Andrea Nguyen Talks Vietnamese: Fish Sauce, Lemongrass and the Best Pho in San Francisco

Andrea Nguyen is the author of Into the Vietnamese Kitchen: Treasured Foodways, Modern Flavors.

Andrea Nguyen is the author of Into the Vietnamese
Kitchen: Treasured Foodways, Modern Flavors.

The first thing I notice about Andrea Nguyen, as she strolls through the crowded dining room, is the crinkly good humor in her eyes and her winning smile. Being female, the second thing I notice is her hair. It is thick and black, and the cut is casual chic with a few jagged ends, almost—but not quite–as if she had scissored it herself. Dressed in a tight zip up Juicy Couture-style jacket, she stands out among the woozy academic types ruminating over breakfast this chilly spring morning.

At 39, Nguyen is arguably the most compelling voice in the American Vietnamese food world. Her 2006 cookbook, Into the Vietnamese Kitchen: Treasured Food Ways, Modern Flavors was a finalist for the James Beard Award of Excellence and garnered a Chicago Tribune review that compared her to Julia Child. The book, written in a friendly, down to earth style, not only clarifies Vietnam’s somewhat mystifying culinary heritage, but also explains in detail the role of such unfamiliar ingredients as fish sauce—where it came from, how it’s made and why you might add salt to this already salty condiment. In the nicest possible way, it establishes the author as an authority on the food of her homeland.

The Child approach is also evident in the way Nguyen carefully delineates each step of the book’s 175 recipes. This is essential if you’re Western and trying to make gio thu, Vietnamese headcheese, for the first time. That recipe begins: “Examine the [pig’s] ears for stray hairs and use a sharp knife to scrape and remove any you find. If there are lots of hairs, remove just the long ones. Hairs on the rim can get cut off later. A few short ones are okay.” I myself have made gio thu, but I can assure you, I missed the hairs.

And though the recipes are clearly authentic, each also reflects Nguyen’s very modern, practical sensibility. In Vietnam, we learn, “birds the size of sparrows” were boiled and fried by itinerant, somewhat secretive Chinese cooks, and then eaten “bones and all.” Using her mother’s memory of this delicacy as a springboard, Nguyen has developed a tasty recipe that can be recreated in Western kitchens. She substitutes quail for the unnamed, sparrow-like birds, and, instead of boiling, steams them to preserve the flavors of the ginger-rice wine marinade before coating them with honey and soy sauce and deep frying them. The flavors and crispy skin are true to the original, even if the methods have changed.

When I met her for breakfast in Chapel Hill a few weeks ago, Nguyen told me: “I want to be your friend in the kitchen. Not your mother and certainly not my mother. But I want to persuade you to use the best ingredients and the correct methods. I want to explain Viet home cooking to you, and show you how real people actually do it.” This is about as far from the celebrity chef approach as you can get: No shouting, no weird adaptations, no food porn–just careful, loving attention to the way dishes are prepared and eaten at home.

Nguyen has created a big on-line presence via her website and blog at vietworldkitchen.com. As she describes it, the website is “an information hub dedicated to providing knowledge on Vietnamese culinary traditions.” It’s the place to go if you want to learn about the sticky rice cakes served at Tet, the Vietnamese lunar new year; how to use pungent shrimp sauce (and what brands to buy); and even how to pronounce Viet food words. There are dozens of recipes, as well, including many from her cookbook. But it’s on the blog that you really get a sense of what’s happening in the Viet food world. Here Nguyen holds lively, opinionated conversations with her readers about topics such as authenticity in Viet cooking, the best fish sauces and the feasibility of establishing a Vietnamese restaurant empire in the U.S.

The following interview took place at the Carolina Inn in Chapel Hill, N.C. in mid-April when Nguyen was here to preside over a dinner at the Lantern Restaurant featuring recipes from her cookbook. It was sold out, by the way: Over 60 of us sampled five courses featuring locally raised pork and vegetables paired with Spanish sherry and wines. Dishes like Ficklecreek Farm Pork Terrine—a version of gio thu, or headcheese—served on Banh Mi, the classic French Vietnamese baguette sandwich, put a local spin on this evolving Southeast Asian cuisine–without, I suspect, losing a whit of authenticity.

How would you explain Vietnamese cooking to someone who had never tasted it?

