In the years Canadian chef, Cameron Stauch spent living and cooking in Vietnam, he mastered the country’s vegetarian cuisine by soaking up knowledge from the locals and learning centuries-old recipes that were devised by Mahayana Buddhist monks. The dishes in his debut cookbook, Vegetarian Viet Nam, utilize a full arsenal of herbs and sauces available to make tofu, mushrooms, and vegetables burst with flavor while remaining light, yet satisfying.
The author’s wife is a Canadian diplomat, and they have lived in locales that others often dream of visiting. Vegetarian Viet Nam came to life while they were stationed in Hanoi. In his ten years of traveling, he discovered that the best cooks were not professional chefs but those home cooks who feed their own families every day, so he decided to share the secrets he learned from Vietnamese home cooks on his website, A Global Kitchen.
Currently, the couple and their children live in Thailand (yes, a vegetarian cookbook devoted to Thai cuisine is in the works). I am an admitted cookbook fanatic as well as a devotee of international cuisine, so you could imagine my delight as I flipped through this beautiful cookbook which boasts stunning photographs and 140 tempting recipes that would inspire any cook to experiment with Vietnamese cuisine.
Not sure where to start experimenting, Cameron shares an illustrated glossary to all the ingredients that make up the vegetarian Vietnamese pantry, unlocking an entire universe of flavor to people who want healthy yet tasty sustainable food. A chapter on making a slew of pantry staples such as stocks, oils, powders, and sauces will ensure that we are prepared for our cooking journey. Cameron also offers guidance on menu planning should you wish to throw a full-on Vietnamese spread.
Recipes such as Star Anise Cinnamon Scented Pho Noodle Soup, Fragrant Lemongrass Hue-Style Noodle Soup and Cucumber Pineapple Rolls with Coconut Soy Sauce showcase the vast range of spices that bring vibrancy and aromatics to the table. The herbs and spices used in this book are among some of my favorites.
You needn’t be a vegetarian to appreciate this book as the flavor profiles will spark new creativity in everyday meals, one Vietnamese dish at a time. For instance, I started with the Stir-Fried Noodles with Asparagus, Shiitake Mushrooms, and Tofu recipe and switched up the vegetables and replaced poached chicken for the tofu. This book inspires me to build on the recipes making them adaptable to my family’s preferences. (That picky, picky husband of mine who is anti-tofu, most vegetables and mushrooms.)
Vegetarian Viet Nam brings that area of the world’s cuisine to our kitchens, sharing recipes that will excite and transform our menu options. Start here with the Green Papaya Salad which would make a wonderful dish alongside grilled chicken for the carnivores in your life and adjust the heat level to your own taste buds.
Green Papaya Salad
Serves 4 to 6
This northern Vietnamese salad features thin strips of crispy green papaya marinated in a sweet and sour dressing, topped with lemony herbs and crushed peanuts. Look for unripe green papayas year-round at Southeast Asian grocers and red, yellow, and purple carrots from the farmers’ market. Tender kohlrabi also works particularly well here.
From the Pantry/Make Ahead
3 tablespoons Crispy Fried Shallots (recipe follows)
1 medium (1¼ pounds) hard, green unripe papaya
1 medium (¼ pound) carrot
For the Dressing
¼ cup plus 2 tablespoons rice vinegar
3 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 teaspoon salt
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 fresh red Thai bird chile, seeded and finely chopped
1⁄3 cup roughly chopped Vietnamese balm (or a combination of mint and Thai basil)
1⁄3 cup roughly chopped cilantro
3 tablespoons roasted unsalted peanuts, roughly chopped
Prepare the Crispy Fried Shallots.
Put the rice vinegar, sugar, soy sauce, salt, garlic, and chile into a small bowl and stir until the sugar is fully dissolved. Taste. It should be tart, a touch sweet, and mildly spicy. Adjust the balance of flavors by adding a touch more sugar or chile to taste.
Pour the dressing over the papaya and carrot and mix well. Marinate for about 10-minutes, occasionally massaging and tossing the salad. Toss in the Vietnamese balm and cilantro, and half of the peanuts and fried shallots and mix well. Lift out the salad, leaving most of the dressing in the bottom of the bowl, and mound it onto a shallow serving bowl or plate. Drizzle a spoon or two of dressing over the top if you like. Sprinkle the remaining peanuts and shallots over the salad just before serving.
Variation – Kohlrabi and Carrot Salad
Select two young tender kohlrabi that are each approximately the size of a baseball (about ¾ pound in total). Peel the kohlrabi and cut into matchsticks (there is no need to give the kohlrabi matchsticks a quick rinse). Proceed with rest of the recipe, reducing the marinating time to 5 minutes.
Crispy Fried Shallots
Makes 1 cup
If you find these crisp sweet mini “onion” rings as addictive as I do, double the shallots in the recipe. They’re an indispensable garnish for salads and some noodle dishes. Evenly cut slices will cook most uniformly, so here’s a great place to practice good knife skills. For optimal crispness and texture, make these the same day you plan to eat them. (Humid weather will blunt their crispness, but their fabulous flavor will remain.)
Ready-made fried shallots are available at Asian grocery stores in the West, but they lack the characteristic richness of those you make from scratch. When you’ve finished frying, reserve the fragrant oil to use in other dishes.
½ pound shallots
1 cup vegetable oil
Peel the shallots, leaving the root ends intact. Thinly slice crosswise, resulting in small shallot rings. Discard the root end bits or use in vegetable stocks. On a cutting board or in a bowl, loosely break the layers of rings apart to ensure that they cook evenly.
Line a plate or baking sheet with paper towel. Pour the oil into a wok or large skillet over medium heat. After 2 or 3 minutes, drop a few pieces into the oil. If they sizzle lightly, add the remaining shallots. If they do not and sink to the bottom of the pan, the oil is not hot enough. Wait for them to rise and then add the remaining shallots.
The shallots will soften and begin to give off their moisture, resulting in many tiny bubbles. Every minute or so, stir using a spider or slotted spoon. After 5 or 6 minutes some of the shallots around the edge of the oil will take on some color. For the next 5 minutes or so, stir regularly to move them around. When about three-quarters are uniformly light golden brown, move the pan off the heat.(The shallots will continue to cook out of the oil, so take them out when they are a light golden brown instead of a darker color, when they may taste bitter).
To remove, briefly tilt the spider or spoon against the side of the pan to let any excess oil drip back into the pan. Transfer to a paper- towel-lined plate and spread them out to cool and crisp up. Transfer to an airtight jar or container and store for up to 1 week at room temperature (or freeze during humid weather).
Recipe from Vegetarian Viet Nam, copyright © Cameron Stauch, 2018. Reprinted by permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company. Available wherever books are sold.