Cooking Vietnamese Food
Mai Pham, the noted author of Vietnamese cookbooks, provides helpful advice on learning to cook Vietnamese food.
Interview by Allison Martin
How did you become involved in Vietnamese cooking and with your restaurant in California?
My interest in cooking in the restaurant was based on my desire to reconnect with my roots. I came here to America with my family after the war in 1975 and this was a way for me to re-establish that link with Vietnam. It was very different here in the late 70's from where we are in our society now. It was especially difficult for me to be transferred overnight. It was quite lonely for me in this country.
It was a very simple idea... I was longing for Vietnam and I wanted to feel some comfort. I was a new immigrant and wasn't prepared emotionally. Cooking was an outlet for me. It provided me with an opportunity to make those connections - to feel good about who I am.
Given this isolation, how did you find the ingredients for your Vietnamese dishes when you started your restaurant?
It was not easy! I opened the restaurant in 1988. It was difficult to even get lemongrass, for which the restaurant was named. We had to go to the farmers market and meet the growers and make friends. It was a challenge. The desire to succeed was so great, we did whatever possible to procure the ingredients and make it as successfully as we could.
What suggestions do you have for people who are just beginning to cook Vietnamese food?
Vietnamese cuisine can be a very simple cuisine. Do not be put off from learning to cook Vietnamese food if you can't find one ingredient. You can go online now and order most about anything, like fish sauce. You use such a small of amounts that a bottle lasts a long time. Do not let finding ingredients be a problem.
I suggest people start with salads. They are very delicious and low in fat. There is no oil in the dressing as salad dressings are made of made of lime juice, garlic, chiles and sugar. It just calls for shredding vegetables to very slim slices, like carrots. You serve at room temperature, so toss the salad and then you are ready to eat. Salads are very easy to make and will help you become familiar with the flavors you will be using. Vietnamese eat salad almost like an entree, which is a very interesting idea for a busy family. If you make a chicken dish, you can re-heat it the next day with a salad and you have another meal.
Can you give us some cooking tips?
Vietnamese food is quite delicate. Things need to be cut very thin, so they aren't bruised. No cubing or chunks. Cut with a delicate hand! It involves slicing or shredding lots of herbs, like whole leaves and the top sprigs of basil and mint, and eating like a salad. Wrap a piece of meat with fresh herbs - the wrapper can be lettuce or rice paper. Foods are wrapped in little packets, often wrapped with lettuce, and dipped into a sauce. Vietnamese food is also a cuisine of dipping sauces. From a cook's point of view, it is easy to make up a sauce and dip the food in it, or drizzle it on your food. It is an engaging kind of cuisine - you use your hands and finger. It is a casual kind of eating.
What is the best way to cook rice?
Cook one part rice and one and half parts water, adding only 2-3 tablespoons more or less. Using a rice cooker is the best idea. It is so simple and it is perfect. You are usually so busy and time is of the essence so why waste it on the rice? Instead use your time on menu planning or on the entrees.
Rice re-eats really well. You can make a stew dish on Monday and add a salad and re-heat the rice the next day. This is what I do at home.
What Vietnamese food would you recommend for children, to share at school or at Families with Children from Vietnam gatherings?
Children love noodles and love the deep fried spring rolls. The better rolls are the salad rolls and parents love them. A rice dish and a noodle dish would be something they would like. Some of the most delicious dishes are served at room temperature and are very easy to make and serve.
For adults, I would suggest salads and the salad rolls, wrapped in rice paper with shrimp, pork and mint. The first time you make them is a little difficult but most people fall in love with the dish and make it all the time.
Mai Pham is the author of the Pleasures of the Vietnamese Table. She owns and manages the Lemongrass Restaurant in California. You can visit her website at http://www.lemongrassrestaurant.com.
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