Lemongrass Tempeh Crumbles, in which Nguyen applies her flavors to a distinctly non-Vietnamese main ingredient. Here, crumbled tempeh (which, again, Nguyen describes precisely–the pieces should be “broken into thumbnail-size chunks) is sauteed in a preponderance of heady minced lemongrass (a full ½ cup) as well as garlic, shallot, and hot sauce. I had more success using a nonstick skillet for this recipe (my first effort got a bit over-browned thanks to the tempeh sticking to my skillet), so keep that in mind if you make it.
My other words are warning are few. The book’s any day-ness belies the fact that these recipes taste best in combination with one another, so I was typically making two or three things, plus rice, when I cooked from the book. Of course, leftovers are very welcome since they mix and match easily. You get a lot of mileage from one batch of nuoc cham or pickles, and having them on hand will likely inspire your cooking in unexpectedly Viet ways.
This is Nguyen’s sixth cookbook. She’s been collecting awards for her writing for years. When she isn’t writing, she leads cooking classes, so I never doubted her expertise or that these recipes would work and taste great. What I didn’t anticipate was how the things I learned from her through reading her thoughts on shopping and improvising flavors would make me feel smarter in my own kitchen and in the aisles of the supermarket.
I sometimes find myself fretting when cooking foods from other folks’ cultures. I don’t want to dishonor the dishes with my mistakes or assess them with my raised-on-Doritos American palate. I don’t want to diminish an author’s generations-old spice blend by using just the eight that I have when her recipe calls for nine. I want to honor recipes from around the globe by cooking them right, which often means I never cook them at all. Nguyen dissolved any such anxieties like a pinch of sugar whisked into lime juice.
In Vietnamese Food Any Day, Nguyen gave me permission to experiment and adapt, to try and fail, to make do with what I already have close at hand because it is usually enough to make dinner–and even give it a Viet twist. Now I can freestyle rice papers rolls, stir-fry from my farmers market, mix Middle Eastern and Southeast Asian ingredients, and yes, even tweak leftover takeout.
Vietnamese Food Any Day: Simple Recipes for True, Fresh Flavors is April’s selection for the Edible Cookbook Club, a virtual dinner party that allows readers and home cooks to experience the recipes together and share our thoughts and photos online. We’ll choose a new cookbook to work our way through each month. Join us in our facebook group and share your pictures on social with the hashtag #EdibleCookbookClub.