Southeast Asian Dinner

My pal Amy found this book on a remainder table at Borders & bought me a copy. The Complete Vietnamese Cookbook appears to be out of print, but I'd recommend it. Even though my tastes run to northern cuisine & this cookbook focuses on the south, I've already found its extensive & well-illustrated discussion of basic ingredients useful. I also like that it includes several Cambodian recipes -- in the countryside of the Mekong Delta the culture of Vietnam blends into that of Cambodia as you go east & this cookbook recognizes that. In fact, I tried a Cambodian dish last night. Amy came over with her friend & colleague Peter, a sculptor like Amy, & I made a Vietnamese diner: 1) Summer rolls (somehow seemed appropriate in the middle of January) with carrot, shallot, basil, coriander, & lettuce wrapped in an uncooked wrapper; 2) Fried Cambodian sweet potato balls rolled in sesame seeds; & 3) My old standby Thit ga koh gung, chicken with ginger. I also put a couple of dipping sauces on the table -- nuoc cham, the standard lime & fish sauce concoction, & a spicy peanut sauce I hadn't made before. When Amy came in she saw the cookbook on the table, open to the sweet potato balls, and said, "I'm glad you like the book! -- did you see these sweet potato balls?" And I was able to answer, "Yeah, I'm making them right now." First we ate the summer rolls, which were great in both sauces, then the sweet potato balls, which loved the hot peanut sauce & have an almost custard-like texture, then my Saigon chicken with some rice to which we added the peanut sauce & some squirts of Sriracha. We had Amy's cherry pie for desert! Peter brought his dog Jackson & Amy brought her dog Penny so we had six dogs in the house for the evening. Everyone was quite well-behaved. Even the humans. It's wonderful to have a good kitchen after all these years -- it was the last thing we remodeled in this our house -- because I can cook for friends. And what wonderful friends.

Author: jd

Joseph Duemer is Professor of Literature Emeritus at Clarkson University in northern New York state. His most recent book of poems is Magical Thinking from Ohio State University Press. Since the mid-1990s he has spent a good deal of time in Vietnam, mostly Hanoi. He lives with his wife Carole & five terriers (four Jack Russells & one Patterdale) on the stony bank of the Raquette River in South Colton.

9 thoughts on “Southeast Asian Dinner”

  1. I have a lot of Thai cooking classes behind me from the SF Bay area. I’ve never taken a Vietnamese cooking class, and I’ve eaten at lots of Vietnamese restaurants. So I’ll take your ideas here with me to Whole Foods here in Boulder tomorrow…

    – Albert Geiser

  2. Albert, it’s not a particularly difficult sort of cooking to master, though it can be time-consuming because it is prep-heavy.

  3. the national gallery of art-recent acquisitions
    discusses and shows a picture of MENTAL REACTIONS, 1915–
    “by general accounts the earliest example of visual poetry in America–is the original maquette for a printed version published in the avant-garde magazine 291. both a drawing and a poem, the work is a collaboration between the mexican-born marius de zayas (1880-1961) and the american journalist and art patron agnes ernst meyer (1887-1970)….)”
    the article speaks of the direct influence of apollinaire and his caligrams, or visual poems.
    you may know all this, but as i was delighted with your collages i thought of you and this lineage that travels up, in the bay area, through kenneth patchen. best, edward mycue

  4. jd-

    There are the fundamentals, and then there is the art. I always try to be diplomatic with cuisines, but that’s tough sometimes. IMHO the simpler forms of cuisines that allow for a lot of variations are better than the ones that have a lot of ingredients fixed into specific rules. And doesn’t that dividing line parallel all the arts? I’m always ready to make a case for verse forms, and use of meter. And so I’ll always be ready to make a case for, for example, those elaborate Mexican dishes that I’ll never get around to trying to make on my own…

  5. Albert, funny you should mention Mexican food. I have a couple of cookbooks & having grown up in California, I know what (at least some versions) should taste like, but I look at those recipes & lose heart. Maybe if I had lived in Mexico I would feel differently. There is a Vietnamese cuisine that is quite elaborate & A lot of tourists will eat it & think they have eaten traditional Vietnamese food, but it is actually based on a sort of fantasy of the imperial cuisine of the Nguyen dynasty as filtered through French cooking. If you’re ever in a restaurant in VN & all the servers are in elaborate court costumes, you’re not going to get very close to what the Vietnamese themselves actually eat.

  6. Would an out of the way Vietnamese restaurant in California, one where there aren’t many Westerners going, be close to what you find in Vietnam? When I lived in San Francisco I went to Asian reataurants of all kind not many Westerners visit often. And I’ll try anything new in a restaurant, so I’ve eaten soups in Vietnamese restaurants with organ meats (I guess stomach lining would just be called a meat) such as tripe. I got to like tripe in Vietnamese soup. I miss those places, because there’s nothing like good Asian cuisine in Colorado. But I have no idea if those restaurants in the S.F. Bay Area were still Americanized variations from availability and cultural changes.

  7. Albert, if you were eating tripe, it was a pretty authentic place! I remember being served a soup with tripe in a social situation that demanded I eat it, but it was so tough I almost had to swallow the pieces whole! (I was a guest of a local Communist Party committee in a northern province.) It wasn’t the taste that bothered me — there wasn’t much — but the texture. The vast majority of meat in VN cooking is chopped fine & you don’t know exactly what it is. I realize that these remarks don’t sound complementary, but I love (most) VN food. Two factors are at work: Over three millennia, Vietnamese people, often scraping by in difficult conditions, have learned to eat many things that we in the West find icky; also, since the real hardship of the war years and the emergence of a small but growing middle class, a lot of “peasant foods” have been revived out of a kind of sentimentality for the rural past. That’s why my (male) friends would sometimes ask me if I wanted to go out to eat dog or drink goat’s blood in alcohol (which is a lovely hibiscus color). But honestly, the vast majority of the stuff I ate was wonderful little dumplings filled with chicken or bean paste, various rice dishes, lovely fish, spicy soups . . .

  8. i don’t know i fatfingered it, but that comment above abt the caligram background and the 291 publication in 1915 w/cover as well as the recently-acquired maquette of the drawing and poem by marius de zayas and agnes ernst mayer should have gone in with the blog on your collages and the work you are doing with your school children. ‘backward oh backward/oh time in thy flight/make me a child again/just for tonight’ is a verse much used by my mother (and maybe her mother and grandmother), and it seems apt now for me to say to express the longing to be young again (be in that class). edward mycue

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