Vietnamese: Simple Vietnamese Food to Cook at Home is the second book from food writer Uyen Luu, following on from her debut book, My Vietnamese Kitchen. In that first book Uyen related her personal story – including memories of younger years in Vietnam before her family moved to London, introduced readers to the culture and cuisine of Vietnam, and explained the basics of Vietnamese food and cooking to an audience that was perhaps less familiar with it than they may be today. In this second book, Uyen’s focus is on demonstrating how quick and easy it can be to whip up anything from a simple Vietnamese supper to a feast.
The book shares over 85 recipes, offering a mix of strictly traditional and those with a modern twist, as befits the way we mix and match global influences in our cooking today. The majority of ingredients are readily available in supermarkets, with the occasional few easy to buy via online specialists.
Today, Uyen is a successful food writer, food photographer, food stylist and film maker creating professional content for newspapers and magazines, books, commercials and television. She also teaches Vietnamese cookery, and has taught chefs including Jamie Oliver and Gennaro Contaldo.
I’ve known Uyen for as long as I’ve been writing Kavey Eats, having met her in the heady days of her supper club (one of the first, and best, in London), when both of us were also part of a new community of amateur cooks and bloggers. I have happy memories of being sat at long tables laden with food in her living room-cum-supper club, and in the years that followed, of relaxing in her kitchen cooking, chatting and eating – I tested several recipes for her first cookbook, some in her kitchen and some in mine.
More than 8 years on, I was delighted to be one of an army of 80 recipe testers for Vietnamese, affording me a sneak preview of recipes in the new book. Uyen uses feedback from testers to understand how different people interpret instructions, which she then uses to refine recipes, ensuring they are as clear and accurate as possible. This is a key factor in why her recipes are so easy to follow, and having seen a few cookbooks in the last year or two with rather ambiguous instructions, is something I particularly appreciate. That said, I’ve discovered a couple of errors and omissions and would appreciate an Errata List that readers could print and slip inside the book to allow them to identify these.
To start the book, Uyen’s personal introduction explains how the Vietnamese show the strength of their affections through the preparation and serving of food to their loved ones; the kitchen is the backbone of the Vietnamese home and the dining table a happy place of shared meals. Food is for sharing! The wide range of Vietnamese dishes need only a handful of essential ingredients, and the cuisine has a focus on seasonality, locality, and making do with what you have available. We are encouraged to adapt and experiment, to our own tastes or to substitute when we can’t get hold of a particular ingredient – this is very much in the Vietnamese spirit of cooking. Above all we are urged “to eat well, eat fresh, eat responsibly and eat together; which promotes happiness and a feeling of well-being“.
Next are pages covering the Vietnamese pantry essential ingredients and Uyen’s kitchen tips (such as using scissors to quickly cut herbs and some vegetables, and a range of tools and equipment that will come in handy).
In terms of how to use the book, Uyen advises to always read the recipe all the way through before starting, so that there are no surprises and she also recommends organising your prepped ingredients so they are readily to hand. Of course, there’s a reminder that recipes can always be made in larger quantities so that leftovers can be enjoyed a few days later. Making Ahead is a feature of the book, as many of the recipes have some steps that can be completed in advance, and the rest done on the day. Some recipes, such as the Braised Pork Belly, can be cooked completely in advance, as they only get better with time and are perfect choices for reheating to serve.
Recipe chapters reflect how the various dishes are most commonly eaten: Things to Eat with Rice, Sharing Vegetables, Proper Salads – Vietnamese-Style, Feasting, Heavenly Noodle Soups, Quick Midweek Meals, Sweet Things, and Basics (where you’ll find instructions on cooking rice and noodles, and on making pickles and dipping sauces). However these are understandably loose groupings given that many dishes could easily fit into more than one chapter; Ginger Chicken, Caramelised Hake with Fish Sauce and Ginger, and Fried Brill with a Chilli-Lime Sweet and Sour Sauce are under Things to Eat with Rice but are also ideal for Quick Midweek Meals, as are Tofu Pillows, Tomatoes and Broccoli in Fish Sauce, from the Sharing Vegetables section. In short, use the chapters as a quick way to find the type of dishes you want, but don’t feel constrained about when and how to eat the dishes within!
