We Americans love to selectively adopt dishes from distant cuisines, like sushi or tacos, leaving the rest of the cuisine behind. We have gleefully grafted the bánh mì sandwich to the American menu as well. But there’s much more to Vietnamese food than a cool sandwich.
Cameron Stauch wants to offer a fuller, more plant-based picture of Vietnamese cuisine. In his new book, “Vegetarian Viêt Nam” (W.W. Norton and Co., 327 pages, $35), he takes you on a deep dive. Follow along and you’ll have a taste of the spirit of Vietnamese cooking.
“Vietnamese cooks are fabulously creative and resourceful. They produce vibrant and complex flavors using freshly picked seasonal produce,” said Stauch.
That bánh mì, for example, is a leftover from the French Colonial period. The French taught the locals to make baguettes, and the Vietnamese people started making sandwiches with tart pickled daikon and fresh herbs to suit their own palates.
Stauch, a Canadian chef, is married to a career diplomat, and moved to Vietnam in 2012. He immersed himself in the food of the region and, due to his vegetarian son, took a special interest in the meatless traditions there. He ate in cities and small towns, he visited Buddhist monks and nuns and cooked with them. Stauch learned from professionals and home cooks alike.
He sampled vegetarian dishes that had been perfected over the centuries by Buddhists who avoid meat. He ate traditional fare, too, and created meatless versions, saying: “The vegetarian adaptations wonderfully mimic the flavors, textures and essence of the traditional meat and seafood dishes.”
Vietnamese food is complex, with savory, spicy, tangy and herbal elements balanced just so in each dish. Stauch recommends seeking out authentic ingredients, such as tamarind, lemongrass or perilla leaf (any number of different plant species in the mint family).
“I’ve presented the recipes and their ingredients as I experienced them. It’s important to me that cooks first experience those similar flavors. Then go ahead and make seasonal vegetable substitutions. I’d prefer cooks don’t leave out any ingredients as the success of Vietnamese dishes relies on the layering of ingredients and their flavors and textures.”
At the beginning of the book, he has a glossary of ingredients, and also a chapter on making prep items used throughout the book, such as mushroom powder, annatto seed oil, shallot oil and more. None of them take long to make, and once prepped, offer the true flavors of Vietnam.
The book’s mouthwatering photos will have you craving the Fresh Swiss Chard Rolls, Translucent Mung Bean Dumplings, Green Papaya Salad, Squash and Sweet Potato Coconut Milk Soup, Fragrant Lemongrass Hue Style Noodle Soup, Crispy Rice and Mung Bean Crêpes, and more.
Because there’s more to Vietnam than a sandwich.
Robin Asbell is a cooking instructor and author of “Big Vegan,” “The Whole Grain Promise” and “Great Bowls of Food.” Find her at robinasbell.com.