I have long had a weird fascination with exploring grocery stores. Maybe it’s some leftover vestige from childhood and having been taken grocery shopping with my mother once a week. Maybe I like that strange scent of refrigerated air that permeates many a produce aisle. Whatever it is, all I know is that I take a certain amount of pleasure—heck, joy even—from wandering the aisles of a store I’ve never been too and seeing what new treasures lie there that I might not have seen before, how it’s laid out and even how it may be different from other stores.
I’m so fascinated by stores that I once wrote a story for a column writing class about the wonders of wandering around the Safeway—yes, Safeway—in San Francisco’s Potrero Hill while visiting my brother on a trip from Boston. (Point of comparison—a San Francisco Safeway has about as many different brands of tortillas as any Stop n’ Shop in Boston has brands of pasta—how’s that for regional differences?) And once my good friend L. suggested that we meet at Draeger’s in San Mateo one afternoon when we were going to hang out. We literally spent the better part of an afternoon wandering through the place, first grabbing lunch, then picking up groceries for his dinner. I hadn’t even told him about my store obsession—but somehow he knew that was the place to take me.
So when award-winning cookbook author, food writer and cooking teacher Andrea Nguyen suggested we meet for our interview in San Jose’s Little Saigon for an afternoon lunch excursion followed by a trip to Vietnamese supermarket, I was all over that idea!
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A noted expert on Vietnamese cooking, Andrea has authored four cookbooks over the past ten years for Ten Speed Press, one of the best cookbook imprints in the publishing business. Her latest book, The Banh Mi Handbook, was published this past July. Andrea’s first book, Into the Vietnamese Kitchen, is widely recognized as the first cookbook to really tackle Vietnamese home cooking, and it was nominated for both a James Beard Award and two awards from the International Association of Culinary Professionals (IACP). That book led Andrea to explore other realms of Asian cooking in her next two books, Asian Dumplings and Asian Tofu.
In addition to her cookbook endeavors, Andrea is also a food writer and blogger who has published in such publications as Saveur, The Wall Street Journal, The Chicago Tribune and LA Magazine. She has also appeared on public radio shows such as NPR’s Splendid Table, KQED’s Bay Area Bites and on Evan Kleiman’s Good Food on KCRW in Los Angeles. She frequently teaches cooking classes both in the Bay Area and recently started teaching online via Craftsy. And as if that wasn’t enough—she even has a smartphone app available on iTunes, the Asian Market Shopper, which helps shoppers figure out how to buy Asian ingredients at the market.
I meet Andrea in front of The Lion Market in Little Saigon on a recent Tuesday afternoon. Although this is our first time meeting, our mutual interest in food (and grocery stores!)—along with her warm, friendly manner, easy laugh and infectious enthusiasm—creates an instant rapport. She suggests we first get lunch, then shop. Located around the intersection of Story and McLaughlin streets in San Jose, the Little Saigon area is an eclectic mix of businesses that resembles most other major intersections in California’s urban areas—one story strip malls where gas stations sit next to fast food restaurants, mom and pop businesses and chain stores. Kitty Corner from The Lion Market at the intersection is Com Tam Thien Huong, a typcial Vietnamese restaurant that features pho, noodle dishes (bun) and rice plates.
The restaurant’s interior has a hint of the late disco-era with neon lighting and tiny mirrored tiles on the walls and in the restrooms, so both Andrea and I get a kick out of its retro feel. For lunch, Andrea suggests I try a Vietnamese rice plate—which consists of a selection of meats (the one I ordered included a grilled pork chop, ground shrimp molded around a piece of sugar cane like a skewer, “noodles” made of pork crackling, shrimp and tofu cake, and an egg pancake), rice and a side of pickled daikon, carrot, shallot and lettuce. My meal also comes with a side of soup, basically broth, which Andrea says was most likely pork broth with a little chicken mixed in. It was delicious. For her lunch, Andrea orders a Singaporean chicken dish of bone-in chicken poached in broth with a side of rice flecked with garlic chips.
When our food arrives, I ask Andrea whether it’s proper to eat my meal with chopsticks or with a fork and knife. Other than the classic Asian soup spoon that comes with the cup of soup, there is a container on the table filled with chopsticks, forks, spoons and steak knives letting the diner choose his or her own eating method.
