Cookbook review: Authentic Vietnamese Cooking by Corinne Trang Restaurants, Wine, Travel, Opinions

Authentic Vietnamese Cooking by Corinne Trang

Reviewed By

Sue Dyson and Roger McShane

Corinne Trang's Authentic Vietnamese Cuisine is an important addition to our knowledge of the basics of Vietnamese cuisine.
She was born in France (in the Loire Valley) and while growing up spent time in Cambodia and the United States as well as her native France. She now lives in New York where she continues her work as a writer and commentator on Asian food. She also worked for a short period on the Saveur magazine.
Her French background is important here because we are particularly intrigued by the French influence on Vietnamese cuisine which is manifested in the breads, omelettes and crepes as well as in some of the cooking techniques.
Trang's first recipe is for Nuoc Cham the ubiquitous dipping sauce that is always present. We believe that Asian sauces have yet to find their rightful place in the West as dishes that require skill and competence to produce correctly. Many Western chefs believe that a nam jim or a Nuoc Cham can be constructed by throwing a few ingredients together.
However, when you taste a perfect example of one of these sauces you know just how complex and multi-faceted they are. Few Western chefs achieve the balance of sweet, sour and salty in these dishes that is so essential.
The recipe that Ms Trang provides is a good starting point with fish sauce providing the saltiness, sugar for sweetness, limes providing the sour component, chillies proving some heat and shallots and garlic adding a sweet undertone.
Of course, one of the great dishes of the Vietnamese repertoire is pho (whether it be chicken or beef). In order to create a great pho you have to have a great stock and the book devotes a lot of pages to the techniques and ingredients required to produce a great stock. Trang also addresses the paradox of spices in the beef stock. She recounts that her mother normally eschews cinnamon as a spice yet considers it essential in a beef stock. Her stock also receives considerable power from the addition of five star anise - a spice we approach with some trepidation due to its invasive effect in recipes. However the end result is a fine stock that translates to a great pho.
Trang also presents a number of other soups including a fish and pineapple soup. We feel that in this recipe she panders somewhat to American tastes by using fillets of cod because they don't taste 'fishy' - although she does use the fish head to provide depth to the soup. However the end result is a good soup relying on pineapple and tamarind to provide the sourness (and sweetness) giving an end result that tastes more like a Thai soup.
She goes on the provide northern recipes for chicken and beef pho (the flavour of pho varies throughout the country). We also like her recipe for fish quenelles (New Ca) which are simmered then fried and served with a dipping sauce.
It is also worth checking out the Trung Chung - a steamed egg and meat custard. We are intrigued by the use of custards through all the Asian cuisines whether it be Chawan Mushi in Japan, the savoury egg dishes of Shanghai, the haw mok (steamed fish custard) of Thailand and now this example.
She finishes with some sweet dishes including one of our favourites which is the Chinese-style sesame rice dumplings that are so appealing at the end of a meal.
It is an attractive book with good typography and reasonable photographs although the fact that they are in black and white detracts somewhat from their impact.
However these are great recipes that are well-explained. Ms Trang does her readers the courtesy of explaining why you need to do things as well as what you have to do.
Having used the book for some time now, we still think there is a place for a much more extensive and detailed survey of this important cuisine - the equivalent of David Thompson's tour-de-force of Thai cuisine - because the food is complex, interesting and multi-faceted.
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