At the end of every year I go on a small cookbook buying spree. It’s not for tax reasons but rather small gifts to myself. Who else knows what I want better than I do? I’ve been buying cookbooks for about twenty years and my library currently contains about 400 volumes. Last week, I grew the Vietnamese portion of collection to eighty with two chef memoir-cum-recipe books. To indirectly boost the Viet works, I also acquired a work on African cooking. Now, I'm eyeing a new work on Southeast Asian cuisines. If you're interested in Vietnamese and/or Southeast Asian food, take a serious look at these four titles.
The Vietnamese cookbooks were written by overseas chefs Pauline and Luke Nguyen and Bobby Chinn. The Nguyens (no relation to me, please!) have a chic restaurant in Australia called Red Lantern. I picked up a copy of their hefty book in Shanghai last April. A beautifully designed publication, Secrets of the Red Lantern: Stories and Recipes from the Heart has since been released in the U.S. While the book's organization and recipes could have been presented and written better for home cooks (see our discussion on their bo kho beef stew that uses Coca Cola and Laughing Cow cheese), I found that the work offered interesting insights into the experience of Vietnamese immigrants to Australia. I’ve yet to visit the country but it has some of the finest ingredients for preparing Southeast Asian fare. It’s an interesting book for comparing and contrasting Vietnamese restaurant fare inside and outside of the motherland.
Bobby Chinn, the chef/owner of an eponymous restaurant in Hanoi, TV-show host of Asia Cafe and former comedian authored an interesting, if not somewhat crazy, cookbook called Wild, Wild East: Recipes and Stories from Vietnam (The title plays on the late 1960s TV series called Wild, Wild West starring Robert Conrad. Note the similar subtitles between Nguyen and Chinn’s books.) At the outset, you’ll encounter Chinn’s brash attitude, but dig a little deeper and you’ll discover that he respects the people and cuisine of Vietnam very much. There are riffs and fusion recipes based on Chinn’s high-end restaurant menu but what I found fascinating were recipes and discussion for everyday ingredients such as caramel sauce (nuoc mau), which employs 1 cup of palm sugar and 3/4 cup of water, all cooked together to a nearly burnt state. I use regular granulated sugar for my caramel sauce and Chinn's approach got me thinking about trying it out with palm sugar. The photos of people and food scenes from Vietnam are valuable in that they’re real and documentary.
Another work that I added to my library is not purely Vietnamese, but rather contains Viet recipes. After realizing that there are Vietnamese people living in Senegal, I got a copy of Yolele! Recipes from the Heart of Senegal by Pierre Thiam. Turns out that Thiam has a Vietnamese uncle and the book includes a few Vietnamese recipes, including ones for banh tom shrimp and sweet potato fritters and of course, nuoc cham dipping sauce. I wish there was more text to introduce all the recipes as that would to better understand the role of Vietnamese food in Senegalese cuisine.
The last Asian cookbook that’s worth investigating was authored by chef/instructor Robert Danhi, an Asian food expert who’s taught at the Culinary Institute of America for years. Southeast Asian Flavors is densely packed with photos and cultural information, including some terrific recipes collected from his travels to Vietnam. I’ve tasted Danhi's Vietnamese preparation of a simple roasted pork belly with chile salt and it’s great; you can sample the publication by checking out the cookbook's website (select downloadable recipes and video are included). The book has a recipe for Sriracha chile sauce but don’t expect the Vietnamese American stuff. The recipe reflects what is actually made in Sri Racha, a seaside city in Thailand. I’ve yet to get a copy of this book but look forward to owning it as a way to further make the connections between the foods of Southeast Asia.
Have any thoughts on these works? And, what new Asian cookbooks are you reading and cooking from?