Cookbook author Andrea Nguyen helped change the tone of Vietnamese cookbooks when she published her first in 2006. “They had these long, long ingredient lists that kind of exoticized the cuisine,” Andrea tells Dan. “But we're here in America. Why can't we talk about Vietnamese food in America?” Several cookbooks later, Andrea has continued to demystify Asian cooking without dumbing it down. Over lunch at Sidestreet Pho in Alameda, California, Andrea talks with Dan about her approach to writing recipes, including for her new vegetable-centric cookbook Ever-Green Vietnamese: Super-Fresh Recipes, Starring Plants from Land and Sea. They also meet Hanh Nguyen, owner of Sidestreet Pho and daughter of some of the first Vietnamese restaurant owners in the U.S.
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Info and tickets available here for Dan’s appearance at Martha’s Vineyard Flavors.
The Sporkful production team includes Dan Pashman, Emma Morgenstern, Andres O'Hara, Nora Ritchie, and Jared O'Connell.
Interstitial music in this episode by Black Label Music:
- "Bandstand" by Jack Ventimiglia
- "Kellyanne Instrumental" by Paul Fonfara
- "Soul Good" by Lance Conrad
- "Lucky Strike" by Erick Anderson
- "Back At It Instrumental"
- "All Black" by Erick Anderson
- "Dilly Dally" by Hayley Briasco
Photo courtesy of Aubrie Pick.
Dan Pashman: Andrea, to start off, can you just tell me what you've eaten here so far, since you started eating without me? [LAUGHS]
Andrea Nguyen: Dan, where the hell were you?
Dan Pashman: I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I actually was a little bit early to meet you and I was very hungry and I know we're going to eat, but I don't like to show up to a taping starving cause I don't wanna be so distracted with my hunger. So I just walked into the place next door and it said something about sushi on the — and I was like, I'll just get like one sushi roll. But then I walked in and they had a picture of a rice paper wrap, Vietnamese spring roll. So I said, I'll take one of those. And it was taking a while. So I'm like, what's taking so long? But then I'm like, maybe it's a good sign that it's taking so long. And that rice paper wrap was so good. It was like soft and chewy and stretchy
Andrea Nguyen: So that's why it took you so darn long to get here to just go next door? The end?
Dan Pashman: Isn’t that a valid excuse? Yeah.
Dan Pashman: This is The Sporkful, it's not for foodies it's for eaters, I'm Dan Pashman. Each week on our show we obsess about food to learn more about people.
Dan Pashman: Andrea Nguyen is a highly respected recipe developer and author of 7 cookbooks, including her latest, Ever-Green Vietnamese: Super-Fresh Recipes, Starring Plants from Land and Sea, which comes out this week. We'll talk about that new book a little later.
Dan Pashman: But first… Andrea and I met up in Alameda, near Oakland. She lives about an hour and a half south, but she was nice enough to make the drive when I was in town. Partly to meet up with me. Partly to check out this Vietnamese restaurant she’s been dying to try.
Andrea Nguyen: It's called Side Street Pho. Alameda's like up and coming as having some of the coolest, Asian restaurants.
Dan Pashman: You have not been to this restaurant before?
Andrea Nguyen: I've not been to this restaurant, but Side Street Pho conjures up these images of being in Vietnam and going down a little alleyway that we would call a ham to like have your like favorite little bowl of noodle soup or little snacks. The woman who owns this restaurant her name is Hanh Nguyen and she comes from a family that started one of the oldest and earliest Vietnamese restaurants in Southern California's Little Saigon community. And she's changing it up here at this restaurant. And I wanted to see what the heck she was doing for modern Vietnamese food.
Dan Pashman: All right, well I'm excited. Now you got me excited.
Dan Pashman: Andrea’s desire to try Sidestreet Pho’s more modern take on Vietnamese food says a lot about the philosophy that guides so much of her work. She summarized that philosophy soon after we sat down.
Andrea Nguyen: We can revere and respect what our parents taught us, but we don't always have to cook that way because Lord knows my 88-year-old mother doesn't cook this way that she did when we came to the United States in 1975.
Dan Pashman: In other words: we should respect tradition but not be beholden to it. Andrea’s first cookbook was Into The Vietnamese Kitchen, it came out in 2006. There had been a few other cookbooks about Vietnamese food written in English by then, but Andrea's was the first one that was full color and comprehensive. And it took a different approach.