“Vietnamese food is kind of funny because you can end up using many different utensils depending on the situation,” Andrea tells me. She recommends I eat my meal with a fork and knife rather than chopsticks because most of the meat needs to be cut up and everything on the plate is meant to be mixed together and eaten with a bit of sauce poured on top. “There are few rules or parameters of eating Vietnamese food,” she says. “It’s better to just get at it with a fork and knife.”
Andrea also proposes we each “attack” our plates then switch so we can share and try both dishes. Like most food lovers, I’m not one for hoarding my own meal. I typically share food with whomever I’m eating with, so I’m happy to oblige. I dig into the pork chop first. This is not the typical thick “America’s cut” chop that you see in most grocery stores today. Rather, it’s super thinly sliced—probably only a good ¼ of an inch thick even though it was still on the bone. I actually prefer that it’s sliced so thinly—it’s much less daunting than being faced with a 2-inch thick piece of meat. It has a nice char on it and a slightly sweet marinade that leaves me wanting more.
As we start to eat, I ask Andrea how she got into cookbook and food writing. As it turns out, writing a cookbook was a childhood dream of hers. As she tells it, not only did she want to write a cookbook from a young age, but she would read cookbooks for fun as a child.
“It was an unusual situation in that I always wanted to write a cookbook since I was young,” she says. “I had this idea of writing a cookbook based on my family and other Vietnamese people’s experiences acculturating in the United States.”
Andrea’s idea also met an unfilled need in the market. Although there were other Vietnamese cookbooks on the market at the time, most of them had a far more gourmet bent that was “really fussy,” she says, and included long lists of ingredients “that went on forever.” Not only did she feel that that kind of cooking didn’t necessarily appeal to a home cook interested in exploring Asian cuisine, but it didn’t really reflect her own experience of the food she grew up with before her family left Vietnam when she was about six years old or when they emigrated to Southern California. Rather than representing what Vietnamese people really cook at home, she felt what was being represented was “fancied up food.”
“I saw that there just wasn’t anything being published that spoke to my family’s experiences,” she said.
Andrea was so determined that she would someday write a cookbook, she wrote a book proposal for what was to become Into the Vietnamese Kitchen, in the early to mid 1990s on her own without the guidance of an agent. But the proposal ended up sitting around for years. At the time, the celebrity chef cookbook genre was just taking off. Although she tried to shop the book around to different literary agents, she was told that she couldn’t get her book published because he didn’t “have a TV show,” she said.
After Andrea and her husband moved to Santa Cruz from Los Angeles, she met Philip Wood, the founder of Ten Speed Press. Wood loved the idea for her cookbook, she said, and was ready to publish it based on their connection. But Andrea wanted to make sure that the proposal she’d worked so hard on was up to snuff, so she insisted the proposal go through the rigors of being evaluated by the editorial staff and chosen for publication. “They were all over it,” she said. And she was assigned to work with one of the imprint’s best editors, Aaron Wehner, who now runs Ten Speed Press.
“I just thought I would write one book and that would be it,” she said. But the universe and Ten Speed thought otherwise. Andrea says the imprint put a lot of resources behind Into the Vietnamese Kitchen. And it ended up being nominated for three awards, including a James Beard award, which was a thrill for Andrea on multiple levels because not only did she receive a nomination for the most prestigious award in the food world, but she also got to attend their famous awards dinner.
As Andrea and I switch plates so we can try each other’s food, she tells me that Ten Speed felt she had a few more books in her, not just the one. And they were right—her first three books have been landmark publications in the cookbook world. Asian Tofu, which tackles making tofu from scratch, was inspired by her mother, who had encouraged Andrea to think about making her own tofu. Her second book, Asian Dumpling, was inspired by her own interest in dumpling. But, Andrea says, she was unsure how it would be received.
“I said to them [Ten Speed], ‘Are you sure that America is ready to make dumpling skins by hand?’ and they were like, ‘Yeah!’,” she said.
One of the things that is unique about Asian Dumplings, Andrea says, is that she organized the book not by the culture or cuisine, but by the type of flour involved in making the dumpling. All of the recipes show the reader how to make dumplings entirely from scratch from the filling to the wrapper, including how to roll out the dough and fold various types of dumplings. The book is like a compendium of dumplings across Asian cultures including everything from popular dim sum dumplings to gyoza and samosas.
“For me, half the fun was the intellectual set up for the parameters [of the book] and how do I teach something?” Andrea said.
