Switch things up in the kitchen with these easy-to-make, veggie-forward weeknight meals
Many people who are new to Vietnamese food wonder if they can make it at home. They’ve fallen hard for healthy rice paper rolls, vibrant banh mi, and comforting pho noodle soup. Those refreshing favorites hit all the pleasure centers. And, while seeming exotic, they’re friendly in being endlessly customizable. Students in my cooking classes often ask: How easy is it to prepare Viet food? Where do you find the ingredients?
Ten years ago, I would have nudged them toward an Asian market to negotiate foreign food labels and unfamiliar languages. Nowadays, my advice to Vietnamese food novices is this: Go to your local grocery stores and specialty retailers. They are well stocked for making good Vietnamese food.
Go ahead and roll your skeptical eyes, but when my family first arrived in America in 1975, we relied on regular supermarkets to recreate the flavors that we missed after fleeing Vietnam’s political upheaval. Working the phone lines and sharing tips with other refugees, my mom used ingredients sold within walking distance of the apartment that we rented in San Clemente, California.
Fish sauce, a Viet go-to condiment, wasn’t available at mainstream grocers but our local supermarkets, even with their limited inventories (about 9,000 products according to industry data), surprisingly had certain ingredients for superb Viet food. Mom swapped Swans Down cake flour for rice flour to make tender steamed rice noodle rolls in a nonstick skillet. America’s wealth of cheap chicken backs, in combination with Texas long-grain rice, onion, ginger and celery enabled delectable pots of chicken and rice, a luxury in Vietnam where chicken was pricey.
Our eating life improved once we were able to stock up at Chinese markets, and eventually at Little Saigon grocers in Westminster and Garden Grove, towns located about thirty-five miles away. Interestingly, that burgeoning Vietnamese American enclave nearby didn’t motivate us to move there. My parents wanted our family to assimilate into American society but remain rooted in our heritage. What emerged was our Vietnamese American food experience. Banh mi and cereal were my breakfast options. Sunday brunch could be pho or hamburgers. Spaghetti dinners included a side of rice.
Much has changed since then. American supermarkets nowadays offer about 40,000 products, reflecting greater interest in global flavors, including those of Vietnam. When I first began teaching, I had to cajole cooks into tasting fish sauce with cucumber slices. Now, I just hand out spoons for people to sample different brands. Moreover, you can buy good fish sauce at markets like Whole Foods, Kroger, and Publix! The popularity and availability of that linchpin ingredient, along with other staples like lemongrass, rice paper, and coconut milk, made me realize that Viet foods may truly be part of the American table.
My latest cookbook, Vietnamese Food Any Day (released by Ten Speed Press in February 2019), showcases how you can deploy accessible resources to prepare delicious dishes. All ingredients come from supermarkets, mainstream retailers, and farmers’ markets. No Asian market shopping trip is required! No deep frying and no unusual cooking equipment are involved. You’re encouraged think like a smart Viet cook — to be nimble, curious, and creative but to not compromise on outcomes.
For example, savory-sweet and garlicky Chinese barbecued pork, called char siu in Cantonese and xá xíu in Vietnamese. A favorite with rice, in banh mi, and atop noodle soup, the traditional version requires a good hour (better yet, overnight) to marinate. My streamlined approach is to make it with chicken thighs (they take on flavors fast) and cook them on a grill. The result is old-school goodness done in a flash. Recipes like this are perfect for weeknight cooking, any time you feel like getting into the Viet spirit.
View Recipe: Vietnamese-Style Grilled Char Siu Chicken
Andrea Nguyen is a James Beard award-winning cookbook author and culinary instructor.