Many girls who learn to cook from their mothers watch the older woman measure by touch. There are no cups and tablespoons involved. But in Andrea Nguyen’s childhood kitchen, her mother had her own system of weights and measures. âMy mother is unusual,â says Nguyen. âMy mother measures, she weighs things, she keeps a recipe book. She uses special rice bowls and spoons and has everything written down.
So when Nguyen, who was 6 in 1975 when his family boarded one of the last US military transport planes from Saigon, decided to stop working on college marketing projects and writing cookbooks, she had a starting point: her mother’s recipes. She grew up in Southern California and when her family needed Vietnamese ingredients for their cooking, she drove three hours to Chinatown in Los Angeles and back.
Nguyen (pronounced N-win) is one of the country’s leading authorities writing on Vietnamese cuisine today, and she has seen the cuisine become popular enough over the years that hard-to-find ingredients such as sticks of rice and fish sauce are now in many supermarkets. . âWhen I was in Boston I went to Market Basket and it gave me so much joy to shop there,â she says over the phone from her home in Santa Cruz. âWhy can’t this store be in every city in America? “
She admits that some of her cooking takes time, but she wants to take the pressure off to be exact. “If people can cook Thai tacos or curry on a weekday evening, why can’t they cook Vietnamese food?” This was the premise of his sixth book, âVietnamese Food Any Day,â which was released in 2019.
A weekday dish is a bun (pronounced “boon” with an ascending intonation at the end, like a question), also known as rice bowl noodles. “It’s a fresh salad, very calming, fabulous to make.” The traditional bun is made with rice noodles, daikon, carrots, grated greens, bean sprouts and herbs. âI bend the rules because I cook with what is available,â she says. âI’m Vietnamese, so I’m going to have some fish sauce, some greens and some crunch. The filling may vary. She can add leftover steak, grilled vegetables, or both fish and meat. Then, âwhatever sweet weed you have,â she says. âMint and cilantro are what my family had when we first arrived here. I count on them. But when there is Asian basil in his garden, it also fits.
Nguyen thanked the late Anthony Bourdain for introducing Americans to his cooking. He visited Vietnam in 2000 for the first season of his TV show “A Cook’s Tour”. Eight years later, he taught President Barack Obama how to sip noodles in Hanoi. âHe was trying to help Americans heal from the Vietnam War with food,â she says. Then a new generation of cooking enthusiasts – “young people who are much more open to bold flavors”, explains Nguyen – adopted cooking.
Sometimes, after giving a cooking class, Nguyen is approached by a young Vietnamese American who tells him that they are trying to learn cooking from their mother. âMy mother doesn’t want to tell me anything,â reports the student. Nguyen has a simple solution. Make a recipe from one of her books, she says, and present it to mom. Immediately after tasting the dish, mom will tell you how it should have been cooked. Bring out his competitive spirit, advises Nguyen. “She’ll want to outdo you.”