Recipes are rarely rigorous – if you can’t find hot mint, you can’t find hot mint! — and encourage adaptation and variation. Collected, they also trace the passage of fish sauce from Vietnamese kitchens to more American restaurant kitchens and home kitchens from all walks of life over the past decade, particularly on the West Coast, and present it as a kind of fluid and borderless ingredient. It makes sense if you’re selling fish sauce, obviously, but it also makes sense if you’re cooking with it. The butterfly-grilled perch recipe is inspired by chef Sergio Peñuelas, from Nayarit, Mexico, and his pescado zarandeado. Whole fish is marinated in butter, fish sauce and turmeric, then served with caramelized onions and corn tortillas. The dish makes perfect sense, as does using fish sauce in Caesar dressing, instead of (or in addition to) canned anchovies. As Pham points out, a touch of fish sauce in pastas, stews and many other European dishes has long been part of the Vietnamese cook’s approach, including that of his mother.
The book also includes a recipe for little bread, a coconut fish curry with rice noodles and lots of raw, crunchy toppings – a street food specialty of Kien Giang province, often served by vendors in Phu Quoc first thing in the morning. It wasn’t supposed to be in the book, but Chef Diep Tran, while researching the book with Pham and Nguyen on the island, tasted it for breakfast one day and became concerned about it and recreated it. “It was the first thing I did when I got home,” Tran said. “I thought, I have to do this while my memory is still good.”
The noodles were good and the rice. And she had seen dimples of red oil, which indicated annatto. And she could still smell the herb of coriander root, the sweet medicinal qualities of turmeric, the scents of makrut and lemongrass. The recipe guides you through this precisely layered curry: thick and creamy, deeply flavored with golden aromatics and infused coconut milk, all built on a base of fish stock. But it’s not complete without the nuoc cham, which isn’t used as a dip here but as a dressing for green papaya, cucumber, carrots, and the load of herbs and sprouts you pile on each bowl.
In the spirit of the book, Tran adapted a bit, calling for fatty amberjack necklaces instead of whole fish, to make pulling meat a little more efficient for home cooks.
Recipe: Bún Kèn (coconut fish with noodles)