Seattle has dozens (hundreds?) of Vietnamese delis and pho shops, where you can buy a filling meal for a few dollars. Why would you want to go to the trouble of cooking this readily available, generally inexpensive food at home? Well, if you're like me, you love the challenge of exploring a new cuisine, or trying to make something from scratch just because you can. In Vietnamese Home Cooking, Charles Phan, chef and owner of the renowned Slated Door in San Francisco, introduces readers to the fundamental building blocks of Vietnamese cuisine. Things like hearty stocks and caramel sauce, but also the condiments and other flourishes he adds to otherwise simple Vietnamese dishes. Things like crispy fried shallots, seasoned fish sauce, pickled carrots, and more. I'm not going to be making my own rice noodles anytime soon, but there's a good chance I'll be making lemongrass roasted pork loin for banh mi, vermicelli bowls and fried rice.
I'm generally skeptical of chef-driven cookbooks. They are beautiful, aspirational and insightful, but not always practical to cook from. But this book has "home cooking" in the title, so it's clearly targeting a different audience. There are chapters on soup, street food, steaming, braising, stir-frying, grilling, and frying, with recipes for Vietnamese favorites such as green papaya salad, spring rolls, crepes, and chicken satay, as well as dishes like Chinese donuts, congee, steamed buns, soy-braised pork belly with ginger and star anise, and Slanted Door favorites like shaking beef. Sprinkled throughout the book are tips on how to choose a cleaver, and how to choose, season and clean clay pots and a wok. And there are plenty of process photos, like how to filet fish, make crepes, form dumplings, and make rice noodles.
Speaking of noodles, there's a visual guide to various store-bought noodles, since making your own is a lofty endeavor. The glossary includes photos and descriptions of dozens of ingredients in the Vietnamese pantry - tamarind, galangal, palm sugar, and cardamom, plus various bottles sauces and pastes - like maggi seasoning, fish sauce, and shrimp paste - which is helpful as you wander the aisles of Uwajimaya, trying to stock your pantry.
Vietnamese Home Cooking is as much a story about Phan's family and homeland as it is about cooking. Photos from the streets, kitchens and markets of Vietnam take up full pages throughout the book. Recipe headnotes include stories about a dish's origin and tradition in Vietnam, or in Phan's family. And in chapter introductions, Phan talks about his family's emigration from Vietnam and how they maxed out 16 credit cards to help him open his first restaurant in San Francisco's Mission District. Phan contends that at his restaurants, he simply serves Vietnamese family-style food. And in this book, he shows you how you can make this food at home.