Mai Pham left Vietnam in 1975 during the fall of Saigon. When she returned for a visit some 20 years later, there were two dreams she was most eager to fulfill: to reunite with her then-96-year-old grandmother and to have a dish of pho -- rice noodle soup with beef and aromatic herbs. She has visited Vietnam every year since.
Now chef and owner of the Lemon Grass Restaurant and Café in Sacramento, California, Pham has a wonderful way of writing about food and its connection to family, childhood, love, and life. This collection of authentic recipes, which she feels represents the best the country has to offer, comes from families, market cafés, and street vendors. (Street vendors in Vietnam are highly regarded as specialized cooks.) It provides an excellent introduction to a people, a cuisine, a country.
Pham clearly explains the distinctiveness of the Vietnamese cuisine, which relies on the layering of flavors, extensive use of aromatic herbs and nuoc mam (fish sauce), and the style of eating small pieces of meat or fish wrapped in lettuce or rice and dipped in sauces. The aim, always, is to keep the flavors separate. Take a dish of pho, for example: "The noodles and broth provide substance by themselves, the flavors are rather delicate by design. However, when eaten with fresh herbs, chilies, and limes, the flavors are immediately transformed, becoming spicy, aromatic and tangy all at the same time." With that description, I'm ready to try out some of the many noodle soups right away. Recipes for Hue Chicken Salad, Stir-Fried Chicken with Lemongrass and Chilies, and even Vietnamese Coffee have also jumped to the top of my Want to Cook list.
Pleasures of the Vietnamese Table includes chapters on dipping sauces and condiments, rice noodles, cake and rolls, rice dishes with poultry and meat, seafood dishes, vegetarian favorites, and sweets. (Ginger Curwen)