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Vegetarian Viet Nam

by Cameron Stauch (W.W. Norton, 2018)

© by W.W.Norton

Imet Cameron Stauch a few years back when he and his Canadian diplomat wife Ayesha were between postings in India and Vietnam. As a diplomatic spouse myself, I know very well what it’s like to move your entire life every few years. Packing and unpacking, leaving friends and family, struggling to get around, shop and cook in a strange land where you barely know the language – the challenges are many. But the payoff, if you approach an overseas posting with curiosity and an open mind, is a genuinely immersive experience in another culture, a learning opportunity that tourism rarely affords.

Cameron Stauch is a naturally curious guy. A Stratford Chef’s School alumnus with six years’ professional experience as a chef at Rideau Hall (official residence of the Governor General of Canada) under his belt, he used his time in India to document local foodways in a blog and learned about Indian cuisine by working alongside the cook assigned to his family. That experience became the basis of a movie, Cooking with Stella, made in collaboration with noted Indian screenwriter and director, Deepa Mehta.

Stauch took the same innate curiosity and adventurous spirit with him when he and Ayesha were posted to Hanoi in 2012, recording his experiences in a blog that would become the basis of Vegetarian Viet Nam, the book he published during their subsequent posting to Bangkok.

First, a caveat. You’ll need to commit to some specialized shopping if you want to get the best of this book. The distinguishing characteristic of Vietnamese cuisine is a reliance on vibrant fresh herbs and pungent condiments. (If your local pho joint fails to deliver a plate of fresh herbs to the table, go elsewhere.) This is even more important in vegetarian cooking, when the natural umami inherent in animal proteins is missing.

Stauch is aware of the challenges that cooks in North America may face when gathering ingredients commonly found in Vietnamese kitchens. He provides a glossary with tips on where to buy or order spices, noodles and dry goods; advises when it is or isn’t okay to use canned, dried or frozen versions of fresh ingredients (canned young jackfruit is okay, frozen is not) and suggests substitutions when all else fails (a combination of mint, coriander and/or Asian basil can stand in for rau răm (Vietnamese coriander); kohlrabi can be subbed for green papaya).

You’ll also need to read the recipes through and take note of any sub-recipes. There’s a pantry chapter of essential condiments, sauces and garnishes that will be needed in some subsequent recipes. These can be made ahead so if you plan your cooking, assemble your ingredients and make any sub-recipes before you start, you’ll be fine.

I kicked off with the lovely sounding Bright Green Herby Omelet.  It was a quick and easy winner, made with just a single egg and a mixture of herbs, seasoned with a touch of soy sauce. Stauch suggests several combinations of herbs – I used thai basil, mint, coriander, rau răm, sage and scallion greens. The omelet is a popular snack in his household, eaten as is, with a spritely lime and chile dipping sauce, or used as a sandwich filling. I can see it making a regular appearance at my table, especially when my summer herb garden is in full flourish.

Bright Green Herby Omelet
Bright Green Herby Omelet

Next up, Tofu with Fresh Tomato Sauce, which Stauch describes as the Vietnamese equivalent of spaghetti marinara. This required a visit to the pantry chapter where I learned how to make mushroom powder by pulverizing dried shiitakes in a coffee grinder. The powder is a kind of “umami bomb” Stauch uses in all sorts of recipes, a subtle trick used to bring out the flavour of other ingredients. The sub-recipe makes a jar full of mushroom powder and since it’s used in small amounts, one batch will keep you going for quite some time.

Ripe tomatoes were still some months away when I reviewed this book, so I used canned tomatoes (with the author’s blessing) to make a simple sauce flavoured with garlic, soy sauce and that magic mushroom powder. In went cubes of firm tofu that I’d shallow fried to give a crispy, golden edge, along with some scallions and black pepper. A quick simmer in the sauce, a shower of fresh cilantro and presto! – dinner. Tasty, filling and nutritious, it’s a dish with familiar flavours and a good starting point for anyone feeling hesitant about cooking a Vietnamese dish for the first time.

I tried three more recipes – Nutty Mushroom Pâté (that can be used as a filling for Bahn Mi), a vibrant kohlrabi and carrot salad with a spicy, herby dressing, and young jackfruit (brined, from a can) stewed in soy sauce and kecap manis with Vietnamese coriander. Each one was packed with flavour and produced with ease.

Many people cooking from this book will be discovering a new cuisine and Stauch’s encouraging voice inspires confidence in cooks working with unfamiliar ingredients or tackling a new technique. He may be a professional chef but the recipes in Vegetarian Viet Nam were largely developed when he was cooking for his family and they are written with the home cook in mind. There’s a good balance between simple, tasty dishes that will appeal to novice cooks or those new to Vietnamese cuisine, and more complex recipes that will interest cooks who appreciate a bit of stretch. I’m looking forward to making seitan (a useful meat substitute for vegetarians and vegans) from scratch and trying my hand at tofu skin sausages.

Despite his friendly, down-to-earth tone, Stauch’s professional expertise is evident throughout the book, especially in the detailed recipe methods and helpful sidebars on technique (three ways to julienne vegetables; tips for preparing tofu; preparing and forming ricepaper rolls). Vegetarian Viet Nam combines thorough research with excellent recipe writing. Gorgeous photographs, an informative chapter on culinary and cultural influences, including the place of vegetarianism in Vietnamese Buddhism, tips for travellers and engaging personal stories round out a book that is both a delight to read and a pleasure to cook from.

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