Andrea Nguyen: So many of the Vietnamese cookbooks that started coming out in, you know, like the nineties were like preservationists. You know, they had these long, long ingredient lists that kind of exoticized the cuisine. And made people feel like, oh, I'm traveling in Vietnam. But we're here in America. Why can't we talk about Vietnamese food in America? So it was just something that I felt needed to be written because I — my experience as a Vietnamese person with food was not about preservation. It was about me growing up here in America and being a Vietnamese American.
Dan Pashman: Andrea was born in Vietnam, in Saigon, the youngest of five kids.
Dan Pashman: What are some of your early food memories?
Andrea Nguyen: Finishing an entire bowl of phở when I was about five and a half in Vietnam, sitting on the wooden bench in one of my parents favorite phở shops. And, I had my own bowl, used my own set of chopsticks and my own spoon. Emptied the darn thing, and my parents were so proud, Dan.
Andrea Nguyen: They had a good eater on their hands.
Dan Pashman: Right. And the rest of your life was determined after that.
Andrea Nguyen: Exactly. I mean, you are a parent.
Dan Pashman: Yeah.
Andrea Nguyen: I mean, you must, you know, with your children, you must like sometimes look at 'em and you just go, "That is my child."
Dan Pashman: Right.
Dan Pashman: The Vietnam War had been raging for years before Andrea was born. Her father had been in the South Vietnamese military. So when Vietnam fell in 1975, the family fled. Andrea was 6. They spent their first days in America at Camp Pendleton, a refugee resettlement facility in Southern California. Eventually, an American family sponsored Andrea's family and they were able to move to their own place in San Clemente, in Orange County. Those sponsors made Andrea's first home-cooked American meal.
Andrea Nguyen: They had one of those like hams that are perfectly, you know, like capsule shaped.
Dan Pashman: [LAUGHS] Like a deli ham.
Andrea Nguyen: Yeah.
Dan Pashman: Right.
Andrea Nguyen: Yeah. And I remember looking at that and going, “That is the oddest piece of meat I've ever seen.”
Dan Pashman: [LAUGHING]
Andrea Nguyen: And coming from Vietnam meat was really like this luxe ingredient, and we didn't have it often. And if we did, it would be a very small amount for a family of seven. So here, we go to these people's homes and I'm looking at this piece of meat that's like the size of my, you know …
Dan Pashman: Head.
Andrea Nguyen: Thigh, or my head. I mean, you know, I'm a child, I'm a six-year-old — I was like, “Wow, that's like amazing. America's full of meat!”
Dan Pashman: And in terms of seeking out and cooking Vietnamese ingredients and dishes, what was that like in those early days?
Andrea Nguyen: It was hard in the sense that there wasn't any fish sauce sold at American markets. Nowadays, we go to a mainstream market and you see an Asian aisle that has at least one brand of fish sauce, many different kinds of soy sauces, jasmine rice, rice paper, rice noodles. That was totally not the case in 1975. On the other hand, there were things that we could buy in Southern California, like fresh cilantro and chilies and lettuce. And so we could make like Vietnamese-style lettuce wraps. Of course now, they were like seasoned with soy sauce, which wasn't ideal. And it was La Choy soy sauce, which was a little bit funny cuz it's not really made with any soybeans. Don't get me started on that , but it's very high in glutamates.
Dan Pashman: [LAUGHING] It sounds like you're already started, Andrea.
Andrea Nguyen: La Choy is — has a certain flavor. I got over it. [LAUGHS] But we didn't get good ingredients until my parents were able to get a used car for like 300 bucks. It was a Comet. And we got to drive to, to L.A., to Chinatown to buy Asian ingredients from Viet-owned grocery stores.
Dan Pashman: So how far of a drive is that?
Andrea Nguyen: That was about an hour and 15 minutes to Chinatown. So it was like, you know, a two and a half hour round trip.
Dan Pashman: So you were basically going on family road trips to go grocery shopping?
Andrea Nguyen: Yeah. Totally. That was what it was about. We packed the trunk full of like dry noodles and rice paper and bags of rice. And then we would, you know, take it all home and put it in the pantry.
Dan Pashman: You've said that when you were 10 and your English got to be good enough, you started reading and studying cookbooks. Why cookbooks? What drew you to them?
Andrea Nguyen: Cause it was a way for me to learn about America, about flavors and about ingredients. I didn't know what rosemary tasted like until I was in college, but I had read about it. [LAUGHS]
Dan Pashman: Right.