It’s a crazy animal of its own. It’s the intersection of Asian cuisines. It’s not Thai, or Chinese or Cambodian, but the blending of all those cuisines with influences from France and now the U.S.

Why is that?

Geography. Vietnam is a long narrow country with a coastline about the length of the [American] Eastern seaboard that has invited foreign contacts with new ideas and flavors. Roman coins have been discovered at the Oc Eo site in the lower Mekong River delta. Hoi An was a major trading post and there were once Chinese, Dutch, Japanese and Indian residents there. Also consider the 1,000 years of Chinese domination—we’re the only Southeast Asian cuisine that uses chopsticks– and 75 years of French.

Vietnam, as we know its borders today, has been that way only since 1802, when it was unified under Emperor Gia Long.

What sort of influence has the U.S. had on Vietnamese cuisine?

Access to more western ingredients like white flour, refined sugar and butter. There’s more meat here, particularly beef and chicken, which are expensive in Vietnam. Shaking beef, where cubes of beef are seared by shaking them in a hot skillet, is not regular homey fare, but it has become popular here due to crossover restaurants needing a steak-like option for customers. Over time Vietnamese Americans and Vietnamese restaurants are picking up on the trend too.

Is there a single Vietnamese dish that reflects all those influences?

The banh mi sandwich. You look at it and go, “Oh, it’s a baguette sandwich.” But actually it reflects a lot of the influences of Vietnamese cooking. The diner gets to decide what goes on it: mayonnaise, soy, cilantro, chilies. You can have beef, char siu pork, garlicky chicken or Vietnamese cold cuts like gio thu, a headcheese made of pig ears, pork tongue and pork shank. At the end of the day, you can have it your way.

What are some of the principal flavor combinations in Vietnamese cooking?

People think of Vietnamese as light and refreshing and it is – with the lime, chile, fish sauce and herbs. But it can get funky and murky too. Galangal, turmeric and shrimp paste are a classic flavor combination in turtle or dog stew. These same ingredients are used in Indonesian cooking, but the flavors tend to be more layered and intense because they’re used in large quantities and rendered down into a concentrated level.

Have you ever eaten such a stew? What’s it like?

I make a mock turtle stew with pork, plantain and fried tofu, and I grew up with my Mom’s mock dog stew. But there are other dishes with this flavor profile.

Cha Ca (also known as Cha Ca Ha Noi Cha Ca Thanh Long) is catfish marinated in turmeric, galangal juice and shrimp sauce. It’s served with rice noodles, lettuce, herbs and a great tangy-sweet dipping sauce with lime, sugar and shrimp and fish sauce. It’s a favorite dish.

Another classic flavor combination is lemongrass, shallot and garlic. In my cookbook there’s a recipe for chicken stir fried with lemon grass and chile. You add Madras curry powder and fish sauce, but instead of simmering in a sauce, all the ingredients are stir fried so they retain their individuality.

With the curry powder and stir frying, that sounds like another multicultural dish.

Definitely. That method combines Chinese stir-frying with common Southeast Asian ingredients like lemongrass and fish sauce and an Indian spice blend.

When I think of Vietnamese cooking, I also think of fragrant herbs and lettuce wraps.

Yes, I don’t know any other Asian cuisine that wraps as extensively. There’s always a gigantic plate of lettuce and herbs that comes with so many dishes as a garnish. I may grill or deep fry, but then offset with light, bright flavors of herbs like the Vietnamese balm, fish mint and sorrel that come with Cha Ca. You’re encouraged to play with your food.

How about spices?

We don’t use spices as extensively as Malay and Indonesian cuisines. Vietnam was not part of the ancient spice route. But we do use peppercorns, cinnamon and star anise in certain dishes because they’re grown in Vietnam.

The broth for pho bo, for example, is flavored with star anise and cinnamon, as well as charred fresh ginger and onion. Bo kho is a beef stew simmered with tomato, star anise and lemongrass.

In your book, you describe fish sauce as the keystone of Vietnamese cooking.

Fish sauce, or nuoc mam, is ancient. The Chinese were using fermented marine products centuries ago and it’s not inconceivable that the idea came to Vietnam during the Chinese domination that lasted from 111 BC to AD 939. It’s easy to see how it developed: you have fish and hot weather, and the need to extend it. It’s a practical approach. You can mix chunks of fish and salt and leave it to ferment. It will digest itself. It’s very nutritious and full of amino acids.

