For a long time I have wondered why it is that some of the warmer regions of the world yield such involved cuisines. Why, on a sweltering afternoon in Louisiana or in Bangkok, would one choose to undertake the long, steamy process of producing jambalaya or handmade curried noodles, rather than fleeing to the shade of the nearest tree?
Charles Phan, whose Slanted Door restaurant group has won acclaim in the Bay Area, made me ask these questions yet again as I prepared to scale the heights of his heartfelt cookbook, “Vietnamese Home Cooking.” It’s not that any of the recipes looked particularly difficult. But there was always just one more step — a peanut sauce, a marinade, a garnish, a dip — than I honestly felt like attempting. The question was, would each hour that stretched to two in the end be worth it?
Chicken noodle soup starts with fried shallots and their oil, followed by poaching a whole chicken. The broth, perfumed with ginger, scallions, and the requisite Asian fish sauce (see related story, Page 10), is amply garnished with greens as in classic pho, and everyone gets to fight over the crispy shallots.
For pork and shrimp rolls, you make shallot mayonnaise (last night’s shallot oil comes in handy), which you can speed up with a blender. Then it’s time to start the glutinous rice that eventually ends up giving a peanut sauce its stretchy, clingy character. I doubted that the poached protein would add up to much, but those same time-consuming condiments, plus mint, bring the dish to life.
Caramelized lemongrass shrimp is a major undertaking, although the actual cooking takes 10 minutes at most. Most of the time goes to shelling and deveining whole shrimp and making a fragrant roasted chili paste, steps that while tedious contribute so much flavor you can’t really say you wish you hadn’t.
The chili paste shows up again in a plate of clams, picking up licorice-y flavor from Thai basil, thick and pungent from chili and ginger. Intense hits of bacony pork seal the deal, as if that were necessary.
Even if you don’t feel like deep-frying, do it for the sake of some crispy egg noodles that slowly soften in an oyster-sauce-like gravy with seafood. Phan demands you stir-fry two batches to preserve the individual textures of the vegetables and the seafood. It’s more Hong Kong than Hanoi (Phan is half-Chinese), but it’s food to swoon over no matter how you look at it. Grilled five-spice chicken gets a long marinade in fermented bean curd and garlic and the two signature salts of Asia: soy and fish sauce. The breasts pick up plenty of flavor, though it’s mostly briny; a tart and fruity easy tamarind sauce gives it balance.
There are a couple of quickies, including a very Chinese-tasting dish of black bean spare ribs. The real eye-opener turns out to be the black-bean garlic sauce, just a few ingredients, but when freshly made, so much more fragrant than the bottled kind. And pork chops bathed in a lemongrass marinade, which are sweeter than you expect, yet easy to devour when served in thick slices with bones to gnaw.
By the end of the week, “Vietnamese Home Cooking” was battered and splattered, its minuscule, hard-to-read type flecked with oil droplets, like a thousand tiny badges of courage. My glasses were filmed and my aprons unspeakably messy. But I can’t stop thinking about that lemongrass shrimp. And this time the chili paste is waiting in the fridge.