Andrea Nguyen: My parents were really curious about western food and French food. So we got a copy of Julia Child’s Mastering The Art of French Cooking.
Dan Pashman: Right.
Andrea Nguyen: All of our Vietnamese recipes, Dan, came from these bootleg cookbooks that Vietnamese people brought over from Vietnam, photocopied them, bound them, and sold them in Little Saigon bookshops.
Dan Pashman: Did you also take an interest in those as a kid?
Andrea Nguyen: Yes. Yeah, but I couldn't read them very well because I was trying to learn English. And also, recipes came from phone trees. Like Vietnamese people would get on the phởne on the weekends where rates were still inexpensive and they would share cooking tips with each other.
Dan Pashman: Sort of of like the original chat rooms.
Andrea Nguyen: Exactly, exactly.
Dan Pashman: After college, in her early 20s, Andrea put together a cookbook proposal but it didn’t get picked up, so she stashed it in a drawer. Anyway, the idea of going into food didn’t seem like it was in the cards. Her older siblings had become a doctor, lawyer, pharmacist …
Andrea Nguyen: I still had this immigrant mentality, this refugee mentality of like, oh, better do something that's like safe. So I studied banking. Turns out, I suck at accounting.
Dan Pashman: [LAUGHING]
Dan Pashman: So after a couple years in banking, Andrea applied to a yearlong fellowship in Hong Kong to study Mandarin. She got in, and that was her escape hatch from the career she hated.
Andrea Nguyen: When I came back I was like, you know what? I've done all the things that my parents expected me to do and they're not giving me grief and I'm just gonna go for it and see if I can do this, have a career in food. I had no idea what it meant.
Dan Pashman: Andrea did a brief stint cooking in a restaurant, which she quickly realized wasn’t for her. But she had another idea…
Andrea Nguyen: But I also, in the back of my mind wanted to write about food and present Vietnamese food that reflected my experience. And I felt like my experience is really of a next generation. We have one foot in old traditions, but we also are looking forward to modernity and new twists and the evolution of Vietnamese cuisine.
Hanh Nguyen: Hi.
Dan Pashman: Hi.
Hanh Nguyen: I’m Hanh.
Dan Pashman: I'm Dan, nice to meet you.
Hanh Nguyen: Hi, nice to meet you.
Dan Pashman: At this point the owner of the restaurant where Andrea and I are about to have lunch comes to our table. Her name is Hanh Nguyen, no relation to Andrea.
Dan Pashman: You come from like a famous line of Bay Area restaurant owners, is that right?
Hanh Nguyen: Actually, Orange County.
Dan Pashman: Oh, Orange County. Okay. All right.
Hanh Nguyen: Yes, yes.
Dan Pashman: All right.
Hanh Nguyen: I don't know if you're familiar, but my parents, Thành Mỹ restaurant on Bolsa? They've been around for over 40 years. Yeah. And then we're the second generation.
Dan Pashman: And how long have you been open here?
Hanh Nguyen: About 10 years.
Dan Pashman: Okay.
Hanh Nguyen: Yeah.
Dan Pashman: So what did you want to do here that would be different from what your parents did?
Hanh Nguyen: The food, the quality is pretty much, you know, the same, but just a little bit more younger, more upbeat, more modern. We have less of a menu and not like a whole book.
Dan Pashman: Right.
Hanh Nguyen: [LAUGHS] Originally, my mom came up to help me set up the restaurant, and if I wanted to do a smaller menu, she supported that.
Andrea Nguyen: See, my mother would be like, ahem ...
Andrea Nguyen: You know, I was just curious because, you know, it's a different customer base than you do down on Bolsa. Bolsa is, Dan, is like the name of the main street of Little Saigon in Orange County, which is like the granddaddy of Little Saigons in America.
Dan Pashman: There’s an interesting phenomenon that happens. People come to America from another country and their perception of that country kind of gets frozen in time from when they left.
Hanh Nguyen: Right.
Dan Pashman: You have the first generation of these restaurants on Bolsa, which are sort of like preservation. They're like preserving what Vietnamese food was in 1975 when there was this big group who left. But over time, things in Vietnam change and also Vietnamese Americans change and have kids and grandkids and evolve and get exposed to new ideas. And your parents' mission, I would assume, was kind of to transport people to back to Vietnam.
Hanh Nguyen: Right.
Dan Pashman: They were missing a taste of home.
Hanh Nguyen: Exactly.
