It's Not About Dumbing Down, It's About Accessibility
JBF Award winner Andrea Nguyen believes you can cook Vietnamese food any dayDevra Ferst
May 28, 2019
When we say the James Beard Foundation is about good food for good, it’s not limited to sustainable agriculture, the Farm Bill, or reducing food waste. Another important aspect of our mission is highlighting the myriad hands that have helped to shape American cuisine. Below, Devra Ferst recounts her recent outing with JBF Award winner Andrea Nguyen, and explores how Nguyen's new cookbook, Vietnamese Food Any Day, reflects a shift in the author's approach on how to get homemade Asian food into more kitchens.
It’s a clear day in late April in Brooklyn and cookbook author Andrea Nguyen and I are both outside of a location of KeyFoods—only several blocks apart. We got our wires crossed, an easy thing to do with KeyFoods, a run-of-the-mill grocery store ubiquitous in New York City.
There’s an irony to being at a grocery store like this with a James Beard Award–winning Vietnamese cookbook author. We’re only a few miles from Manhattan’s Chinatown and the Brooklyn neighborhood of Sunset Park, both of which brim with Asian grocery stores. But, not every cook is as fortunate.
When Nguyen’s family arrived in the U.S. as refugees in 1975, escaping Saigon shortly before it fell and settling in San Clemente, California, a trip to an Asian grocery store in Los Angeles’s Chinatown required a three hour round-trip drive. Her family made that trip every other month or so, but more often, they shopped at a nearby location of Albertsons. They made do with the ingredients available, adapting when necessary. Her mother swapped corn tortilla chips for hard-to-source rice crackers and Swan’s Down flour for rice flour, while a neighbor substituted spaghetti for rice noodles in bún bò Huế, a heady beef soup from central Vietnam.
We’re at KeyFoods to take her sixth and newest book, Vietnamese Food Any Day: Simple Recipes for True, Fresh Flavors, for a test drive. The thrust of the book is to make Vietnamese cooking accessible to anyone living in the U.S.—no trip to an Asian supermarket required. The idea aligns with Nguyen’s mission on her website: “At the end of the day, my aim is to…demystify Asian food without dumbing it down. There’s no reason why more people shouldn’t include great homemade Asian food in their rotation.”
We stop at KeyFoods and a small neighborhood gourmet market to pick up the ingredients for chả cá, a dish of white fish coated in turmeric, topped with a mound of dill and scallions, and served with nests of rice noodles, a plate of fresh herbs and lettuce, bowls of peanuts, a deeply funky sauce laced with chiles, and rice crackers, all to be combined and tossed together by the diner. It’s a dish I’ve craved since I had it in Hanoi two-and-a-half years ago. It’s also one of the dishes in her book that calls for several substitutions—ginger in place of galangal, sour cream for fermented cooked rice, and anchovy paste for shrimp sauce, to name a few.
As we unpack our groceries in her Airbnb kitchen, I am skeptical for just a moment. Can a recipe that calls for so many swaps produce the dish I remember, or will it be lost in translation?
“This is modern cooking, it’s interpretive cooking, and I just don’t see that as being something that’s untrue or wrong,” Nguyen says as we get ready for lunch. “I’m not going to be able to get more people to try these flavors unless I make it something that is accessible to them, but I don’t want to dumb it down.”
The book is an exercise in this balancing act. “With Asian food, people just have these obstacles—[they say] ‘I can’t do it. It’s mysterious,’” Nguyen says. For that reason, she swapped shrimp sauce for anchovy paste in the chả cá recipe. “If this is one of the two recipes in this book that uses this condiment, and I have to get somebody to an Asian market to find the right shrimp sauce, and open the jar and it looks like purple stinky toothpaste, that’s really pushing them, and I don't think I need to push them that hard.”
This approach is notably different from her first cookbook, the 2006 Into the Vietnamese Kitchen: Treasured Foodways, Modern Flavors, which requires trips to an Asian supermarket to make recipes like bò kho, or beef stewed with tomato, star anise, and lemongrass, and đùi vịt quay mật ong, or honey-roasted duck legs. Her cooking has changed, as have American supermarkets. When her first book came out, she struggled to find good fish sauce. On our shopping trip, we find three brands—settling on A Taste of Thai, which Nguyen recommends.
“I’m in a position to liberate people and just tell them: ‘It’s ok to do these hacks,’” Nguyen says. “For people who say ‘well that’s inauthentic,’ my question is: ‘Ok, how come you’re willing to accept hacks from people who aren’t Vietnamese?’ Vietnamese people do hacks all the time.”
In her book, Nguyen grounds her “hacks,” as she calls them, in tradition and context. “Because I want people to understand the thread, the rationale behind these substitutes,” she says. She’s also her own skeptic. “I need you to understand why I put something in there. So I need to give you that context and I want that context—I need to persuade myself to use my recipes.”
Just before we sit down for our lunch, Nguyen laughs for a moment, impressed by the success of her own recipe. The tilapia is more delicate than the fish in Hanoi and the aroma is slightly different since we used the broiler instead of a brazier on the table, but the dish’s soul is intact, as is the undercurrent of funk I’ve missed since my visit to Hanoi. As we eat, both of us are convinced.
Devra Ferst is a food writer, editor, and cooking instructor living in Brooklyn, NY. Follow her on Instagram at @dferst.