The generous abundance of Andrea Nguyen's new book
on EVERGREEN VIETNAMESE, plus !!TWO!! recipes
Andrea Nguyen’s books and writing always get me fired up about LEARNING. Not just the baseline (deep) learning about Vietnamese cooking that her books have been offering for over a decade, but about the nuts and bolts and nooks and crannies of the home kitchen, the transmogrification of ingredients. Learning about how we might turn sheets of nori into magic dust—by whizzing them in a blender with salt!—or dip our wary toes into the world of fermented hot sauces. Reading and cooking from her new book Ever-Green Vietnamese, I realized that its success comes, in part, from Andrea’s unflagging curiosity: about ingredients, dishes, and the nature of recipe instruction itself.
I have been thinking a lot about what you might call the “inspire vs. inform” spectrum of recipes, and how the best-written ones do both; Andrea’s fall confidently into this category. Take her headnote for vegan sate sauce, a brilliant surf-and-turf-y mixture that’s at once briny and earthy, thanks to fried shallots and lemongrass simmered with the aforementioned nori dust. After explaining where you may have seen it before (paired with hủ tiếu, bún bò huế, or phở), and its history (from southeast Asian satay sauce to chinese sha-cha sauce to Vietnamese sate sauce), she concludes: confusing semantics aside, just make this!
This circling back to inspiration is an understandable move, but Andrea’s recipes are so fun because of the depth of research and knowledge she’s able to lace into even the most lighthearted introductions. She offers us rabbit holes and connected dots because they excite her, and because they enrich the cooking experience by helping us understand the lineage into which our dinner falls. Curiosity, after all, makes for a better cook.
Mess Hall is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
This combination of knowledge and generosity is something I’ve become nearly ravenous for, especially as recipes become hanging chads of content, divorced from story or place or even time. And especially as certain cookbook authors are more concerned with, say, maintaining a cult of personality than with educating their readers. When I see someone gesturing towards the great primordial soup of knowledge that each recipe has evolved from—that’s what gets me raring to cook! Call me old-fashioned, but I’m a fiend for context.
Confusing diatribes aside, just read this book! Ever-Green Vietnamese is vegetable-focused but not exclusively vegetarian: Andrea has devised a clever recipe for vegan fish sauce, but nimbly offers it alongside the fishy stuff if that’s what you prefer, prizing flexibility and experimentation over dogma. Meat and fish appear, most often as supporting characters, or surrounded by wild tufts of green stuff—I’m dying to make the Crispy Pan-Fried Turmeric Fish Noodle Salad. In this veggie-forward way, it’s a very Californian book, just the thing to immerse yourself in as Spring arrives and we once again remember the fresh snap of an asparagus stalk. It often reminded me of Heidi Swanson’s books: there’s a crunchy west-coast ease here, and yes plenty of vegetables, and any extra work always feels worth it, a new trick up your sleeve rather than an obligation. (Both authors also make me dream of having a larger kitchen!!)
I began with the huế rice crepes (bánh khoái), a new-to-me format: crispy crunchy pancakes made from thai rice flour, filled with pork and shrimp, which you turn into lettuce wraps at the table, dunked in peanut-hoisin sauce. I hesitate to call it a “project”; it simply requires a bit of prep, the sort of thing to do on a Saturday evening while drinking a glass or two of wine. Make the sauce (simple), mix the batter (simple), sear your proteins (easy), prep all your garnishes. I found the recipe divided perfectly into two back-to-back dinners: on Saturday night, Jackson and I made our way through a third of the batter as I honed my crepe-making skills; on Sunday, I hosted perhaps the most relaxed dinner party of my life, and went through the rest. It’s an insane amount of fun to cut up the crepes—crunchy and studded with those savory bits of protein—at the table, and stuff them into lettuce wraps with a spray of herbs, dipping in each bite in peanut sauce. A joy to find a recipe whose extra prep time also means a more languorous meal.
Andrea’s recipes are so well-written, so carefully considered, that the rice crepes immediately felt familiar, a new and exciting part of my kitchen battery. Basically every recipe in the book includes notes and tips—which, yes, requires attention and time from the reader; these aren’t half-page recipes for pork chops1, but they’re also more likely to arm you with a handful of new ideas and bits of kitchen knowledge, the sort of thing that makes us more confident cooks. I’ll soon freestyle a half-batch of crepes with my leftover rice flour, maybe with some marinated tofu or boiled eggs or bacon or whatever it is that’s nagging me from the fridge.
Just as exciting are the sauces, which fill a first chapter called “Pantry Secrets” but which I loosely categorize as things I can use to make a bowl of rice exciting. Little dabs and dollops of deep flavor to stow away for tomorrow’s lunch, or this weekend’s dinner. I’ve already made fermented chile-garlic sauce, which sat out on my table for a week as I doted over it, sniffing it each day to catch when it began to mellow. It has been saving my meals from the depths of weekday boredom, and turning a depressing run of weird ad-hoc lunches palatable. Same with that sate sauce. Same with that nori dust. And the peanut-hoisin sauce, which you’ll see below, and which jackson quite literally licked from his plate.
This is the sort of cookbook that will pounce on you if you let it, and infiltrate your kitchen in the kindest way. It offers ideas not just for exploration and expansion and impressive dinners, but also day-to-day ways to turn simple meals thrilling.
Andrea Nguyen’s Huế Rice Crepes (Bánh Khoái)
Excerpted from Ever-Green Vietnamese
Keep reading with a 7-day free trial