Dan Pashman: But your mission here is different.
Hanh Nguyen: Yes. It's about sharing, exposing and sharing the good food and the Vietnamese food. Alameda, when we opened didn't have as many Vietnamese restaurants. Raising kids here in Alameda, we always shared our food with school friends and families. And so I wanted to share that with the larger community.
Dan Pashman: So final question for you now … What should we order?
Hanh Nguyen: Our flagship is our phở.
Dan Pashman: Right. We gotta have some phở. Right?
Andrea Nguyen: What's up with the bánh mì phở?
Hanh Nguyen: That's my creation.
Dan Pashman: Oh, okay.
Andrea Nguyen: Please know that you wouldn't find that in your parents' restaurant.
Hanh Nguyen: No, no.
Dan Pashman: Right.
Hanh Nguyen: I wanted to do something that, you know, when people like to have fun on a go, so I put everything in the sandwich.
Dan Pashman: So it's the ingredients of phở but in a bánh mì sandwich.
Hanh Nguyen: Yes. Instead of the noodles, you get the bánh mì. That's the starch part.
Dan Pashman: Okay.
Hanh Nguyen: And then, um, the brisket it's nice and tender, so it goes really well. And it goes into the sandwich with the hoisin sauce and the sriracha that you would put in — cilantro, onion, squeeze the lime, you know? And ...
Dan Pashman: Oh my God.
Hanh Nguyen: Yeah.
Dan Pashman: And it's served with a, like, a phở broth to dip the sandwich in?
Hanh Nguyen: Yes. It's kind of like a French dip?
Dan Pashman: French dip.
Hanh Nguyen: Right.
Dan Pashman: Or like a Italian beef sandwiches in Chicago.
Hanh Nguyen: Yeah, the au jus. Yeah.
Dan Pashman: Yes. That's — I love that. Andrea, what do you think of this combination?
Andrea Nguyen: I love a good phở dip and actually have a recipe for it in my phở cookbook.
Dan Pashman: Fantastic.
Andrea Nguyen: You could do this, put it in a tortilla, my dear, and make it a phở-rito.
Dan Pashman: Oh!
Andrea Nguyen: Oh! [LAUGHING]
Dan Pashman: Copyright, trademark, right there.
Dan Pashman: I think you two should just decide what we're gonna eat. Whatever the two of you agree on, I will eat.
Dan Pashman: Coming up, Andrea’s story continues. She tries to become the Vietnamese-American food writer of the next generation and gets a big break along the way. Then later, we eat a lot. Stick around.
+++ BREAK +++
Dan Pashman: Welcome back to The Sporkful, I’m Dan Pashman. And I want to tell you about an event coming up that I’m going to be at, that I hope you’ll be at too. It’s a food history symposium called Martha’s Vineyard Flavors. Now, as you might guess, it’s on Martha’s Vineyard at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum and I’ll be moderating a panel featuring author Joan Nathan, restaurateurs Hugh & Jeanne Taylor of the Outer Most Inn, chef Austin Racine of Mo’s Lunch, and Rebeccca Miller of North Tabor Farm. Now, one ticket gets you admission, not just to this panel, to a whole weekend of festivities, including the keynote by Dr. Jessica B. Harris, a past guest here on The Sporkful, there’ll be demonstrations, and of course, multiple incredible meals. I'm excited for that part.
Dan Pashman: It’s the first weekend in June which should be a beautiful time on the Vineyard, so I hope to see you there! Get more info and tickets at MVMuseum.org, we’ll also put a link in the show notes.
Dan Pashman: Now back to Andrea Nguyen, and quick warning that there are some curse words coming up. While we waited for our food, we continued chatting about Andrea’s journey…
Dan Pashman: In the early 2000s, when Andrea was in her early 30s, she knew she wanted to write about food. But she didn’t have connections, and publishers didn’t think there was much demand for Vietnamese-American food writing. So she launched a website called Viet World Kitchen, where she posted recipes and cooking tips, including some from her mom. Then one night she ended up at a dinner party with Phil Wood, the founder of Ten Speed Press. Now, these days Ten Speed is part of Random House, but back then it was an indie publisher that did a lot of cookbooks — books that Phil liked, but that bigger publishers might not go for. For instance, that dinner party where Phil and Andrea met — it was hosted by one of Ten Speed’s authors who did open-hearth cooking in his fireplace with centuries-old tools. That night, Phil and Andrea became friends.
