It was May 1975 when Andrea Nguyen stood in front of the Albertsons produce aisle, bundled in a jacket that protected her from the spring chill of Southern California, more than 8,000 miles from her former home in a much warmer Saigon, Vietnam.
Before her 6-year-old eyes, the produce looked luxurious: grapes, apples, oranges. And familiar: lemons, lettuce, cilantro and mint.
Fish sauce and rice paper would later make it even better. But for starters, mealtime in the U.S. was looking promising for the young Nguyen and her family, who were part of the first wave of refugees to leave Vietnam.
Leap ahead to 2019. You can still find her wandering the supermarket in whatever city she finds herself. The prolific writer (six cookbooks — one of which won a 2018 James Beard award — and numerous food articles) has a particular interest in what can be found at local supermarkets, which she taps for her new book, “Vietnamese Food Any Day,” a volume that focuses on simplified classic dishes. Nguyen will be in Minneapolis on April 8 for a panel discussion on Asian authenticity (information at right) and, yes, she plans on touring local markets. Find her at vietworldkitchen.com.
Q: Which ingredient did you miss the most from Vietnam as a child?
A: We couldn’t get fish sauce, and that’s the linchpin ingredient for a lot of savory dishes. We subbed La Choy soy sauce. It was OK, but it motivated us to buy a used car to drive to Chinatown in Los Angeles, which was a three-hour round trip.
Q: Were you expected to blend into U.S. life?
A: My parents really wanted us have our feet in two worlds, both in America and with our Vietnamese-ness. So even when the Little Saigon community developed nearby, they didn’t move. They said, ‘We want you to be Americans. But we’re going to speak Vietnamese at home and eat Vietnamese at home.’ You blend the best of two cultures together. After the decades of colonialism that my parents had grown up in, they weren’t giving up who we were.
Q: How difficult is it to make Vietnamese food?
A: This book allows me to bring Vietnamese food to a much broader audience. I’ve lived in the U.S. most of my life. I make food of many different cultures and think everyone should incorporate Vietnamese food into their repertoire. The ingredients are within reach — no Asian markets required — the flavors are friendly and there’s a lot of wiggle room in making it.
Q: Vietnamese food seems to be landing on the radar of many cooks. Why now?
A: I couldn’t have written this book five or six years ago. But now, with the popularity of pho, bánh mì and rice paper rolls, these are like the trifecta, the gateway dishes to Vietnamese food. You can make them fairly easily, depending on what you have on hand. There are many dishes in this book that don’t require simmering things for a long time, but have workarounds with a pressure cooker and even with chopping, where you can use a food processor. In Vietnam, we buy already chopped vegetables. I can buy 5 cents’ worth of lemongrass or chiles there. We as American cooks don’t understand that it’s OK to take shortcuts.
Q: Best tip?
A: Stock up. Fresh lemongrass can be frozen. So can Thai chiles. If you only need two chiles, buy more and put the rest in the freezer for another meal. Use lemongrass paste if you can’t find it fresh. It’s old-school cooking and grocery shopping.
Q: What starter recipes are good for those new to the cuisine?
A: You need to know how to make rice, nuoc cham [a dipping sauce; recipe at right] and how to roll rice paper. Well, and how to make caramel sauce. It’s not the stuff of ice cream; it’s almost burnt sugar, used in all three regions of Vietnam. The basics chapter isn’t for babies — it’s the foundation of this cuisine. If you can make a good pot of rice, your life is golden forever. The dipping sauce is also important. There are multiple ways of making it, vegetarian or otherwise. I’ve broken it down to stages and made it since I was a kid. As for rice paper, you can wrap up practically anything in it.
Q: How is the book structured?
A: Each chapter has a journey and a lesson. Every recipe has a reason to be there. With each chapter, the recipes at the beginning are easy and approachable. Then I push you with a technique or ingredient. I call those stretch recipes. I’ve got you hooked in, so I’m going to keep pushing you. By the end of the chapter, you are conceptually at the graduate level. I’m trying to be as generous as possible with information in the book so you understand why you’re doing something.