Tofu, No Apologies: Interviewing with Food Writer Andrea Nguyen

Ever wonder what goes into a good, yummy bowl of pho? What about how to make the ever-popular banh mi, or how to make your own tofu? Andrea Nguyen, author of three Vietnamese and Asian cook books, is definitely the expert. diaCRITIC Kim-An Lieberman speaks to Andrea about her inspiration and her approach to making Vietnamese cooking easy for everyone.

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If, like me, you grew up in a home where cooking meant adding various ingredients “until it tastes right”—only to find that, as an adult, your every attempt to recreate a beloved dish just tastes wrong—then you understand why Andrea Nguyen’s cookbook Into the Vietnamese Kitchen became an instant classic upon its publication in 2006. Detailed, well-researched recipes demystify the traditions of Vietnamese cuisine in an intelligent and accessible format. For the Vietnamese diaspora, Into the Vietnamese Kitchen offers a way to reconnect with a deeply meaningful heritage of flavors and techniques. For all readers, Nguyen’s book is an invitation to explore the delicious world of Vietnamese cooking, and to reflect on their own personal histories with food. Nguyen continues to serve up culinary and cultural wisdom in her second book, Asian Dumplings, a step-by-step guide to all things yummy and dough-wrapped. She is now finalizing the manuscript for Asian Tofu, another cookbook forthcoming from Ten Speed Press in 2012. She also maintains a rich archive of recipes and food insights on her blog, Viet World Kitchen.

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to chat with Andrea Nguyen about everything from her new tofu book to contraband nước mắm and Rachael Ray’s bungling of phở. Take a read of our conversation below. Or click on one of the recipe links, head straight into your own kitchen, and start cooking!

Andrea Nguyen

Your first book was extremely successful and won an impressive list of awards and kudos. Why do you think it resonated with such a large audience?

I wanted to write a book that was about Vietnamese people who came to America, and the question is how do they preserve their heritage? Through food. I wanted to share what had not been communicated in other cookbooks: Vietnamese home cooking, which is very simple. I wanted to frame Vietnamese food in a way that people could understand it and begin to talk about it. A lot of older books written about Vietnamese food would scare me because the ingredient list was too long. Instead, I would read cookbooks from Vietnam (which was good, because it also helped me to practice my Vietnamese). The ones from Vietnam are written in an austere way; the number of ingredients tends to be very small. This made much more sense to me. I wanted to present Vietnamese food in the way that I enjoy it, how I cook it and how I know that other people do. Also, some Vietnamese Americans want to make complicated dishes like phở or bún bò Huế, because we can’t easily get it today—you can’t just go outside to a street vendor. And the market was ready because Vietnamese food and travel are very popular right now. For instance, bánh mì is very popular, but one of the things never presented is the whole range of cold cuts that you can use, the charcuterie. Into the Vietnamese Kitchen was in my brain since I was 10 years old, and I finally found a publisher who was willing.

Phở Bò - Beef Noodle Soup

Do you actually use Into the Vietnamese Kitchen in your own kitchen?

I use it all the time! I have the very first copy: I call it Number One. All the pages are torn. My mother uses it, too. Last year, my mom cooked a menu for my dad’s 80th birthday, entirely from Into the Vietnamese Kitchen. She tells me, “I’m so proud of you. I haven’t written down all these details, but you did.” She’s always telling her Vietnamese friends to get the book for their children as a way to pass down that part of their culture.

You have cited several different influences in your development as both a cook and a writer—watching Julia Child and Martin Yan on PBS, working in the restaurant and catering industry, earning a graduate degree in business communications, inheriting family recipes. When did you realize that you wanted to focus professionally on food writing?

It was very simple. I’m a first-generation (1.5) immigrant, and I always had this interest in food, but I was supposed to be a banker. I was fairly good at math, but I hated accounting. I knew that all my debits and credits had to equal, but it was just not my thing! I always had this lingering desire to work in food, but it’s a non-traditional career for an immigrant, let alone an Asian person—it’s a luxury thing, you do that as a hobby. But I began focusing seriously on food because I couldn’t get a job! My husband and I moved away from Los Angeles to a small-town area in Santa Cruz, and I ended up having more time on my hands. I thought: I’ll build my own little website, at least I can get my ideas out there.

How did you go from a personal website to a published cookbook?

I had a manuscript, and people in the industry helped me shop it, but publishers would just say, “You’re not on the Food Network.” And then, in the little town where I moved, I ended up meeting the owner of Ten Speed Press. I couldn’t get a full-time job, but I was able to get a book contract! It took a lot of preparation. For people who are really working in the arts, and I imagine that’s a fair number, you just gotta keep plugging ahead. The most important thing is that you have something to say. What I wanted to say is that other cookbooks just don’t seem to reflect the kind of food that I eat or that I see. I don’t want to make Vietnamese food or Asian food seem exotic. That’s one of the worst things you can do with ethnic food—then nobody thinks they can make it, because it’s so far removed from their reality. And I don’t want to fetishize it—there’s plenty of that going on. Oftentimes we do it to ourselves. We think, “Why can’t I make that food? It’s too labor intensive.” But my mother was a plucky woman, and she would just go ahead and try making it, so I learned a lot from her. I hope that the work I do allows people to talk more. Families may prepare things differently, but if you have some kind of benchmark, some way to discuss it, then you can go back to your family and have a conversation and connect with your culture, develop your own personal traditions.