Dan Pashman: Eventually, Andrea told Phil she wanted to write a cookbook about Vietnamese food in America. And two years after they met, in 2006, Into The Vietnamese Kitchen hit store shelves. Andrea was 37. She thought she’d be a one cookbook wonder, but the book did well, and the publisher saw something in her.
Andrea Nguyen: Ten Speed Press came back to me and they said, you know, we think that you are able to write pretty good detailed recipes and we think you know a lot about Asian food.
Dan Pashman: Andrea’s next cookbook went beyond Vietnamese cuisine. It was called Asian Dumplings, and covered dumplings throughout East, Southeast, and South Asia. Her next cookbook explored tofu across Asian cuisines. As she progressed through her career, a mission came into focus. As she would write, she wanted to demystify Asian food without dumbing it down. As I said to her, it seems like that’s easier said than done.
Andrea Nguyen: Totally. It would be easy for me to write really short recipes. There are a lot of short recipes out there, but I want to make sure that people understand when they're standing at the stove, the description of the action that happens at this stove is very important and how ingredients come together. And I know as a recipe writer, people are gonna take my recipes, they're gonna go home, they're not gonna follow them. Because when you're standing at your stove and you've got your ingredients, they're gonna be very different than what I use to develop a recipe. So then how can I give you guardrails? How can I give you cues so that I can teach you something about cooking and about intuition? And in Vietnamese, we have this term called “keo,” which means intention. And that's good cooking. If you cook with intention and knowledge and foundation, then you're gonna keep practicing and you're gonna keep refining that. And that's not a quick and easy down and dirty approach. And that's how I learned to cook from my mother. She was such a fucking hard ass.
Dan Pashman: [LAUGHS]
Andrea Nguyen: She was!
Dan Pashman: But in order for you to demystify and to introduce people who didn't grow up with this cuisine, you can't be as much of a fucking hard ass.
Andrea Nguyen: Exactly. Because I don't know who I'm talking to.
Dan Pashman: I guess you gotta pick and choose where are you gonna be a hard ass and where are you gonna be a little more easygoing.
Andrea Nguyen: Exactly.
Dan Pashman: And so how do you make those choices when you're writing a recipe and you're trying to persuade people who haven't cooked with this cuisine as much that it's not so scary after all?
Andrea Nguyen: So, the entry points such — rice paper rolls, you know, gỏi cuốn and bánh mì and phở. Three dishes that people know, that's how they're gonna fall in love and that's their entry point into Vietnamese cuisine.
Dan Pashman: By starting with those well known entry points, Andrea offers her readers on-ramps to the cuisine. But then she pushes past the basics, getting detailed about techniques and regional variations, and even the history of a dish. Like banh mi, for example, which of course starts with a French baguette, a relic of when France colonized Vietnam. Then you add meats and herbs and condiments that fit a Vietnamese flavor profile, some of which are originally Cantonese Chinese.
Andrea Nguyen: I can just like, take this thing and I can like really use it as an entry point to like teach people, like, this is what colonization does. And there's like issues of appropriation, but there's also issues of empowerment because the Vietnamese took what the French brought, they also took ideas from the Chinese and then they made this thing that is wholeheartedly Vietnamese. And then in America you can take it in all different directions. So as a cookbook writer and recipe developer, I'm just trying to get you to experience Vietnamese food the way I do, and I'm gonna take you in little steps.
Dan Pashman: As Andrea talks, an array of dishes begin landing on our table. It’s like there’s a parade coming out of the kitchen.
Andrea Nguyen: All right. Thank you.
Dan Pashman: Everything selected by the owner, Hanh Nguyen, who now sits down with Andrea and me. The fried king oyster mushroom is quickly followed by a steaming bowl of beef phở, which arrives at the table fully loaded.
Andrea Nguyen: Okay, so we've got our tendon here. We've got our book tripe. We've got our brisket. And this is…
Hanh Nguyen: Flank.
Andrea Nguyen: Flank.
Hanh Nguyen: Yes.
Andrea Nguyen: So there's like a rough flank that's like super dupy, chewy, crunchy. Oh my god. And that is —
Dan Pashman: Another bowl of things just came out.
Andrea Nguyen: Bún riêu?
Hanh Nguyen: No, this is bún bò huế.
Andrea Nguyen: Oh, bún bò huế? Oh, okay.
Hanh Nguyen: Yes. And, this is for the Huế region.
Dan Pashman: This is my wife's favorite Vietnamese dish.
