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Friday, December 01, 2006

I'm Dreaming of Vietnamese Cuisine...

While the holidays are thoroughly captivating to many, I am filled with visions of Spring Rolls, not sugar plums, dancing through my head. The end of this month I will going to Vietnam and it will not be a whirlwind tour. I will be there for a whole month. I have been anticipating this trip for a very long time. Being able to take big long trips is one of the true pleasures of working as a freelancer. Originally I thought I would be exploring more of Asia, but as I did my research it seemed there was at least a month's worth of things to see and do in Vietnam.

In addition to reading travel books and articles, I've been reading cookbooks. A couple in particular are really helping to give me a better background in Vietnamese cooking, ingredients and eating across the different regions of Vietnam. While many people refer to the North and South, I've learned that you can also divide the regions of the country into three, the North, Central and the South. Each region has a major city--Hanoi, Hue and Saigon (Ho Chi Minh) and a slightly different style of cuisine. I've also learned that in addition to the coffee and breads from France, Vietnamese cuisine also features curries that originally came from Cambodia, and stir fry dishes that are an influence from China.

The two books I wholeheartedly recommend if you would like to learn more about Vietnamese food are both written for American audiences by Vietnamese American women, The Little Saigon Cookbook and Into the Vietnamese Kitchen.

In The Little Saigon Cookbook published by Insider's Guide is $15.95, author Ann Le helps preserve her family traditions and her heritage as a first generation American who grew up in a Vietnamese community. In the book are explorations of topics such as Fish Sauce and Umami. In addition to recipes she provides appendixes with ingredients, resources and even sample menus. The author has connections to different regions of Vietnam and explains where recipes come from making the headnotes to each recipe feel like introductions from a friend. While I won't cook every dish, I will read through every note to better understand Vietnamese cuisine. This paperback book with black and white photos makes a great and accessible introduction to the food of Vietnam and to cooking it here at home.

From Tenspeed Press, Into the Vietnamese Kitchen available in hardcover is $35 and features beautiful color photos in addition to 175 classic recipes. The author, Andrea Nguyen begins with her story of the time she escaped from the war Vietnam in 1975, just like parents of Ann Le. She also provides a detailed primer on ingredients. I really liked reading about the Vietnamese tradition of snacking and discussions on different kinds of noodles. A photo of different green herbs is helpful and most of the recipes are not that complicated. The headnotes in this book are also a pleasure to read, incorporating personal stories, history and techniques.