In the west, there’s a misconception about fish sauce. It is not stinky or fishy. It sounds unpleasant, but high quality fish sauce is a delicate condiment that lends a savory or aromatic quality to foods. Fish sauce rounds flavors and puts a Vietnamese stamp on dishes. You might even simmer foods in fish sauce to preserve them.

I often use it in conjunction with salt, even though it is salty on its own. Old fashioned Vietnamese cookbooks always say to add salt until it is vua vua, just to taste.

Why add salt if it is already salty?

The savoriness of salt and fish sauce are two different flavors—like two different hues of the same color. The combination tends to harmonize flavor. Also, people tend to use different brands of nuoc mam and to equalize things, just add a little salt and back off the fish sauce. When blending sauces and seasonings that include soy sauce, a little salt is often included.

What brand of nuoc mam do you recommend?

Here in the U.S. I use Viet Huong’s Three Crabs and Flying Lion’s Phu Quoc brands. Actually they’re both made by the same manufacturer. The best fish sauce comes from Phu Quoc and Phan Thiet, where it’s made in wooden casks and earthenware jugs. Look for those place names on the label. You should avoid any fish sauce that is very dark and salty. Good fish sauce looks reddish brown and clear, and its flavor is pleasant and fresh-tasting.

Actually, there are three grades of fish sauce in Vietnam: First, a high quality one for eating with rice at the table; second, for making dipping sauces with lime juice; and third, a lower grade for cooking. But here I exclusively use high grade sauce since at around $3.50 a bottle, it doesn’t break my budget.

You and your family came to California when you were only seven years old. What’s it like to go back?

It’s very shocking for overseas Vietnamese to go back to the motherland. You look around and say, “This is where I’m from,” but everything is different. When I returned for the first time in 2003, I didn’t quite feel at home because I was born there but grew up in the U.S. I don’t look like the typical Vietnamese person either because I’m taller, bigger, I grew up on lots of good American food and good nutrition, and my hair is short. Many people were surprised that I could speak Vietnamese.

Plus, you’re used to a certain comfort level in the U.S. Like many returning overseas Vietnamese, I worried about getting sick from drinking the water and eating raw foods there. But you can’t enjoy Viet food without the herbs and if I saw other people (locals) eat their herbs, I would too.

In Vietnam, there’s a frontier mentality. You don’t quite know what’s going to happen next. People are hyper-entrepreneurial. It has changed much over time and with each visit, I feel much more at ease.

What’s the first thing you eat when you go back?

I have to have a bowl of pho for breakfast. And there are all kinds of snacky things. You never know what you’ll stumble on. A sticky rice vendor will sell different kinds of freshly made sticky rice treats. Or maybe I’ll find someone selling delicious banh mi sandwiches.

Pho is one of those iconic Vietnamese dishes that seems to have been shaped by a variety of influences. Could you describe it?

Pho developed in the north during the 1800’s after Vietnam was colonized by the French. When cows were slaughtered for beef, the local people picked up the parts that the French didn’t want to use. So in the beginning it was a soup, made of beef bones and tough, stewy type cuts, flavored with fish sauce, and with star anise and cinnamon, which are grown in the north. It had small flat rice noodles which likely came from Southern China, and charred onion and ginger which are uniquely Vietnamese.

In 1954 when northern Vietnamese families migrated south, southern Vietnamese started enjoying the soup. The bowls got bigger, because everything is bigger and better in the South, and they added bean sprouts and herbs like Thai basil and offered hoisin sauce and chile sauce as accompaniments.

These days, pho bo can be made with fancier cuts of meat like eye of round and even filet mignon, but you should start with a broth made from knuckle and leg bones with marrow. Some restaurants also serve pho ga, which is made from chicken and is delicately flavored with coriander seeds and cilantro.

When you eat pho in Vietnam, where do you go?

Pho 24 is a nice national chain, sort of like Starbucks. On my last trip back in March, I really liked the half price place next to my hotel, the Sommerset Chancellor Court, in Saigon. I was attracted to it because it advertised being Pho Bac. “Bac” means northern so when you see Pho Bac, that signals that the proprietors are trying to prepare hard-core, old-fashioned pho without all the accoutrements of southern-style pho. Then there were the disheveled young men who made the soup. You didn’t think they could put out a decent bowl, but they did, even when the kung fu movie was playing on TV at night.