Hanh Nguyen: Try the bún bò huế, the BBH while it's hot.
Dan Pashman: Yes, ma'am.
Dan Pashman: Bún bò huế has thicker rice noodles than phở, with braised beef shank, sliced pork loaf, cubed blood sausage, in a rich lemongrass beef broth. It’s aromatic, a little spicy, and extremely savory.
Hanh Nguyen: Yes.
Andrea Nguyen: So there's fermented shrimp paste in.
Hanh Nguyen: Yes.
Andrea Nguyen: And that's what gives it umami.
Dan Pashman: Ohh.
Andrea Nguyen: It's like a stealth ingredient.
Dan Pashman: Oh my gosh. There's more food coming? What's this next?
Hanh Nguyen: This is the bánh xèo.
Dan Pashman: Oh.
Dan Pashman: Bánh xèo is a crepe filled with pork, shrimp, savory mung bean, crunchy fresh bean sprouts. And the crepe is made with rice flour, so it’s extra crispy.
Hanh Nguyen: So when you cut into it, you hear the crunch. That's really important for bánh xèo. If you get a soft smushy bánh xèo, that's not bánh xèo.
[CUTTING A CRUNCHY BÁNH XÉO]
Dan Pashman: Here. You hear that crisp?
Dan Pashman: But this crispy crepe isn’t quite ready to eat yet …
Andrea Nguyen: So you wrap it up in lettuce with ...
Dan Pashman: Oh, you wrap it in lettuce.
Andrea Nguyen: And then you dippity-doo it.
Dan Pashman: Oh, dippity-doo.
Andrea Nguyen: Yeah, in nước chấm. And so this is that thing of like, sort of, you know, balancing the rich food with lots of fresh produce so that you get textures, you get flavors. You can vary every single bite with the herbs.
Dan Pashman: Right. That's genius. I love wrapping things in other things.
Andrea Nguyen: I know. Well, it's like ...
Dan Pashman: [LAUGHS]
Andrea Nguyen: It's like a wrap within a wrap, you know?
Dan Pashman: Right.
Andrea Nguyen: And then you like —
Dan Pashman: It's a wrap of a wrap of a wrap.
Andrea Nguyen: But it's a wrap.
Dan Pashman: Next up: the banh mi phở.
Dan Pashman: All right, I'm going in on the full dip. Mm. I’m gonna need a lot of napkins.
Andrea Nguyen: I'm gonna need a water.
Dan Pashman: This is messy. Oh my God.
Andrea Nguyen: Oh, there we go.
Dan Pashman: The richness. I mean, [EATING] tell me about this broth, cuz that’s — to me that's the star.
Hanh Nguyen: Yeah. So our broth is made with a hundred percent bone. We simmer it for at least 36 hours.
Andrea Nguyen: And a good phở broth has the aromas of the spices, the layers of flavors. There should be a little fat too.
Dan Pashman: Yeah. You can see it glistening on the [Andrea Nguyen: Yeah.] on the surface of the broth, you see the little fat bubbles.
Hanh Nguyen: When I serve my broth, I always remind my cooks to add a little bit, just a tiny — a few drops of the fat layer on top.
Dan Pashman: I've heard that in Vietnam you can request that.
Andrea Nguyen: Yes.
Hanh Nguyen: Yes.
Andrea Nguyen: Here you can request it too. And so it's called nước béo, and it is literally, fatty liquid.
Hanh Nguyen: If you translate it literally.
Andrea Nguyen: I’d like a side of fatty liquid, please.
Dan Pashman: The role that you have gravitated towards in your career is one of a translator.
Andrea Nguyen: Yes, I do translate.
Dan Pashman: To an audience that may not be as familiar with it as you are.
Andrea Nguyen: Correct.
Dan Pashman: Why do you think you were drawn to that specific role?
Andrea Nguyen: Because when I was growing up, I was eating this wonderful food that my mother prepared at home. And I knew that my American friends would never understand it. And it was kind of painful not to like be able to like freely share my experience with them. And so I always thought to myself, well, how can I present my true experience and I can do that as a Vietnamese person in America? And I figured that food was a way to do that.
Dan Pashman: One of the things that I hear a younger generation of cookbook authors talk about showcasing especially, east Asian and South Asian foods, there's this idea of like, "I'm doing this for us," us meaning their community and people who grew up with eating the same kinds of foods. So I'm not gonna translate every word and I'm not gonna explain every step, cause I'm gonna assume a basic level of knowledge. I'm not gonna assume that all of my readers are white people of European descent who don't know anything about this. But it seems like that hasn't been your approach.