How long does it take for you to perfect a recipe for publication? What is the process?

For anything that goes into print, I normally go between an average of 3 to 5 times through a recipe. I’ll do my research and figure out what are the different ways of doing something, and how do I know how to do something. Then I get into the kitchen, I write up a recipe, and I test it out. I go over and over and over again. The instructions that people get at the end of the process are these strange little performances, with all these visual and tactile cues that I try to give people so that they can understand, all these signposts so they can more or less arrive at the same destination that I did. After a recipe is done, it always gets tested by someone else, either a test kitchen or a group of volunteer testers. I assign someone to each recipe, and then they do it, and they send me their feedback, which I incorporate back into the recipe.

Bánh Mì - Sandwich

What about details like food photography and page layout?

Nowadays, if a cookbook doesn’t have lots of photos, the perception is that it’s less marketable—but I like to not have a photo for every recipe because it takes up valuable space for text and instruction. I like to balance that. My editor and I come up with a shot list that paces things nicely throughout the book. I get a lot of input into the book’s trim size, how it will open up, how the photographs will coordinate. Ten Speed Press is really small, so it’s not a cookie-cutter process.

Tell me about your new cookbook project. What inspired you to write about tofu?

My mom called me one day and said, “My friend Mrs. Kieu wanted to know if you know how to make tofu. Mrs. Kieu has a friend who lives in Africa, a Vietnamese woman, who is living without tofu, and she asked me to ask you.” Why not try to make it? Then my publisher and I started talking about tofu. Tofu means a lot of things and can be a very polarizing ingredient. In America, a lot of people say, “I hate tofu!” But I didn’t grow up that way. If you look at American cookbooks, a lot of times there’s this conversion attitude—”It’s good for you, you should eat it”—and they’re full of all kinds of negative, awkward descriptors attached to tofu. No one has really provided an Asian perspective. So that’s what I’m trying to do with the new cookbook, which is pan-Asian in perspective. Tofu just the way it is, no apologies.

Pressed Tofu Stir-Fried with Chinese Celery

What distinguishes the Vietnamese use of tofu from other Asian tofus?

The Vietnamese use of tofu is closely aligned with the Chinese use of tofu, just because of the geographic and historic connections. What’s interesting is that there are these tofu powerhouses in East Asia like China and Japan and Korea, but in Vietnam you also get Southeast Asian culture reflected as well as some things that are totally Vietnamese. We borrow a lot of Chinese ideas on tofu, such as the way that tofu is stuffed with pork (a Southern Chinese tradition). Or when you go to get Vietnamese rice plates, you sometimes get tofu skin stuffed with shrimp, which is just like dim sum; even the Vietnamese word for that dish is transliterated from Chinese. Then there’s chè đậu hũ (đậu hũ đường gừng), soft tofu with sugar syrup and ginger, which is eaten throughout Southeast Asia. Into the Vietnamese Kitchen includes a recipe for fried tofu with fish sauce (đậu hũ chiên), which is a very, very Vietnamese dish. Now there’s even tofu in bánh mì, which is probably an Americanized thing, a vegetarian version. You actually used to see bánh mì stuffed with miến noodles, and you would wonder, where’s the meat? Vietnamese people do mock meat very well by using fried tofu as a meat substitute. It’s Buddhist temple food—ăn chay—and an important part of Vietnam’s particular cultural repertoire.

What key ingredients do you always have stocked in your pantry?

Definitely nước mắm! Sugar. And some rice. The rest of it can really come and go.

What brand of nước mắm do you use?

I use Việt Hương (Three Crabs), or crazy stuff people give me from Vietnam and Thailand, high-end sauces. Our parents are going to cook everyday with the cheaper stuff, but if you don’t use as much as often, then you should go ahead and use higher-end stuff if you can. People are splurging on olive oil, so why spend only $4 on a bottle of nước mắm? With the more expensive stuff, you can finesse. Nước mắm blended with the first pressing has more depth, and the less expensive stuff tends to be watered down and augmented with sugar or MSG. I’ve tasted fish sauce right out of the vat in Vietnam: it’s absolutely fabulous, but it crystallizes easily, and we can’t get it over here. In Vietnam you can buy different grades. People smuggle it back in water bottles. I carry it home in my luggage! A lot of the cheaper stuff available here, like Tiparos, is better formulated for Thai food. Vietnamese food depends on a more mellifluous seasoning to carry the flavors.

Cá Kho Cam - Trout Simmered in Orange Peel and Caramel Sauce

In your opinion, what is the easiest Vietnamese dish to cook at home?