Each chapter has its own Introduction from Uyen that gives context to the recipes that follow, interlaced with memories from her childhood in Vietnam and her life in London, and stories about how the dishes in that chapter are typically enjoyed. She recalls how her mother adapted Vietnamese recipes to use readily available British vegetables such as cabbage, cauliflower, and watercress – indeed Uyen’s recipes include vegetables such as asparagus, Jerusalem artichoke, samphire which are unknown in Vietnamese cuisine. Salads in Vietnam carry none of the diet and deprivation association that they do here; instead they are “a riot of leaves, herbs, cucumber, noodles, pickles and deliciously cooked meat“, often rolled up in a crêpe or wrap and finished with intense, punchy dressings. We learn that feasts are a big deal, and always a big affair, with plenty of food and friends, a larger version of everyday family meals with even more sharing and memory-making! When it comes to noodle soups, it’s all about the broth, an infusion of flavours from an array of ingredients; some that can be reasonably quick to make and others that require dedication, both in assembling the ingredients and giving them the time to give their best to the broth. Keeping a pantry stocked with the basics makes it easy to throw together quick meals with whatever fresh ingredients are in the fridge, including leftovers. Sweets should not be overlooked, much loved as they are by the Vietnamese, and the recipes in this chapter make for great gifts to show affection.
I like that recipes are titled with both their English-language name and the original Vietnamese, helping me learn (a little) as I read. Where a Vietnamese term (such as phở) is well known in the UK, that is used in both titles, e.g. Beef Phở / Phở Bò. In the recipe introductions Uyen gives a quick description of the dish, and how it’s usually eaten. Ingredients and method are straightforward. Below many of the recipes are notes on which elements of the recipe can be made ahead, and by how many days – this ties into Uyen’s aim to showcase how easy it is to incorporate Vietnamese food into your everyday cooking.
Styling throughout the book is attractive, from its pretty pink cover with an embossed and gilded illustration of noodle salad (I’m a sucker for textured covers, and spot inks), to the colourful blockprint illustrations at the start of each chapter.
Photography, styled and photographed by Uyen Luu and Aya Nishimura, is bright and attractive, and shows off the recipes beautifully and I’m glad to see that every single recipe is illustrated. I feel so much more confident in choosing a recipe to make if I know what it the finished dish should look like!
The recipe Uyen gave me to test ahead of publication is not one I would naturally have picked to make, and yet we absolutely loved it – a good reminder to try dishes outside of your instinctive comfort zone now and again, and to give those you’re not naturally drawn to a go. That recipe was Sea bass in Tomato & Dill Broth (Canh Chua Lá Thì Là) and I was enchanted not only by the flavours but also the dual nature of it – chunks of moist fish to dip into a chilli sauce and eat, and a gently flavoured broth to enjoy as a light soup alongside.
The first recipe we tried on receiving the book is one of the simplest, perfect for a quick meal midweek or whenever you’re short on time. Ginger Chicken (Gà Kho Gừng) has sweetness from caramelised sugar, shallots and coconut water, savouriness from chicken and fish sauce, and heat from the ginger, chillies and black pepper. The spring onion garnish adds freshness and a little crunch. The dish is quick to make, and is ready in little longer than it takes to cook the rice to serve with it. This is simple and satisfying comfort food, a dish to throw together quickly when seeking lots of flavour in a short time frame.
We struggled a little with the Soy Aubergines with Thai Basil (Cà Tím Xào Nước Tương) which directs you to steam the aubergine chunks for “5 minutes until tender” before going on to stir-fry for 3-4 minutes. I don’t think our chunks were larger than shown in the recipe photograph but certainly they needed quite a lot longer steaming to become tender, and although we doubled the timings provided for both stages, they were still not fully soft and cooked through. The flavours were good so we’ll try again with longer cooking times.
Another excellent comfort food dish was Chicken Curry with Squash (Cà Ri Gà Bí). Uyen describes it as a “mild, slurpy curry meant to be dipped and mopped up with crispy Vietnamese baguettes or steamed rice” and that’s spot on. Easy to make courtesy of the combination of ready made curry powder enhanced with lemongrass, shallots, ginger, garlic and coconut milk, it’s also appealingly colourful thanks to the bright yellow of the squash, the green of peas, spring onions and herbs, and red from the chillies.
One of the strengths of Vietnamese is that, whilst Uyen’s recipes are firmly based on Vietnamese flavours, cooking techniques and ways of eating, they are also written with UK cooks in mind in terms of what is available to buy here, and in how the instructions are given – as with any cuisine, some things that go without saying to native or very experienced cooks will not be obvious at all to those less familiar. For those looking to introduce Vietnamese food into their regular repertoire, this is a great addition to the bookshelf.
Recipes From Vietnamese
We are delighted to share these three recipes from the book, with permission from publisher Hardie Grant.
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Kavey Eats received a review copy of Vietnamese: Simple Vietnamese Food to Cook at Home by Uyen Luu from publisher Hardie Grant.