Book Review: The Vietnamese Market Cookbook

Vietnamese Market Cookbook: Spicy Sour Sweet by Tran and Vu

If the path from high finance executive to cookbook author isn’t a well-beaten one, then the path from stock-broker to market stall-holder is even more poorly trod. But, for Oxford-educated former bankers turned Banh Mi vendors-cum-restaurateurs, Van Tran and Anh Vu, that was their peregrination. They certainly don’t say so in the book, but it’s the kind of riches to rags to riches (kind of) story that I’m sure fills the day-dreams of many of us who feel trapped in the limits of our corporate lives, straining at the virtual leash as we break rocks for the man.

And, even if you are delightfully fulfilled in your work life, and don’t find yourself wistfully considering the merits of staying up all night after a hard week at the office, baking your own baguettes to be filled with roast pork and paté, and flogged to punters in the East End of London on a Saturday morning, there is plenty to enjoy in their tales of ferociously hard work and joy in the simple pleasures of traditional Vietnamese flavors of their upbringing.

Both born in Vietnam and raised in Hanoi, Tran and Vu have no professional culinary training but draw on their familial recipes and traditions. Their new book The Vietnamese Market Cookbook: Spicy Sour Sweet offers financiers and non-financiers alike a range of tantalizing recipes focused on fresh ingredients combined to produce these three signature flavors. Unlike most cookbooks which are organized by course, their book is arranged on these flavor profiles and each chapter pairs biographic tales with recipes, so that as you cook, you learn more about Tran and Vu as well as about the fine interplay of Vietnamese culture and cuisine.

A perfect example of this is Chapter 5: Saltiness & Healing in which fish sauce, the dark, pungent brew made from fermented anchovies and salt, predominates. We learn not just that it is the single most important ingredient in Vietnamese cooking, but that Vietnamese airlines forbid passengers to carry it onboard for fear it will spill and stink up their aircraft forever. We also learn about salt, and that there are no fewer than 20 types of salt in the Vietnamese kitchen. This could be a dull factoid, but in Tran and Vu’s hands it becomes  a way of elaborating on the fact that saltiness isn’t just salty. It’s far more than that. The subtle way in which salty can combine with other aromatics like galangal and lemongrass or dried shrimp to amplify their flavors is at the heart of much of Vietnamese food.

Westerners might raise their eyebrows here. For the all chile, the vinegar, and the bitterness that we immediately detect in Vietnamese food isn’t subtle at all. It is an assault on tastebuds accustomed to less highly perfumed provender, but within and beneath that is the enormous subtlety and complexity of thousands of years of practice and refinement. Something that Tran and Vu distill brilliantly for their UK audience.

This side of the Atlantic, our relationships to Vietnam are different than the British. In large part because of the misadventures of the late sixties and seventies, but also because Vietnamese food, while still nowhere near the ubiquity of other Asian cuisines is not quite so unfamiliar to many of us. That’s not to underestimate how delicious it is, rather it’s to stress the impact that Tran and Vu’s banh mi had on London’s culinary scene. There was literally nothing like it beforehand and they have carved out their own niche.

Imperial BBQ Pork

And what of their recipes, you ask? Well, the only one we have tried so far was an outstanding success. It also happens to be their most popular banh mi filling: Imperial BBQ pork, marinaded in fish sauce, garlic, lemongrass, sugar and chile, before being grilled and served over rice vermicelli noodles. Deeply savory, crunchy on the outside giving way to a tender interior, the pork is wonderful, and is well-complemented when presented topped with freshly grated carrot, cilantro leaves and chopped radish.

All in all, this is a delightful and approachable book, and one that once it’s on your shelves, you’ll find yourself picking it up and leafing through it during the week, and thinking that making Vietnamese at home on a Tuesday could be just the thing. Tran and Vu are also really, really nice. They even responded to our tweet.

The Vietnamese Market Cookbook: Spicy Salty Sweet
by Van Tran and Anh Vu
Hardcover, 250 pages, $30.00 US / $34.50 Canada
Released October 2014 by Running Press, Philadelphia
Buy now at Amazon.

6 thoughts on “Book Review: The Vietnamese Market Cookbook

  1. Living in Hawaii means excellent Asian food any time, any variety therefor I have avoided cooking my own lest I embarrass myself badly–but this book sounds like one I should have, so I will have one soon. I can get almost any Asian ingredient at our plain old Safeway store, not to mention all the “specialty” markets and Chinatown of course. Plus you said the authors are very, very nice, and that matters. It really does.

    1. @Deb: It’s true, isn’t it? It matters how you feel about someone, the impression you get from them informs your behavior. Nice people make a difference just as much as non-nice people do too. Perhaps you can suggest it as a holiday gift to someone near and dear to you?

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