Another hallmark of Andrea’s books is that she purposely sets out to demystify Asian foods for home cooks and make her recipes accessible to everyone. As such, she says that all of her books start how home cooks can do things with tools they may already have on hand and still make authentic food. Her approach, she says, is along the lines of “How can I make a gorgeous dumpling with flour that I get from Safeway? And you can! And with a dowel that you buy at Orchard Supply or a tortilla press—you can totally do that!”
Another reason she takes that approach is because it’s true to the experience that Asian immigrants have had to take when they arrive in this country. “Because that’s what a lot of immigrants to America did,” she said.
Dumplings, Andrea says, also tend to be a food made from things on hand. She describes them as “cozy food [that] makes people happy, very simple. And that’s what I really dig about it, and people really want to make it,” she said.
Andrea says Asian Dumplings has done really well in the eBook format, in particular. In fact, Ten Speed released two versions of the eBook version—an enhanced iBook with interactive components and a straight-up eBook—in addition to the hardcover edition. Although we discuss how many people like to collect cookbooks as art objects, increasingly people don’t want to give up the physical space that having a lot of books entails, Andrea says. So offering her books in multiple versions lets the reader choose the format they like best.
Because her first three books were fairly rigorous, Andrea says she wanted to write a “fun book next.” So she decided to write about banh mi, or Vietnamese sandwiches in her latest cookbook. Served on crusty French rolls, banh mi typically consist of protein, pickled vegetables, cilantro and condiments.
For The Banh Mi Handbook, Andrea also tried to use ingredients that can be found at regular grocery stores rather than just at Asian markets, again to make it more accessible to readers. While creating her recipes for the book, she tried to get ingredients from stores near her in Santa Cruz, where there are no Asian markets to speak of save one Thai market, Andrea says.
“In terms of my work it’s always been, ‘How can I get people to understand what Asian food and its potential? How can I get people to incorporate that into their rotation of foods without, like, crying?’ Really!” she says with a hearty laugh.
Each cookbook typically takes at least a year to write—and then it can be another year to get it edited, designed, photos shot and printed before it’s released. Andrea says that if a cookbook author is producing a new book every two years, they’re working at a really fast pace. Although The Banh Mi Handbook came out this past July, Andrea started working on it in the fall of 2012 and her manuscript was due to the publishing house in July 2013. And, she says, it’s a relatively short cookbook. Once the artwork was shot last fall, it was sent to print in early this year.
Andrea’s now spent more than a decade writing her four cookbooks, in addition to her food writing, teaching and consulting.
“I’m in a very lucky situation but it’s one where I feel, with a lot of Asian cooking, it’s never going to have the draw as say an Italian cookbook. There’s an unlimited amount of French and Italian cookbooks,” she says. “I think there’s a lot of mystery surrounding Asian cookbooks. And Asia is not one country. I like it though because I can make meatballs and terrific spaghetti sauces but I don’t need to write about it because plenty of people do.”
As a complement to her books, Andrea also teaches cooking classes, both throughout the Bay Area and online. Teaching is an important element of her mission of demystifying Vietnamese cooking and getting more people to incorporate it into their regular meal rotations. She originally started teaching cooking classes because she got many, many requests for demos after Into the Vietnamese Kitchen came out. Although Andrea got her start teaching out of her home in Santa Cruz, she quickly nixed that idea when she realized that it was too difficult to host even a small group in her kitchen and that it was more labor intensive than she realized.
“It sounds like a romantic idea, but there was a lot of clean-up!” she laughs.
Andrea says she learns a lot from cooking with others—particularly from how people interpret recipes. As such, she says she spends a lot of time in the kitchen pondering how to do things and “just staring.” Although it results in her husband often wondering what the heck she’s doing, she says figuring how to explain to people who have no idea what to do helps give her the perspective she needs to teach. “I teach things that no one else is really teaching,” she said.
Andrea’s classes also tend to be very hands-on. She pretty much gives her students the tools they need and let’s them have at it. And mistakes are highly encouraged.
“If they’re going to make mistakes, they should make them while I’m there—we can figure it out. That’s better than for them to be at home and then they get mad at me,” she said with a laugh.
“Part of it, too, is just giving people the confidence to attack these recipes and these flavors that they really are unfamiliar with.”
Often, Andrea says, Asian couples or Asian mothers and daughters will come to her classes and tell her that there is something about Asian cooking they’ve never been able to figure out. But Andrea doesn’t believe there are really any mysteries to figuring out how to make Asian foods.