Andrea Nguyen: It hasn't because when I started writing cookbooks, my people were not quite there with me. I mean, I knew that if I was going to have a career in food, I wasn't just writing for Vietnamese people. Vietnamese people just weren't buying books in English. I didn't apologize for certain things. I used — I called for fermented shrimp paste in my bún bò huế, you know, and I wasn't gonna make puff pastry from scratch. And I use Pepperidge Farm. With a book such as Vietnamese food Any Day ...
Dan Pashman: Right, that’s one of your more recent cookbooks.
Andrea Nguyen: Which is a book about making Vietnamese food totally based upon ingredients from the grocery store. So it's like you don't have to step foot into an Asian market. And when I — that book came out, I was sort of concerned like where people were gonna call me on the fact that I wasn't having them go into an Asian market? But I remember having conversations with Asian Americans and they would lean in and they would whisper, “Do I have to go to an Asian market?” I said, “No.” And they said, “Oh, thank you.” Because we want to be normalized into this culture. And I think that until we have, you know, people who are willing to say, you know what, anybody can cook this food. It's normal, it's good. That's where we wanna be. We don't need to drag people all the time into our community. It's great to support the community economically and we do that too. But America's a huge place and I think that we have to make room for a lot of people with a lot of different interests. and to say, well, I'm doing this for my community, my community's everywhere.
Dan Pashman: To be clear Andrea loves a lot of the books by the next generation of cookbook authors. And she’s helped pave the way for many of them. She’s glad to see many of the changes that have come about in recent years — in their books and in her own.
Andrea Nguyen: So for example, when we write cookbooks nowadays, like if I have, multiple languages and a recipe title. In the past, the English name of a recipe would always go first, first line. Now, it's like does it go on the first line or does it go on the second line? And what language do you put first on top?
Dan Pashman: Today when Andrea titles recipes, she calls a dish by its Vietnamese name and writes it complete with accent marks — then includes the English translation of the name, and tells you it’s okay to use Pepperidge Farm puff pastry. As she says, demystifying without dumbing down.
Dan Pashman: Andrea continues this approach in her latest cookbook, Ever-Green Vietnamese. It's a vegetable-forward cookbook, inspired by her own desire to eat more vegetables after some recent health issues. While there are a lot of vegetarian recipes in the book, there are also some that include meat. And one thing I love, that kinda flips typical recipes on their head, for some of the vegetarian recipes, Andrea offers you the option of subbing in meat. So rather than make meat the default, in some recipes vegetarian is the default and meat is an option.
Andrea Nguyen: When I proposed this book, I just wanted to be a book about Vietnamese ways with vegetables, a vegetable centric book. And my publisher said, "Well, we can really sell a vegan or vegetarian Vietnamese book." And I said, "Well, I can write that book, but I'm not really gonna be very good at repping it because I am not vegetarian." I eat a low-meat, high-vegetable diet, and that's really about the roots of Vietnamese cooking and I want to spotlight that, but in like more like modern ways.
Dan Pashman: As Andrea started eating an even more veggie-centric diet in recent years, she talked about it with her mother …
Andrea Nguyen: And my mom says to me, "That's how we ate in Vietnam." If there was a stir fry, she said, "I would tell the cook to go and buy 10 ounces of protein for a family of seven," it's not that much. And she said, "You know, meat was really expensive in Vietnam."
Dan Pashman: Tell me about the steamed bánh mì lettuce wraps.
Hanh Nguyen: Oh!
Dan Pashman: Andrea?
Andrea Nguyen: Oh, so bánh mì...
Dan Pashman: So bánh mì — it seems like banh mi innovation is a theme here of this meal. You're both bánh mì innovators.
Andrea Nguyen: So, bánh mì hấp is something that I grew up eating and my mom would just get like a French baguette from the supermarket and she would let it go stale. And then she would cut it up and steam it and put like scallion oil on top of it and it was so damn good. And we stopped eating it cause she was just like, it's like kids' food. But what I realize is that over the years, that dish has changed. And so now there's like meat that's added to it, along with the scallion oil. And then there's like peanuts and fried shallot sometimes.
Dan Pashman: This is how it's changed in Vietnam?
Andrea Nguyen: Yes. And then it's wrapped in lettuce.
