Pleasures of the Vietnamese Table

by Mai Pham (2001)

When Mai Pham–chef and owner of the renowned Lemon Grass Restaurant in Sacramento, California–left her home and her grandmother in Saigon in 1975, just days before the city fell to communist rule, she never thought she’d see either again. Happily for her, she returned 20 years later to rediscover her roots and reconnect with her 100-year-old grandmother. Happily for us, she’s written Pleasures of the Vietnamese Table, in which she shares that journey–and the vibrant cuisine of her homeland. She weaves a stirring tale of rediscovery; of visiting with cooks in market stalls and street cafés and home kitchens; and, perhaps most importantly, of rediscovering her “favorite food on earth,” pho, the noodle soup often referred to as the national dish of Vietnam.

Pham begins with a chapter on dipping sauces, condiments, and herbs, which, she explains, are the true backbone of Vietnamese cooking. She explores culinary variations: the “rice bowl” of the southern peninsula and the French- and Indian-inspired foods of Saigon; the more robust style of the cooler central region of Hue; and the straightforward style of the mountainous north. And she shares the simple, classic recipes that define Vietnamese food. Green Mango Salad with Grilled Beef is at once salty (from the ubiquitous fish sauce), sweet from the fruit, and tangy and spicy from Chili-Lime Sauce. Ginger Chicken is bright with the flavor of ginger and spicy with dried chilies; caramel sauce adds body and an intriguing sweet and smoky element to the dish. And of course, one can’t forget the beloved pho, which gets a whole chapter to itself. The traditional Hanoi-style Vietnamese “Pho” Rice Noodle Soup with Beef is fragrant with anise and ginger and thick with velvety noodles and delectably rare beef suspended in the hot broth.

Featured throughout the book are black-and-white photographs of the country and its people, stories of Pham’s childhood, and enchanting tales of the history and people of Vietnam that, taken together, highlight a rich and vibrant picture of the ancient cuisine of this complex country. Helpful guides to the Vietnamese pantry and cooking techniques, along with a glossary, menu suggestions, and a list of resources for the more exotic ingredients make the book extremely useful to even the uninitiated. –Robin Donovan

Vietnamese Home Cooking for Everyone

by Andre Nguyen & Yukiko Moriyama (2003)

This is a nice cookbook with no personal or cultural anecdotes, just simple recipes with practical ingredients and very good results. The recipes are laid out one per page, with photographs of the dish, the ingredients and preparation. With so much photos, the instructions are necessarily streamlined, which works for many of the recipes except for a few, like beef pho. Telling one to combine all the ingredients in boiling stock and cook over low heat just won’t do for pho. It assumes you know a thing or two about preparing this soup, like how long to simmer it. I recommend at least an hour or more.

There is a wonderful recipe for chicken simmered in coconut juice and flavored with Maggie sauce, which is essentially Ga Roti in my book. It tastes just like my mom’s and no other vietnamese cookbook I’ve come across have it. In fact, the ingredients the author uses are exactly my mom’s, except she would measure in pinches and tads and touches of this and that. Ditto for the caramelized pork and eggs (thit kho & trung).

There is also an ingredients list containing color photographs that is handy for shopping.

Overall, a good selection of easy, homey, delicious recipes like bun rieu, bun suong (another hard to find recipe), and vietnamese sandwiches. Also, if you like cookbooks that contain more photos of how to prepare the food and optimal (minimal) use of words, this is a good choice.

The Foods of Vietnam

Many authentic Vietnamese recipes, and some of which even I have not heard of before, even though I am Vietnamese. Once you have gathered all the herbs, the condiments, and the other necessary stuff to cook Vietnamese foods, then the actual cooking itself is quite simple. It is well worth the effort to cook the yummy dishes in this book. You will have a greater appreciation for Vietnamese foods and culture. The author does a fantastic job of explaining the recipes. This book is a must-have for serious Vietnamese foodie.

The Best of Vietnamese & Thai Cooking : Favorite Recipes from Lemon Grass Restaurant and Cafes
by MAI PHAM (1995)

Mai Pham has woven wonderful memories between the recipes of this beautiful book: memories of her childhood in Bangkok, her Vietnamese family and their reverence for good food, her husband’s search for the best pho recipe in Saigon. The recipes themselves are light, healthy, and loaded with the unique flavors — strong and delicate, tangy and mild, sweet and mouth-puckeringly sour, always exotic and delicious — of Southeast Asia. Pham owns the Lemon Grass Restaurant and Cafes in Sacramento, and is a well-known teacher of Southeast Asian cooking.