Bibliobites in March: In the Kitchen We’re Briefly Vietnamese

It was an exciting day for our Bibliobites group: in March we were able to meet in person for the first time in two years!  The conversation was fast and furious as we caught up with each other and discussed our adventures with Vietnamese Food Any Day by Andrea Nguyen.  This month’s title was chosen to connect with the library’s 2022 One Book title, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Vietnamese-American author Ocean Vuong.  Most of us are somewhat familiar with Viet food via the many restaurants in Lowell, and the flavors are similar to other Southeast Asian and Chinese cuisines; but for most (if not all) of us, cooking Vietnamese at home was a new experience.  Author Nguyen goes out of her way to demystify ingredients and provide easy-to-find substitutions, and to illustrate commonalities with other dishes more frequently found in the US– so how did it play out for us in the kitchen?

Because of its long history of colonial occupation, Vietnamese cuisine draws on a rich and diverse blend  of influences, including French, Chinese, and American.  Roasted cauliflower wings were an “addictive” mashup of east and west, with crunchy batter-coated baked florets and a savory, spicy sauce for dipping.  Charred brussels sprouts with coconut were “so good– the best!”  Though the sprouts are not a typical Vietnamese vegetable, the “sweet tang” of coconut water, along with fish sauce, brought east and west together deliciously.  Ubiquitous zucchini became a “yummy…very easy” side dish in easy soy-sauce glazed zucchini.  Two readily available ingredients (soy sauce and chile garlic sauce) were all it took to create a memorable, quick to prepare dish.  Baby kale stir-fried with garlic sounded enticing but was a bit tough and bitter, though this may have been the fault of the vegetable itself and not the recipe, “it wasn’t horrible.”  And blistered green beans with bacon, while a very tasty stir-fry, was “a lot of work for green beans…I won’t bother with it again.”

As always, we made lots of main dishes.  Char siu chicken had a complex, slightly sweet marinade; the resulting grilled chicken was flavorful, moist, and “super-easy.”  Two people tried ginger-garlic fish parcels.  The fish was steamed en papillote; it was “pretty good…very easy,” though the flavors were “a bit muted.”  Shrimp in coconut caramel sauce featured a luscious photo that our cook couldn’t resist; but the finished dish was “not very coconutty,” and the sauce took too long to reduce enough to coat the shrimp.  The overall result– “meh!”  Spicy sweet pomegranate tofu made good use of pomegranate molasses, which some of us had bought (and still had lurking in the back of the fridge)  when we reviewed a Middle Eastern cookbook last year.  The tart, fruity syrup perfectly  complemented the tofu and made a nicely sticky glaze, though one person thought it was a bit too tart.  Unfortunately, the flavors in this dish faded appreciably in the fridge, and the lovely magenta color turned an unappealing grayish brown.

Since March is still mostly winter in these parts, we made some soups and stews, too: beef stew with star anise and lemongrass was “really good” with “a lot of flavor,” and like many stews, was even better the next day.  Chicken, lemongrass, and sweet potato curry was an Indian/Viet mashup, as it used the familiar Indian curry blend (according to the author, in Vietnam Indian curry is preferred over Thai).  This was “good” but both people who made it wished it was more lemony; perhaps the lemongrass was overshadowed by the two tablespoons of curry powder!  It made a large potful and also aged well.  Wontons in gingery broth “looked just like the photo” and were “light and tasty.”  The author gives options for both vegetarian and meaty wonton fillings; either way this recipe is “a project,” but a delicious one!  Pho is one of the most iconic Vietnamese dishes (Ms. Nguyen has written an entire book on the subject), and smoked turkey pho did not disappoint.  This was a savory, warming combination of heady broth, smoky/salty turkey, and rice noodles complemented by mint and chile.  Though a simplified version of the classic, it was still relatively time-consuming; and worth every minute.

There are only a few desserts in this book, but one of them called to multiple people: no-churn vietnamese coffee ice cream.  This way of making ice cream has been well-publicized on the internet; it’s typically a combination of sweetened condensed milk and whipped cream. No ice cream maker is required, yet the result was smooth, creamy, and loaded with coffee flavor.  There’s also a variation including chocolate chips.  Talk about gilding the lily!  Definitely a keeper.

This title is a solid and enjoyable introduction to Vietnamese cooking.  The author provides plenty of general information and tips for us newbies.  There’s also a chapter on ingredients, where you might find them, and substitutions.  We liked Ms. Nguyen’s no-nonsense, use-what-you-can-find attitude, and her embrace of newfangled cooking tools like the multicooker (Instant Pot).  The photos in the book are top-notch, though we wished for a few more.  And the type could have been a wee bit larger– but these are small complaints!  Voting reflected our good vibes: we averaged out to a 3.8 (out of a possible 5).  If you want to cook more Vietnamese, check out Ms. Nguyen’s other titles.  She’s also on YouTube, and has a website,  And if you just want to sample Vietnamese cuisine, there are several restaurants nearby in Lowell, which has a significant Vietnamese and Cambodian population.  Easy to get your pho fix anytime!

For our next meeting on April 29th at 11 AM, we’ll be simplifying a bit with blogger Tieghen Gerard’s Half-Baked Harvest Super Simple.  Copies are available at the main circulation desk or via curbside pickup.  We will meet in hybrid format; please register for either in-person or remote attendance.  See you there!