Praise for The Foods of Vietnam

Mar 17, 2004 (Updated Mar 18, 2004)
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Delicious, authentic recipes and beautiful photographs


The Bottom Line: Well-written, beautifully photographed, and full of authentic and delicious recipes, this cookbook is one of my favorites.

I was born in Saigon and grew up in a culture where food plays a very important role. The Vietnamese don’t eat to live. We live to eat. Our family meals were never mundane. Even the simplest home cooked dinners would consist of 3 or 4 freshly prepared dishes accompanied by rice and a soup. For dinner parties, my mother, aunts, and grandmother would spend hours or even days preparing the feast. I would watch in awe as these women poured their hearts into this labor. Add to this history the fact that my mother is a pastry chef by trade, and it’s no wonder I worship the culinary arts.

When friends ask me what Vietnamese cookbook I would recommend, I always point them toward The Foods of Vietnam by Nicole Routhier, because I believe the author shares my deep respect for the art of cooking and for traditional Vietnamese cuisine.

Routhier was also born in Saigon to a Vietnamese mother and French father, and her mother owned a Vietnamese restaurant in Laos. In this book, she demonstrates her familiarity with Vietnamese culture and gastronomy. The introduction gives a brief and eloquent introduction to the country and its food, including a discussion of some of its culinary influences from the Chinese, Thai, and French. The text that accompanies the recipes beautifully describes the flavors of each dish and how the dish should be served.

If vivid descriptions aren’t enough to inspire you, the book also boasts many stunning color photographs of the dishes. Of all the cookbooks I own The Foods of Vietnam, without a doubt, wins the award for artistic food photography. Strip away all of the recipes and text, and the savory pictures alone are worth the price of the book. These images are so appealing that there ought to be a warning on the cover: caution--do not view on an empty stomach!

Because I grew up eating home-cooked Vietnamese dishes, friends often ask me whether the recipes in this book are authentic. I’m familiar with almost all of the dishes presented in The Foods of Vietnam, and although many of Routhier’s recipes aren’t exactly what Mom and Grandma would have done, this doesn’t necessarily speak against their authenticity. Vietnamese cuisine isn’t uniform. Tastes and preparation styles vary from region to region, and family to family. In the U.S., Vietnamese Americans have created a cuisine slightly different from what you would find in Vietnam. The same goes for the Vietnamese French, Vietnamese Brits, or Vietnamese Australians. But in spite of the differences, all of these varieties can be considered genuine Vietnamese cooking.

There’s such a thing as fake Viet cuisine, of course, and I’ve had the misfortune of sampling “Americanized” Vietnamese dishes at restaurants here in The States. But I can attest that Routhier’s recipes are the real deal. Some are innovative, and may depart slightly from the traditional. For example, Routhier’s recipe for chuối chin (fried bananas), has a French twist: the bananas are soaked in rum and served en flamb. However, the essence of her creations—the flavors and forms—are genuine.

For many dishes, I prefer to stick to the recipes in my family’s tradition, but I’ve also embraced some of Routhier’s scrumptious innovations. Her recipe for bnh tm (shrimp and sweet potato cakes), is so divine that I now can’t imagine preparing it any other way. This dish is prepared by mixing shrimp and shredded sweet potato into a spiced flour batter. The batter is deep-fried by the spoonful to form crispy golden fritters. These are wrapped in a crisp lettuce leaf with vegetable garnishes, which presents the palate with a nice contrast of textures and flavors, and then dipped into a fish sauce dressing and eaten by hand. Not only are Routhier’s bnh tm full of flavor, they’re also high on visual appeal. The sweet potato in the batter gives the dish a brilliant punch of color. Arranged artfully on bed of green lettuce, these tasty fritters make for an impressive dinner-party platter.

Routhier’s coconut caramel flan is another personal favorite. Its smooth velvety texture has just the right amount of sweetness and is enhanced by the flavor of coconut milk. This rendition is so heavenly that it even rivals my mother’s flan. (I hope to God Mom never reads this review or I’m as good as disowned).

The recipes in this book vary in their complexity from simple stir-fries to more elaborate creations. When you want a quick meal, there are easy dishes like ậu phụ sốt c chua (crisp-fried bean curd in tomato sauce). If you’re feeling up to a challenge, you could try making bnh xo (a crisp rice crepe stuffed with shrimp, pork, mung beans, and bean sprouts), phở (beef and rice-noodle soup), or chạo tm (grilled shrimp paste on sugar cane).

Most of the creations require exotic ingredients, which are described in a very helpful glossary at the end. If you're fortunate enough to live in an area with a Vietnamese grocer, you’ll have no problems finding what you’ll need. Otherwise, you’ll probably be able to get by with any Asian market.

Well-written, visually appealing, and filled with tasty, innovative recipes, The Foods of Vietnam is one of my favorite cookbooks. If you were to strand me on a desert island and give me only one cookbook, this is the one I’d beg for. Never mind the fact that I wouldn’t be able to cook anything from it; the photographs themselves would still be a feast for hungry eyes.

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