One of the easiest things is to kho something. If you make your caramel sauce of out sugar and water, and you keep that in the cupboard, it’s like this little Vietnamese stealth ingredient. You whip it out, and you can use to it make fish kho, chicken kho, pork kho, beef kho. You can also use it in marinades to give a reddish color and a layered taste. For a summer barbecue, you can easily do something like chicken thighs marinated with lime juice, oil, pepper, and served with a simple dipping sauce of chile and lime juice. So simple, no fuss: that’s what I love about Vietnamese food.

What is the most difficult?

Most difficult, arguably, is moon cakes, bánh nướng. I think I made that every week for a month until I got the instructions down. I grew up with my mom making those at home, but she was a highly unusual woman. She gave me pointers and then handed over her molds and was like, “I’m done with this.” I tackled it, but not many people do. It’s a dish with a lot of Chinese influence. There’s also bánh chưng, sticky rice cakes with mung bean and pork, completely Vietnamese and the coolest thing to make. It is very complicated, but it only uses a handful of ingredients. I use a square mold made of wood that my friends made for me. You put the ingredients together, and then you cut up these bamboo and banana leaves to create a package, like a little gift. Every year I try to practice this in my home kitchen. It’s a cooking ritual for myself. It gets me ready for Tết.

Bánh Nướng - Moon Cakes

Last year on your blog, you called out Rachael Ray for her glaring misinterpretation of phở. How do you see Asian cuisine being represented (or misrepresented) in Western popular culture?

A few days ago I was reading a Fast Company article about food at ballparks. One of the new food things at Wrigley Field is a bánh mì hot dog. If only I could get that kind of job, to develop all this cool food! I looked at it and wondered: what is my value judgment here? They had a hot dog dressed with pickled daikon, onion, chiles. The person who developed it had traveled to Southeast Asia, and he could probably talk about the travel as his inspiration. I imagine I could have an intelligible conversation with that person about food. But the way that Rachael Ray handled things on her show was just bizarre. What if an Asian person went to produce an Italian dish and didn’t even use anything Italian? (Though in places like Hong Kong and Japan, there’s plenty of faux-Western food: I’ve had spaghetti with ketchup in Hong Kong, for instance, and it was kind of good.) But Rachael Ray seemed to do it without any investigation, without asking: what is this I’m trying to make? How can you, as a national American TV personality, present what is arguably the national dish of Vietnam in such a mishmashed and ill-informed manner? Especially when you have a whole staff helping you? It would be great if someone of Rachael Ray’s stature were able to say, “This is what phở is, and this is how I’ve changed it.” She just kind of threw together this barbecued pork thing and called it phở. It was so breezy. A lot of times people take free license with Asian food. There’s still a lot of feeling that Asian people won’t say anything, or it doesn’t matter, or it’s OK.

Spicy Umami Ketchup

What is your favorite non-Asian food?

That’s hard: I really love to eat Asian food! There’s so much—from China to Indonesia, down to India and even the Middle East. I do like Southern French food. And Mediterranean, Spanish. I make paella several times a year. But I guess I do cook Mexican food a lot—sometimes three times a week—so that’s probably my favorite.

All images in this post are reproduced with permission from Viet World Kitchen (www.vietworldkitchen.com).

diaCRITIC Kim-An Lieberman hails mostly from Seattle and holds a Ph.D. in English, specializing in Vietnamese American literature, from the University of California, Berkeley. She is the author of Breaking the Map: Poems

Please take the time to rate this post (above) and share it (below). Ratings for top posts are listed on the sidebar. Sharing (on email, Facebook, etc.) helps spread the word about diaCRITICS. And join the conversation and leave a comment! What’s your favorite Vietnamese dish? Ever tried cooking it with your own or your parent’s recipes? What about trying one of Andrea’s and seeing how it compares?


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3 Responses to Tofu, No Apologies: Interviewing with Food Writer Andrea Nguyen

  1. Dan Duffy says:

    Great intro. It is worth remarking that Ten Speed is not just any publisher.

    They developed a string of works that seemed left-field in development but became mainstream bestsellers. In food, the Moosewood and the White Trash cookbooks are emblematic of this editorial approach and marketing success.

    The press itself recently came in from the cold, acquired by a public company. Their origins are truly out there, linked to avant-gardists such as Jonathan Williams and his Jargon Society.

    So, Andrea has a link to the Poundian vein in American literature that Linh Dinh and Hoa Nguyen work, characterized by privately owned presses and self-reliant scholarship. It’s worth noticing because all three authors have found steadier growth than most others who have instead focused on placing a book with a public corporation or a career in a university.

    As we say in this world, “Write as if you were in the early days of a better republic!” Then, of course, cross over at the first opportunity.

  2. Viet Nguyen says:

    i’ve used andrea’s cookbook a lot. the recipes work! because of her, i can make pho and bun bo hue that pleases my relatives, who know their vietnamese food!

  3. chris says:

    Good interview that touches on many interesting areas, and gives insight into the process of publishing a cookbook. Andreas book and website are great reference material.

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