I used to love reading through cookbooks, but for some reason, I just don’t seem to have as much time doing that anymore. So, I’ve decided that I am going to start reviewing more cookbooks on my blog that teach me about cuisines that I’m interested in learning more about, as well as books with Food as Medicine as the theme.
Today, I’m reviewing Charles Phan’s Vietnamese Home Cooking cookbook. Charles Phan is the chef-owner of the Slanted Door restaurant in San Francisco, known for its modern Vietnamese cuisine. I’ve never been to Slanted Door, but it’s on my bucket list. In the meantime, I am satisfying my dream by learning more about Vietnamese cuisine.
My first exposure to Vietnamese food was when I was growing up – my mom had a Vietnamese friend who would send home steamed Vietnamese meat rolls. And then, about six years ago, I became friends with a Vietnamese woman in my town who had stomach cancer. As our friendship developed, I discovered that we both loved food, and she introduced me to some of her favorite Vietnamese dishes – pho, banh mi, and bun rice noodle salad bowls. She had immigrated to the U.S. as a young girl but still craved the Vietnamese foods from her childhood.
I have to admit that when I first flipped through this cookbook, I was a bit confused – there were Vietnamese recipes and Chinese recipes intertwined, authentic recipes and more modern twists. As it turns out, Vietnamese Home Cooking is a collection of recipes for the home cook that Charles Phan has culled together from various places. Some recipes were adapted for his restaurant from his childhood memories, other recipes were recreated from his visits to Vietnam using American ingredients. In addition, there are recipes he has adapted from his restaurant for the home kitchen, perhaps prepared slightly differently than traditional methods, using local ingredients. Finally, there are recipes for some of his favorite foods he grew up eating.
There is beautiful photography peppered throughout the book, including photos of modern Vietnam, Charles in the kitchen, step-by-step instructions for making rice crepes, and the ingredients needed to prepare the recipes.
Although Charles Phan’s mother is Vietnamese (whose cooking style was French/Vietnamese), his father is actually Chinese (from Canton) so a number of the recipes in his cookbook are Chinese or heavily influenced by Chinese cooking. There are apparently a lot of ethnic Chinese that emigrated to Vietnam, so Vietnamese ingredients, cooking techniques and dishes can resemble Chinese cuisine. So, while at first glance, Charles Phan’s new cookbook might not resemble an authentic Vietnamese cookbook, it mirrors the fusion of Asian food that is eaten in Vietnam and in Charles’ home growing up. Phan, himself, left Vietnam in 1975 at the age of 12, and went to Guam before settling in the U.S., and eventually married a Thai woman, which also helps explain the diversity of recipes in his cookbook.
While the cookbook starts out with chapters on Soup and Street Food, the rest of the cookbook is organized by cooking method (Steaming, Braising, Stir-Frying, Grilling and Frying). Mr. Phan suggests that the home cook choose a cooking technique and an ingredient that they feel like eating and go from there. For example, if you’re in the mood for something braised, and feel like having fish, try Braised Branzino with Tomatoes and Pickled Mustard Greens. Although this might not be the typical format for a cookbook, I found it interesting.
With its mix of restaurant-style meals and home-cooking, Vietnamese and Chinese recipes, Vietnamese Home Cooking gives a glimpse into Mr. Phan’s ethnic roots, while documenting the recipes that have become part of his assimilation into the American culture. All the ingredients are easily purchased in supermarkets. Like so many immigrants who come to the United States, Mr. Phan has adapted recipes that he grew up eating in Vietnam to fit today’s tastes, and adopted American ingredients into his Vietnamese-American kitchen.
I find Mr. Phan’s story inspiring, like so many immigrants (including my own parents) – fleeing his homeland during a time of war to the U.S. in hopes of building a dream, and succeeding through a lot of sweat and hard work. At the age of 15, he cooked out of necessity for his family of ten (while his parents each worked two jobs), and took the lead trying to assimilate his family to living in the U.S. Though he never formally trained as a chef (he actually studied Architecture), he is now the successful owner of The Slanted Door, a renowned restaurant in California that has been in business for the past 15 years, showcasing modern Vietnamese using local produce fresh ingredients. Bravo Charles!
And now for the Giveaway! I have one copy of Charles Phan’s Vietnamese Home Cooking cookbook to giveaway.
- 1 tablespoon Sichuan peppercorns
- 1 tablespoon annatto seeds
- ½ cup finely chopped shallots
- ½ cup olive oil
- ¼ cup finely minced garlic (about 8 cloves)
- ¼ cup red pepper flakes
- ⅓ cup ground bean paste
- 2 tablespoons rice wine
- 2 tablespoons sugar
- 2 tablespoons light soy sauce
- 2 tablespoons fish sauce
- 2 tablespoons chicken stock or water
- Pinch of sugar
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 pound skinless, boneless chicken (use breast or thigh meat, or a mix of both), cut into 1-inch cubes
- 1 cup thinly sliced red onion
- 2 teaspoons finely chopped garlic
- ¼ cup finely minced lemongrass
- 1 red or green jalapeño chile, stemmed and thinly sliced on the diagonal into rings
- 2 tablespoons rice wine
- 1 tablespoon Roasted Chile Paste
- 2 scallions, trimmed and cut into 1-inch pieces
- 1 tablespoon finely chopped roasted peanuts, for garnish
- Combine the peppercorns and annatto seeds in a spice grinder (or use a mortar and pestle) and grind coarsely. Set aside.
- In a small saucepan, combine the shallots and oil over medium heat and cook, stirring frequently, for about 6 minutes, until the shallots are light gold. Add the garlic and cook, stirring frequently, for about 4 minutes longer, until the garlic and shallot are lightly browned.
- Stir in the red pepper flakes and the peppercorn-annatto mixture, mixing well. Add the ground bean paste, wine, sugar, and soy sauce and continue cooking, stirring, for 1 minute longer. Remove from the heat and let cool completely. This will make a lot more than you will need for making the Lemongrass Chicken. Store the remainder in an airtight container in the refrigerator.
- In a small bowl, whisk together fish sauce, stock, and sugar until the sugar has dissolved. Set aside.
- Heat a wok over high heat until hot; the metal will have a matte appearance and a drop or two of water flicked onto its surface should evaporate on contact. Add 1 tablespoon oil and heat until shimmering but not smoking. Add the chicken and cook, turning occasionally, for 3 to 4 minutes, until lightly browned on both sides.
- Remove chicken from wok.
- Return wok to heat and add 1 tablespoon oil. Add the onion and cook, stirring occasionally, for about 2 minutes, just until softened. Add the garlic, lemongrass, and jalapeño chile and cook for 30 seconds longer. Add the wine and deglaze the pan, stirring to dislodge any browned bits.
- Add the chicken back to the wok. Add the fish sauce mixture, chile paste, and scallions to the pan and continue cooking for 1 minute more, until the scallions have softened slightly and the chicken is cooked through.
- Transfer to a serving dish and garnish with the peanuts. Serve immediately.
Disclosure: I received a review copy of Vietnamese Home Cooking; my opinions are my own.