“There are no ancient Chinese secrets!” she insists. Instead, it’s just a matter of knowledge transfer. She also organizes her classes so that everyone will have a good time and make it a party.
“We don’t have to do the dishes, and we get liquor—how fun is that?”
Andrea also just started teaching online classes through Craftsy. “It’s not the same, but people ask really good questions,” she said about the online course. Although Craftsy’s classes are primarily taught via video, she doesn’t mind doing the videos because she’d done them for her enhanced eBook. Her husband helps her put together the videos for her online course. “It’s just me and Mr. Hands, is what I call these things,” waving her hands in the air.
Demystifying the grocery store
After lunch, Andrea takes me back across the street so we can explore the Vietnamese grocery stores and I can get a primer on Vietnamese ingredients. Our first stop is the Maxim Market. Andrea obviously shares my love for wandering the aisles and checking out all the store’s interesting wares. She is just as fascinated by what’s at these stores as I am, despite having a far better handle on the ingredients than I do.
She admits that there is a certain difficulty of knowing what to buy when you go to an Asian market. She says she often finds herself in a market exchanging “these looks,” as she decribes them, with older Asian women that can be translated as “What should we buy?”
“It happens to all of us. So if you’re not familiar with what’s going on at these markets or the languages—there’s some three or four languages on a label—you don’t know what to do!”
One of the first things she points out to me is a condiment called Maggi Seasoning, something Andrea says is often referred to with the generic term “seasoning.” Andrea says “seasoning” is like a cross between soy sauce and Bragg’s Liquid Aminos, but more intense and more rich in “umaminess.” Apparently, Maggi seasoning is a staple in Vietnamese cooking but was brought to Vietnam by the French. Certain brands have even preserved the same shape bottle and the same tagline since the 1800s, she said. (Andrea wrote a blog post on Maggi Seasoning after our trip to the store). Andrea says it’s really a very “old school condiment,” and that the Vietnamese are very partial to the European version.
Andrea also notes that the weekly special sale price for Maggi Seasoning at $11.99 a bottle is actually a really good deal. Directing my attention to the sale sign, she points out that it’s so popular there’s a limit of 2 for the sale. Next Andrea directs my attention to a variety of mung beans and peanuts, two popular items in Vietnamese cooking. As a child, Andrea says, her family would steam both mung beans and peanuts and then remove the husk by hand, rubbing them between their hands until the skins off before roasting them. “Then we discovered that peanuts in America were sold without the skin—and we were like ‘Hallelujah!’”
As we meander into the produce section, Andrea shows me a variety of vegetables, like water spinach, and fresh herbs that are central to Vietnamese cooking. Thai basil. Mint. Culantro (which has a citrusy, cumin-like quality, she says). Fish mint (which literally smells fishy when you rub it). Perilla (which Andrea describes as the “Vietnamese version of Japanese shiso”). And Vietnamese balm, which, Andrea says, has a flavor and scent similar to lemongrass.
All of the herbs are intended to be eaten like vegetables, often raw. You can just tear them up and add them on top of whatever you’re eating or eat them with lettuce or as a wrap for some sort of meat and rice—like the rice plate I had for lunch, Andrea says. Apparently they’re also really good for you. Although these stores have a wide variety of herbs available to choose from for Vietnamese cooking, Andrea says that if you don’t have any of these available to you, “just mint and cilantro will do it.”
Next I become acquainted with things like elephant ear, which is used in soups as a filler, and Chinese chive, or garlic chive, which is used for noodle dishes and dumplings. There, too are long beans and cutting celery, whose leaves can also used for dumplings.
Andrea also advises me how to buy Thai chilis in bulk. The store sells them packaged on those same Styrofoam containers that ground meat comes on, wrapped in plastic. If the stems are dark, don’t get them because they’ve probably been frozen—you could still use them, she says, but ones where the stems are still green are still fresh.
As we walk through the store, Andrea points out that there is a bit of randomness to how things are displayed. “Shopping at the Asian market, there’s no standard—things are kind of mixed up,” she says. Unlike American groceries where the layout is carefully planned–and often designed specifically to get you to spend more—there is not really any rhyme or reason for where things are placed. You just have to go and wander through the aisles to find what you want—which may not be where you might think it would be. But of course, that’s half the fun of going!
