Andrea Nguyen Balances Tradition with Innovation in “Ever-Green Vietnamese”
Vegan. Vegetarian. Pescatarian. Flexitarian. Keto. So many of today’s dietary practices fit into a well-established mold, with cookbooks and websites galore devoted to helping one uphold them. While this can simplify the search for a regime that you know and feel strongly about, for those who are more, let’s say, diet-agnostic, these definitions can seem limiting. Especially when it comes to enjoying the traditional dishes of one’s heritage.
In particular, how can one enjoy pho without beef stock? Or ban cuon without fish sauce for the nuoc cham to dip it into? In several ways, as Andrea Nguyen demonstrates in her upcoming cookbook, “Ever-Green Vietnamese: Super-Fresh Recipes, Starring Plants from Land and Sea,” which will be published April 25. The veteran cookbook author of award-winning titles including “Vietnamese Any Day” and “The Pho Cookbook” has unleashed her version of a plant-based cookbook, and unlike recent, widely acclaimed vegan and vegetarian cookbooks on Asian cuisines (like Hetty McKinnon’s “To Asia, With Love,” Hannah Che’s “The Chinese Vegan Kitchen” and Joanne Lee Molinaro’s “The Korean Vegan Cookbook”), Nguyen makes room for meat and seafood in some recipes, while focusing primarily on vegetables.
In February, Nguyen explained in her newsletter, Pass the Fish Sauce, how her publisher, Ten Speed Press, told her they could easily sell a vegetarian Vietnamese cookbook written by her. But, Nguyen wrote to subscribers, “It wouldn’t be me. I adore vegetables but am not vegetarian.” So instead, “Ever-Green Vietnamese” is “about vegetables but it’s not vegetarian.”
Besides, we don’t need strict labels or fancy buzzwords like “flexitarian” to explore the traditional starring roles that plants have always played in Vietnamese cuisine, Nguyen argues.
“Viet culinary culture has been and continues to be shaped by scrappy cooks who make the most of limited resources, the majority of which are harvested from the earth,” she writes in the upcoming book’s introduction.
The same could be said for many other cuisines of the world as well. And it’s a philosophy that you can carry into your own kitchen for more healthful, sustainable and economical everyday cooking, whether you’re chasing a traditional dish or making something up on the fly.
Here are a few tips and guidelines on how to do that which I’ve gleaned from the recipes throughout “Ever-Green Vietnamese.”
Increase the Vegetable Quotient in Dishes where Meat Typically Stars
Do you think of a beef and vegetable stir-fry as having at least 50% beef or more? Maybe restaurants do this to improve the perception of value with their offerings. But you don’t need to. Think more like 25% or less beef and choose tasty vegetables like mushrooms and green beans, as Nguyen does in her recipe for Gingery Vegetable and Beef Stir Fry (notice how she places “vegetable” first). There’s also a recipe for Chicken-Vegetable Pho in “Ever-Green Vietnamese” (in addition to a vegan pho recipe) which incorporates plenty of vegetables from the start of making the broth, to the beautifully garnished, finished bowl.
Build Umami with Sea Vegetables
Vegan fish sauce — yes, you read that correctly — exists in bottles, where it’s commonly used by Vietnamese vegetarians. But this essential ingredient and seasoning can also be made from scratch at home. Nguyen’s recipe starts with an infusion of wakame and kombu seaweed, and some pineapple juice to match the sweetness of the fermented fish brine. The two dried seaweed types also factor heavily into a vegan broth for the Deluxe Vegan Pho, where “kombu contributes a round mouthfeel like that of meat collagen while the wakame injects a briny back note like that of dried seafood,” Nguyen writes. And for garnish, Nguyen likes to sprinkle nori dust in everything, from a loaded vegetable fried rice to a vegan sate sauce. Keep all these dried seaweeds on hand in your pantry.
Focus on the Sauces, Not the Protein Type
In Nguyen’s recipe for Hainan-style crispy tofu and rice in “Ever-Green Vietnamese,” she acknowledges that when it comes to the famous Singaporean national dish, Hainan chicken, people tend to obsess over the delicately cooked and seasoned chicken. “But for me, this one-dish wonder is more about the sumptuous garlicky rice and various ginger-inflected sauces,” she writes. It could be any protein, meat or tofu, to delight in dipping into an array of piquant sauces. From a gingery soy sauce with vinegar and agave syrup to a chunky green onion-ginger sauce to a chile-garlic sauce, these exciting (and totally plant-based) sauces can make a blah dish sing. To get the maximum flavor, try making sauces like these fresh from scratch, and worry less about choosing and cooking your protein, whatever it may be.
Don’t Be Afraid of MSG. And Marmite.
There’s a whole world of plant-based flavor enhancers. MSG has gotten a pretty bad rap amongst them. But monosodium glutamate — created in 1908 by Japanese chemist Kikunae Ikeda, who coined the term “umami,” the flavor it produces — is not the dangerous food additive you may have been misled about. “Research from the 1970s to today shows no definite link between MSG and reported symptoms, such as heart palpitations, headaches and sweating,” writes Nguyen in “Ever-Green Vietnamese.” So adding a pinch here and there to zhuzh up your vegetable-based dishes won’t hurt. Marmite, the yeast extract created in 1902 from beer brewing by-products, is a thick paste which Nguyen says adds a beefy, savory depth to sauces and dishes. She employs it in her recipe for vegan fish sauce, as well as vegan soup broths, and a tofu-mushroom curry. Although if you can’t find or prefer not to use either MSG or Marmite, substitutes include Maggi seasoning sauce, Bragg liquid aminos and soy sauce.
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Author photo by Aubrie Pick
Bok choy photo by naiyanab/ Adobe Stock
Tofu photo by Moving Moment/ Adobe Stock