Hanh Nguyen: Yep.
Andrea Nguyen: And dipped in nước chấm dipping sauce. I told my mom about — I'm like, Mẹ, guess what? You know, it's like —
Andrea Nguyen: I'm like — I'm again, you know, I'm like that 12-year-old, 10-year-old kid. I'm like, mom, guess what? I ate like this really good thing.
Dan Pashman: Right.
Andrea Nguyen: And she looks like she goes, huh. Because she's still thinking about how beautiful that pure soft bread with the scallion oil that she enjoyed in 1954 of her youth.
Dan Pashman: So when Andrea was a kid, bánh mì hấp was a simple dish of steamed bread with scallion oil that her mom made for her. In the decades since they left Vietnam, the dish evolved there and became more elaborate. People added ground meat, peanuts, fried shallots. Andrea saw this evolution in Vietnam and it inspired her to evolve again. She made a vegetarian version of the more modern version for her new cookbook.
Andrea Nguyen: I make these umami tofu crumbles, which is my fake meat that I use to fake the texture and the umami of pork because that's like the meat of Vietnamese food. And if you don't have that, then I offer a substitute: jicama and carrot. There's mushroom in there too for umami.
Dan Pashman: These bánh mì lettuce wraps are a perfect example of the conversation between Vietnamese food in Vietnam and Vietnamese food in America. And Andrea is right in the middle of that conversation.
Dan Pashman: You talked about earlier about how you kind of feel like you developed this role as a translator. How has doing that work now as you look back on it, changed how you think about yourself?
Andrea Nguyen: I remember when my first book came out, a friend of mine from high school who was like one of my closest friends, he called me up and he said, "I had no idea that was going on at your house."
Dan Pashman: Right.
Andrea Nguyen: Like, the cooking. You know, like, like this stuff being wrapped in banana leaves. My parents, they bought their first home because they saw this banana tree outside and they're like, oh, that's just like Vietnam. Because in Vietnam, every house has to have a banana tree.
Andrea Nguyen: And then they would — my mom would send my brother out with a machete to like cut down banana leaves.
Dan Pashman: Right.
Andrea Nguyen: You know, we're li living in like the suburbs of San Clemente.
Dan Pashman: Right, right. [LAUGHS]
Andrea Nguyen: And I didn't put any of that into the book but I think that if I were writing that book now in 2023, that would totally go into the book, because that's really my experience. So when we talk about like, no apologies and about young people presenting themselves, who they are and their experience, if I were to dial back the clock and I were to rewrite my first book, that would be the person that I present.
Dan Pashman: And so it sounds like what you're saying is doing this work over the years has made you more comfortable being yourself. I mean, I don't wanna put words in your mouth but ...
Andrea Nguyen: No, no. It has and I think that, you know, even in cooking, people say that you become your best cook or you really realize that you know what you're doing in the kitchen when in your forties or your fifties. Totally true. I have so much more confidence now as a middle-aged woman with who I am and my writing. I, you know, have nothing to hide because it's — before I think that I was always trying to be good and dutiful and it's okay. Lightning's not gonna strike. And I think that that's a place that I didn't know that I would get to, or how nice it would be to be in that position in your life. Vietnam is a place that I identify with. But I know that I couldn't live there. But I have made a life for myself here in America. And yeah, we're not going home. This is our house. It's our home.
Dan Pashman: That’s Andrea Nguyen, she’s the author of many cookbooks including her latest, Ever-Green Vietnamese: Super-Fresh Recipes, Starring Plants from Land and Sea, which comes out this week. Get it! Find out why Andrea is one of America’s top cookbook authors, if you don’t know already. And get this: you can also enter to win a copy of Andrea’s book by subscribing to our newsletter. The Sporkful's newsletter each week, we tell you about that week's episode. We also tell you what everyone who works on the team is eating and reading. You get recipe inspiration, you get some good links — it's fun! You'll like it. And when you subscribe, you're automatically entered into this and all of our contests. So subscribe now at sporkful.com/newsletter.
Dan Pashman: Also in this episode, we talked with Hanh Nguyen at Sidestreet Pho in Alameda. That phở broth was haunting me for weeks after I got back to New York. Thank you Hanh and everyone at Sidestreet Pho.
Dan Pashman: Next week we explore how artificial intelligence is changing the way we talk about food, and maybe what we eat. While you wait for that one, check out last week’s collaboration with Gastropod, about the elusive chewy texture called Q.