Case in point—as we walk through the produce section, there is an entire display—next to the veggies and across from the refrigerated noodles—of cookware. Steamers and stockpots to be exact. And they’re also sitting next to cardboard bins full of kombocha squash and massive winter melons, that are larger than most people’s heads. Then she leans over, laughing, so I can compare the size of the melon to her head. “I mean that is like gigantic!” she says. “Want me to put my head next to it? It’s the size of a pumpkin, I can’t believe it!” Then Andrea takes a kombucha and puts it on top of the winter melons—“even that doesn’t quite fully tell the story,” she says.
Here the refrigerator case that might normally contain cheese or eggs contains copious kinds of noodles, dumpling wrappers and meatballs. Noodles, Andrea says, are a very important part of Vietnamese cuisine. Not only are there rice noodles displayed, but also Chinese style noodles and thick noodles that resemble Japanese Udon.
“So this is why you come to the market—so you can see this stuff!”
As we round the aisle, the fish tanks and seafood on ice appear. Clams, snails, mussels, lobsters. All sorts of whole fish on ice. Across from the fish, of course, is a fish sauce display, where I get a brief primer on how to determine which brands are best. Andrea says she prefers to buy fish sauce that’s made in Vietnam—Red Boat, she says, is reliable brand. She also points out that most of them do have MSG in them. The rice paper wrapper aisle is another place that can cause confusion, Andrea says. There are so many different shapes, sizes and brands. “How do you figure out what to buy?” she says. Experiment.
As we walk by a large display of sardines in bright red cans, Andrea tells me that there is also a lot of canned fish in Vietnam. Sardines are very popular, particularly a Moroccan Brand called “Maroc.” “It’s like a cult thing practically,” she says. Sardines and mackerel are often eaten in banh mi, much like a tuna sandwich. Andrea says her mother swears by the Maroc brand because it’s considered to be the best. Of course, the Moroccan imports were also brought to Vietnam by the French colonialists. “I think the French just took things in the their colonies and moved them around,” Andrea jokes.
Next we peruse the oils, sauces and fermented products. Andrea notes that there tend to be a lot of Chinese products in Vietnamese markets, as well, since China also occupied Vietnam for a thousand years or so.
“I’m always very, very interested in what are people buying,” she says.
Our next stop is a brief run through a shopping mall around the corner from the supermarket. We take a quick walk through and Andrea points out the stores tend to sell things like music, videos, plants, clothes and gold. Throughout the entire mall, lounge music is playing. Although Andrea says there has been a rise in Asian pop music in Vietnam recently, she says the lounge music she heard in Vietnam as a child is still popular everywhere. “And that music has not changed in decades—all of the music ever since I was little, even when I was living in Vietnam sounded like that—it’s like really weird lounge music,” she said.
As we make our way back to the Lion Market, Andrea tells me that she finds the Little Saigon area in San Jose really interesting because it represents an intersection of the Vietnamese and Latino communities in the city. Banh mi shops are next to taquerias. “Here you have the smell of a taqueria, and here you have the smell of fresh baked bread,” she points out as we walk through the strip mall back to the other grocery store.
The Lion Market on Story Road is an excellent example of this intersection of cultures. Andrea tells me that there has been a market in that location for quite some time—in fact, before it became the Lion Market, it was a Latino grocery.
This is evident when you go inside and see Mexican and Vietnamese products stocked next to each other on the shelves and, even in the butcher case. The pork section features posole mix next to ground pork, with signs written in Spanish, then Vietnamese. “These are all the same parts – here they have the pork chop, but it’s not on Vietnamese or Chinese, it’s in Spanish,” Andrea notes.
Cans of refried beans sit above the freezer case containing salted crab in chili sauce. Key limes are next to durian. Then there are signs that indicate that there might even be some cross-branding going on. In an aisle with predominately Latino products, the signs say “Fresco World Market” but the signs across the aisle at the butcher counter say “Lion Market.” “That’s really cool,” she says.
By now it’s getting late and Andrea still needs to do her own shopping. As we wind down our tour, she says that figuring out what to buy at the Asian market is ultimately a matter of trying and buying and then figuring out what ingredients you like.
“Here’s the thing—if you want to make Asian food you have to come here and decipher all of this stuff and buy it. If you really want to go to the mat, you just have to just come and get some of this stuff,” she said.
Or you can do what I did and make a new friend who can take you shopping, help you figure it out and have fun while doing it!
Viet World Kitchen (Andrea’s blog)
Photos property of Foie Gras and Funnel Cakes or used with the permission of Andrea Nguyen as noted.