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From The Asian Reporter, V14, #8 (February 17, 2004), page 16.

Healthy comfort food

Vietnamese Home Cooking: Quick, Easy, Delicious Recipes to Make at Home

By Robert Carmack, Didier Corlou, and Nguyen Thanh Van

Periplus, 2003

Hardcover, 128 pages, $19.95

By Josephine Bridges

It seems to me that the life of a book reviewer is a fine life indeed. We get paid to read, think seriously about what we have read, and pass along our impressions of what we have read to others who might be interested. This time I got paid to cook and eat scrumptious food. Life could be worse.

Iím not a bad cook myself, but my dear friend Karen Sharples is an inspired cook. She loves to eat Vietnamese food, but she had never cooked any before. We decided to try fresh spring rolls with shrimp, crab and asparagus soup, and Hanoi bun cha from Vietnamese Home Cooking. Iím writing this review the next afternoon. The leftovers are all gone.

The fresh spring rolls with shrimp were a delicate reminder of summer. Translucent rice paper encloses shrimp, rice vermicelli, lettuce, mint, and chives. They are as delicious as they are beautiful to look at, especially accompanied by nuoc cham nem dipping sauce, only one of a number of fascinating sauces for which Vietnamese Home Cooking contains recipes.

The crab and asparagus soup was a hearty winter comfort food, a perfect complement to the spring rolls. Vietnamese Home Cooking is a forgiving cookbook. I probably bought the wrong mushrooms and we couldnít find any cilantro that tasted like cilantro, but the soup still turned out great. There was just a hint of tartness for which the ingredients couldnít account. It must be magic.

We saved the best for last. The Hanoi bun cha, two kinds of marinated pork broiled, rolled in lettuce leaves with herbs and noodles, and dipped in nuoc cham sauce (not to be confused with nuoc cham nem sauce) is "a classic street food of Hanoi" according to the note that accompanies the recipe. If I lived in Hanoi, I would eat bun cha every day. Since I donít live in Hanoi, Iím going to have to cook it frequently.

We had only one small bone to pick with Vietnamese Home Cooking. Given that the bookís subtitle includes the words "Quick" and "Easy," we were surprised by the enormous investment of time and effort these three recipes took. Thereís a huge amount of prep work involved, and to quote Karen, "We used every dish in the kitchen twice." Was it quick and easy? Hardly.

But was it worth it? Absolutely.

Karen remarked that the three recipes we tried were all surprisingly satisfying, given how little fat any of them contained. I was most impressed with the beauty of the dishes. Karenís husband Hendrik was too busy eating to be available for comment.

Vietnamese Home Cooking is a gorgeous book, a pleasure to read as well as to cook with. The photos show the cook what the finished product is supposed to look like, no small thing to two women who think presentation is just as important as taste. Thereís a wealth of information on equipment and ingredients, as well as step-by-step instructions, with photos, for some of the more complex dishes. A glossary contains substitutions for some of the more exotic items, suggestions for buying fish sauce despite misleading claims on the labels, and even poetic entries like "Simmer: A low to moderate cooking temperature so that liquid barely quivers, just below the boiling point." Vietnamese Home Cooking makes me quiver.

Ingredients for Hanoi bun cha

A classic street food in Hanoi, particularly popular at lunch

  • 4 tablespoons sugar
  • 4 tablespoons water
  • 1 pound fresh side pork (pork belly), rind removed, cut into slices (rashers) about ľ inch thick
  • 1 pound lean ground pork, preferably butt (leg) or shoulder
  • Ĺ cup fish sauce
  • Ĺ cup finely chopped brown or pink shallots (French shallots)
  • Ĺ bunch Chinese (flat/garlic) chives, coarsely chopped
  • 1 tablespoon ground pepper

Serves 6

 

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