Cookbook author Andrea Nguyen’s early memories of shopping at an American supermarket offer a sharp contrast to those of her mother sewing life jackets before a narrow escape from Vietnam a week before the fall of Saigon.
When the author of “Vietnamese Food Any Day” spoke on Milk Street Radio, she shared memories of her final days in Vietnam, of her early days in the States, and so much more. Listen to the show to hear her talk about the immigrant experience, Vietnamese home cooking and why chicken stock is better made with an apple. See below for a collection of excerpts from the show, including some extra bonus material.
On her final days in Vietnam
My parents were planning this escape by boat and the reason my mom was sewing life jackets was because she was sewing pieces of gold in between the styrofoam. My parents thought if we were caught at sea and separated, at least we’d each have a life jacket and some form of currency. So when the boat escape fell apart because we couldn't take any kind of private boats outside of the Saigon Harbor in April of 1975, they ripped the life jackets apart and, and retrieved the gold. And my dad went all over town talking to every single American he could find and said, “How do we get out?”
On her early visits to U.S. supermarkets
It was so wonderful. It was roomy, it was quiet. There were no people—you know, hawkers screaming, trying to sell their wares—and there was meat wrapped so neatly under plastic wrap. I remember staring at the meat vendors who were always kind of perched on high. It was such a wondrous thing to me at this Albertsons in southern California, I was able to poke all the meat and see what the texture was. Or the polished apples—a rarity in Vietnam—and waxed oranges—a seasonal thing. There were just piles.
On a natural replacement for MSG
Sometimes chicken stock needs that kind of savory sweetness. When I make stock, I'll add a little bit of sugar or something sweet like an apple just to give it that savory sweetness. To get at that, people oftentimes use MSG, which in Vietnamese is called bột ngọt. Bột means powder and ngọt means sweet, so it's giving that unusual hint of sweetness to the savoriness. I was thinking, how can you encourage that umami depth naturally without having to revert to MSG or the hydrolyzed wheat protein you see on labels of commercially made food? The apple allows for that in a very natural, soft way so that you don't need to use any other kinds of ingredients to help the chicken express itself in its full, glorious savoriness.
On the physicality of Vietnamese cooking
One time I was invited to do some prep work with some friends in Saigon and they don't gather around a table; they are squatting on the floor. If anyone has squatted on the floor in Vietnam and then tried to chop and then got up from that position, it is so hard. I was born with some genes that are pretty good for squatting, but when I could barely get up, they all laughed at me and thought I had spent way too much time overseas.
On top of that, there's just a lot of damn chopping and if you go to a wet market in Vietnam, one of the things that you notice is that a lot of stuff is pre-chopped. You can get garlic or lemongrass or chili pre-chopped. And one time I approached the vendor and said, “Sister, do you chop all that stuff up every day for your customers?” She looked at me and she said, “No, sister, I use a machine.”
This interview has been edited for clarity.