Nothing goes to waste with Andrea Nguyen’s modern Vietnamese dishes, from leftover chicken and extra veggies to overripe bananas.
Around the corner from my childhood home in Saigon was an open-air market. It was huge and noisy, with vendors hawking dry goods, vibrant produce, freshly butchered meats, and live seafood. Those market visits seeded my interests in food, cooking, and grocery shopping.
Fast forward to May 1975 and the first time my family checked out an American supermarket. We were new refugee arrivals who’d just fled Vietnam’s political upheaval. My parents were relieved, yet wary about how they’d build new lives. Working the phone lines and sharing tips with other refugees, my mom co-opted non-Viet ingredients for Viet dishes. It was months before we got a car to make the three-hour-roundtrip drive to Los Angeles’s Chinatown, where we’d load up on familiar Asian staples.
Like many good cooks, my mom adapted her cooking for her current situation. In the process, she and other Vietnamese immigrants helped evolve and advance their food traditions. Incorporating American work-arounds while not compromising Vietnamese integrity created foodways that helped to define the Vietnamese American experience. Spaghetti dinners included a side of rice.
Keeping our feet in two worlds was an adventure, not a challenge. We were thrifty but well fed. My mom read the weekly supermarket circular ads like they were the Bible. Then, she made a list and sent my dad and me to various markets to score grocery deals all over town. In at least one store, we’d inevitably check the produce department for discounted overripe bananas to make a cake.
Viet cooks are curious and inventive by nature. They’re always creating new dishes, incorporating new ingredients, or reconsidering old-fashioned, labor-intensive techniques. That dynamic keeps the cuisine and culture evolving. Viet food doesn’t have to be an exotic, special weekend project. It’s deliciously doable whenever you want.
Vietnamese Food Any Day by Andrea Nguyen, Ten Speed Press, £25.