"Vietnamese cuisine is based on resourcefulness, not extravagance," says Andrea Nguyen, instructor and author of six cookbooks, including Into the Vietnamese Kitchen and The Pho Cookbook (February 2017). Meat was sparse, but vegetables were abundant: Dishes evolved as a play among their colors, textures, and flavors—ripe or unripe, slowly uncharred or cool and crisp—changing again and again in unexpected ways. Balance and excitement comprise every dish—the first to round out and unite flavors, the second to engage the senses without overwhelming them. "Vietnamese food is more gently rolling hills." You won't find scorching chile heat or dark, salty sauces in Vietnamese cooking, just a constant current of subtle contrasts that keep you coming back for more.
Tofu Curry with Lemongrass and Chile
Vietnamese cuisine is so influenced by our South Asian neighbors, and this Indian-style curry is the perfect example. Tofu is a source of protein, but it's really a vegetable. This is how we treat it. Meat and tofu can often share a dish for double the umami. You don't need to press the tofu to drain the water for this recipe; a slow pan-fry achieves the same effect and gets the exterior extra crispy. For a vegetarian dish, swap the fish sauce for reduced-sodium soy sauce or the liquid from soaked dried porcini mushrooms.
Smoky Eggplant with Scallion Oil
When you cut into an eggplant, it seems dry and spongy, but once roasted in a jacket of its own skin, it becomes soft and rich, almost fatty. I love that unexpected transformation. For me, it's a total wow. Choose eggplants that feel heavy for their size. If you prefer not to grill or char on the burner of your stovetop, you can halve the eggplant lengthwise; place, skin side up, on a foil-lined baking sheet; and bake at 450°F for 30 to 45 minutes or until very tender You'll lose some of the char, but the dish will still be delicious.
Stir-Fried Water Spinach
We eat this green on a daily basis, stirred into stir-fries, soups, or salads. The cooked leaves have an incredible richness and silkiness that you won't find with regular spinach. It reminds me of home. Look for water spinach (called rau muong or ong choy) in Asian markets. Regular spinach is a fine substitute, though it won't have the same silkiness.
Butternut and Ginger Congee
This is my comfort food. It's warm and creamy, even though there's no cream in it. Vietnamese like variation in their food—not just one flavor or texture. The crispy ginger slices and fresh herbs add just the right amount of zap to the dish. Shredded butternut squash will melt beautifully into the congee; use a box grater or the shredding disc of a food processor.
Sweet Potato and Shrimp Cakes
I remember trying potato pancakes from a Jewish friend in grade school and loving them. This dish is a cross between that and my favorite fritters from home, with shrimp, lettuce leaves, fresh herbs, and nuoc cham. I consider this dish a modern Vietnamese cook's interpretation of a classic. If you can find white sweet potatoes, use them—they're drier and less sweet than their orange cousins. Place the dipping sauce in a bowl surrounded by the lettuce and herbs so guests can build their own lettuce wraps as they like.
Cashew, Coconut, and Cabbage Slaw
In Vietnam, you'll see Western-style tossed salads and salads like this one, called goi—more carefully composed, with a thoughtful balance of flavors, colors, and textures. They are usually served on special occasions. Refreshing the coconut flakes in a bit of coconut oil gives them a lovely sheen and makes the salad incredibly aromatic. The lime juice and zest bring the whole thing together. Find this recipe in the Pho Cookbook, out February 2017.
Vietnamese Pantry Essentials
1. Oyster Sauce
Adds a bit of savory sweetness with a touch of the sea. Look for brands with real oyster extract, like Lee Kum Kee.
2. Fish Sauce
Dilute fish sauce with water and garlic for a touch of umami that won't overwhelm you with briny funkiness.
3. Rice Vinegar
I add rice vinegar to refine tart lime juice and round out a dish, like smoothing rough wood with sandpaper.
4. Coconut Milk
I buy full-fat coconut milk for more body and flavor and just use less. Open the can upside down, if instructed, and pour off the thin, diluted portion.
5. Thai Chiles
These pinkie-length chiles deliver a punctuated heat without lots of chopped bits floating in the dish. Buy them in bulk, and freeze.
Essential for adding pungency and pop. Fresh ginger will keep in a plastic bag in your crisper for about a month. Look for heavy knobs with tight skins.
The fibrous stalks impart a delicate lemon perfume that fits the more subtle aspects of Vietnamese cooking. Trim to 5-inch pieces, and freeze.