Like a lot of other families, yours left Vietnam in a hurry taking only family photos, jewelry and recipes. [Nguyen's family was airlifted from Saigon in 1975.] This seems to happen all over the world. Why is it always the photos, jewelry and recipes?

You’re under a lot of pressure, so you take your most valuable possessions. Photos of family members are a form of identity. Jewelry you take because you can sell it for money, but you can also wear it to look good. Recipes so you can feed yourself. All these items sustain you in different ways. It’s the notion of stability. When you put them together, you are grounded. They give a sense of self when you are jumping off into the unknown.

Your mother gave you the orange recipe book she brought from Vietnam. Did you have an epiphany or a moment when you knew food would be your life?

I had always wanted to do something in food, but as the first generation in the U.S., I did what was expected. I got a B.A. in banking at the University of Southern California. My husband, who was in a PhD program in political science, was so excited. He thought, “I’ve got my meal ticket.”

If I had been born here, I could have pursued a more impractical career, like writing or working in a restaurant. Actually, I did work at City Restaurant in L.A. with Mary Sue Milliken and Sue Fenniger. My mom was so embarrassed, yet it was her love of food and her curiosity that got me into it. At the end of the year my Dad did a complete turnabout and asked if I wanted to go to cooking school.

Anyway, I got a job as a university administrator and started writing restaurant reviews. I always thought I couldn’t get into the food world, but I had ideas about subjects that no one was writing about. I noticed that Saveur was taking a fresh approach to food and I wrote Colman Andrews a query letter. My first article for them was on my mom’s mooncakes. Then I developed my website and a proposal for my cookbook.

Vietworldkitchen.com is amazing. It’s like the place to go for anything you could possibly want to know about Vietnamese cooking. And now you have a blog as well. What’s been the benefit of all that?

The internet has opened up the conversation. Whether you ever have anything printed on paper, your ideas will be heard. It has democratized the food world.

When my cookbook came out, people wanted me to blog. I thought, “Why do people want to know some of the weird stuff on my mind?” But it is a great way to represent yourself on line, and to encourage discussion.

There’s an interesting thread on your blog about authenticity in Vietnamese cooking. How would you define it?

Well, the food has to taste good. You have to use the very best, well-crafted ingredients you can afford, with a sensibility of how flavors and techniques come together. You need to know the fundamentals before you start riffing. So often people just throw a lot of stuff together and make it too fussy. That’s not Vietnamese, and definitely not good cooking.

I don’t know if you can pinpoint authenticity in a particular dish. It’s always moving and changing. But it has to be grounded in the fundamentals, even if it’s going to take off in some other direction. Unless you understand pho, it would be a disservice to the cuisine to make it with seafood.

The vegetable chapter in my book begins with a recipe for vegetables boiled in salted water, refreshed in cold water and served with a dipping sauce. In a way, that’s not a “recipe,” but it is authentically how the Vietnamese people commonly eat their vegetables.

There’s a good demo on your blog about how to make the caramel sauce which is used in so many recipes in your book. But caramel seems like something out of left field. Is it a legacy of the French?

No, it’s not French. It was originally boiled fresh coconut water and it involves the notion of burning sugar and simmering food in inky, savory sauces. It’s theoretically like red cooking in China or adobo in the Philippines. It’s actually done all over Asia. In Vietnam, you can simmer foods in fish sauce blended with sugar and keep them for days without refrigeration.

Caramel sauce is used in kho dishes—homey, everyday dishes–to impart sweet-savory flavors to simple foods using just a few ingredients. My recipe for chicken and ginger simmered in caramel sauce uses boneless, skinless chicken thighs cooked with a few tablespoons of caramel sauce, fish sauce, water and salt to create a rich, reddish brown, bittersweet sauce. It’s like the burned end of a roast. It’s what’s known as the Maillard effect.

So can you get authentic Vietnamese food in the U.S.?

Oh, yes. Ha Nam Ninh Vietnamese Restaurant [337 Jones, between Eddy and Sacramento] in San Francisco, has great pho. You can get good banh mi sandwiches at New Paris Bakery in Sacramento [6901 Stockton Blvd. #300]. Their bread is amazingly good. In Asia, people tend to specialize in one dish, like pho or sticky rice. In the U.S. they tend to serve everything. So you should look for the restaurants that specialize.

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