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Author Andrea Nguyen says it’s OK to bend the rules when you make Vietnamese food

One of the country’s foremost authorities on the cooking of Vietnam is trying to ease you into making her specialties

Andrea Nguyen, author of "Vietnamese Food Any Day."Aubrie Pick

Many girls who learn to cook from their mothers are watching the older woman measure by feel. There are no cups and tablespoons involved. But in Andrea Nguyen’s childhood kitchen, her mother had her own system of weights and measures. “My mom’s unusual,” says Nguyen. “My mom measures, she weighs things, she kept a recipe notebook. She uses particular rice bowls and spoons and noted everything down.”

So when Nguyen, who was 6 years old in 1975 when her family boarded one of the last US military transport planes out of Saigon, decided to stop working on university marketing projects and write cookbooks, she had a starting place — her mother’s recipes. She was raised in Southern California and when her family needed Vietnamese ingredients for their cooking, they did a three-hour round-trip drive to Chinatown in Los Angeles.


Nguyen (pronounced N-win) is one of the country’s foremost authorities writing on Vietnamese food today, and she’s watched the cuisine become popular enough over the years that hard-to-find ingredients such as rice sticks and fish sauce are now in many supermarkets. “When I was in Boston I went to Market Basket and it gave me so much joy to shop there,” she says on the phone from her home in Santa Cruz. “Why can’t this store be in every city in America?”

She admits that some of her cooking is time consuming, but she wants to remove the pressure to be exact. “If people can make tacos or Thai curry on a weeknight, why can’t they make Vietnamese food?” That was the premise of her sixth book, “Vietnamese Food Any Day,” which came out in 2019.

One weeknight dish is bun (pronounced “boon” with an upward intonation at the end, like a question), also known as Rice Bowl Noodles. “This is a cool salad, very soothing, fabulous to put together.” Traditional bun is made with rice noodles, daikon, carrots, shredded greens, bean sprouts, and herbs. “I bend the rules because I’m cooking with what’s available,” she says. “I’m Vietnamese so I’m going to have fish sauce, the greens, and crunch. The topping can vary.” She might add leftover steak, or grilled vegetables, or both fish and meat. Then, “whatever soft herb you’ve got,” she says. “Mint and cilantro is what my family had when we first came here. I rely on them.” But when there’s Asian basil in her garden that goes in too.


Nguyen credits the late Anthony Bourdain for introducing Americans to her cuisine. He went to Vietnam in 2000 for the first season of his TV show, “A Cook’s Tour.” Eight years later he taught President Barack Obama to slurp noodles in Hanoi. “He was trying to help Americans heal from the Vietnam War through food,” she says. Then a new generation of food lovers — “young people who are much more open to bold flavors,” says Nguyen — embraced the cuisine.

Sometimes after teaching a cooking class, Nguyen is approached by a young Vietnamese American who tells her they’re trying to learn their mother’s cooking. “My mom won’t tell me anything,” the student reports. Nguyen has a simple solution. Make a recipe from one of her books, she says, and present it to the mom. Immediately after trying the dish, the mom will tell you how it should have been cooked. Bring out her competitive spirit, advises Nguyen. “She’ll want to best you.”


Sheryl Julian can be reached at sheryl.julian@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @sheryljulian.