Recently, we had the opportunity to spend a day on the set of Blue Ginger chef Ming Tsai’s cooking show Simply Ming. Over the next few weeks, we’ll be bringing you interviews and stories from our time at the show. Today, Corinne Trang, who the Washington Post has called “the Julia Child of Asian cuisine,” talks to us about Vietnamese food in the United States.
MP: So I know your specialty is Vietnamese cooking. Is there a difference between different regions of Vietnamese cuisine?
Corinne: There is, actually. You have the northern region of cooking and then you have the central, then the southern region of cooking. In the north, the spicing tends to be mild and in the south, it tends to be very spicy, with lots of curries. In the north, you might be familiar with pho, la soupe Vietnamien, which is what the French would call it. And it’s basically the rice noodle soup with the beef broth and the beef is cooked in the broth and its served with the fresh herbs. Since it’s from the north region, it’s mild. They also have beef seven ways. The reason they have so much beef in the north is because they had enough land for the cattle to graze, whereas in the south, they didn’t have that option. So you have the spice in the south and mild in the north and in the central region, especially in the city of Hue, which is the imperial city of Vietnam, or used to be the imperial city of Vietnam, you’ll find small morsels similar to Chinese dim sum. Very delicate morsels, where the presentation is beautiful. So, it’s sort of flavors taken from the north and from the south, sort of fused together and it’s served in a very elegant style. Imperial cuisine.
MP: That sounds really good. It seems like a lot of Vietnamese restaurants, in the United States at least, in Boston and to some extent in New York specialize in what you referred to as sort of the more Northern cuisine. Where can you get really good Vietnamese regional specialties within the US?
Corinne: Probably you’re only going to find the pho houses, the noodle shops. Those are the most popular. And on the menu, you’ll also find spring rolls, which are the fried ones, and then the summer rolls, goi cuon, which is the fresh version, the thicker version. You might find also grilled lemongrass marinated pork chops over rice or rice noodles. I found myself that when I travel in different cities in the US looking for different Vietnamese restaurants, I always find that the menus are very similar. You’ll have your ten items that are exactly the same, maybe a difference where you go to, you know, a noodle shop, and you’ll find maybe 10-12 variations on pho. So where the traditional has you cooking beef, you might find it with seafood, with grilled chicken, with pork, with different parts of the cow. But in general terms, you’ll find that the menus are very, very similar. Why? Because it’s easy to prepare and because it’s about volume. In each restaurant, there will probably be one or two ladies making spring rolls and that’ll be their job and that’s all they do all day is make spring rolls. So it’s everything that you can put out very quickly. One thing that’s come out over the past maybe five years now is banh mi, which is the Vietnamese sandwich. You find it everywhere now. It’s a great sandwich and this is where you find the French influence, with the beautiful baguette and what I call sliced Vietnamese bologna, the pate. Sometimes there’’s grilled meat, again, marinated with your typical fish sauce, palm sugar and lemongrass and garlic, and a little bit of chili sauce and some cilantro or mint leaves, pickled carrots and cabbage and the pickled carrots will be basically rice vinegar and sugar and salt combinations as far as the pickling liquid is concerned. So, very very simple. Unfortunately, the other types of Vietnamese foods, unless you go to Hanoi, or Hue, or Saigon, what’s called Ho Chi Minh City, you’re probably not going to get any more than what I just mentioned. It’s just the typical stuff that sells well. It’s what people want and it’s also what’s popular.
MP: Is it also, though, that most Vietnamese Americans are from a certain part of the country or is it really just about volume?
Corinne: I think you’ll find that a lot of the so-called “Chinese Quarter”, even if we talk about France or Paris, the Chinese Quarter is actually Vietnamese cuisine, done by Chinese folks because they’re the ones who were transplanted in Vietnam and then came to France during the war and opened up the foods that they grew up with. So even though they were Chinese, they had grown accustomed to cooking Vietnamese foods at home with a Chinese twist. Coming here, I think you’ll find a lot of Southern Vietnamese people from, basically, Ho Chi Minh City, more than the north and though their specialties are, specifically curries and you’ll find curries on the menu, of course, and spring rolls, they’ll also have that soup, the northern soup, because that is really, really popular everywhere in the country in Vietnam and so they brought that with them too.
MP: So, to switch tacks a bit, how did you get into working on cookbooks?
Corinne: Back in 1995, I started working with Saveur Magazine on a couple of issues as a freelancer. Eventually they hired me full time, so I was with Savuer magazine from 1995-98, first as a producing editor, sort of traveling and putting stories together, working with photographers and on visuals, sort of styling with them, working with them. Coming as a producing editor, they put me in the kitchen because they realized I had a deep knowledge of classical French cooking, as well as Chinese cooking, Chinese cooking being sort of the founder of all Asian cuisines, which is the premise of my Essentials of Asian Cuisine book where I talk about the history of various Asian cuisines based on the traditions of Chinese cooking. You know, the hot and cold food system, the yin and yang, balanced opposites. So that’s how I came out writing cookbooks, from being an editor at Saveur magazine, to being the test kitchen director there. I started testing recipes for a lot of different chefs when they were featured in the magazine. And then eventually, I left the magazine to write my first cookbook. My first cookbook was Vietnamese Cooking, where I talk about the French influence and the Chinese influence in Vietnamese cookery. My second book was Essentials of Asian Cuisine, where I talked about, like I said, how the Chinese really influence all other Asian food cultures and I covered eight cuisines there, including Thailand, Vietnam, Korea, Japan, Cambodia, the Phillipines, and China, of course. My third cookbook is The Asian Grill. My goal there was really to introduce Asian cuisines and Asian ingredients to a wider audience by introducing all these different ingredients through a cooking technique that is familiar and loved by everyone and that is grilling. So, how do you sort of kick it up a notch? (Laughs) To use Emeril’s words. At the grill, rub it with some chili sauce, add some lemongrass, add some kaffir lime, maybe some fish sauce instead of salt, maybe some palm sugar instead of maple syrup or honey and you’ve got yourself a nice little combination of flavors in the Asian style. That was the third cookbook and then I came out with Curry Cuisine, which was a collaboration with David Thompson . It’s about world curries, basically, so Curry Cuisine was the last one and this year I’m coming out with another Vietnamese cookbook.
MP: Oh my goodness! You’re busy.
Corinne: I’m very busy. A couple years from now, I’ve got an Asian noodle book that I’m working on now.
MP: That’s huge right now, the whole noodle thing.
Corrine: Yes! Well, we hope! (Laughs)
[Photo: Corinne Trang]