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Interview with Andrea Nguyen
When people ask me where I go for pho in the city, I hesitate. The truth is, I haven’t had a bowl of pho in a restaurant ever since I discovered Andrea Nguyen’s recipe in her James Beard-nominated cookbook, Into the Vietnamese Kitchen. (Once you make this traditional Vietnamese beef and noodle soup at home, all restaurants pho broths will taste like MSG-flavored water by comparison--a gentle warning to those who would rather live in complacency!) I’ve long been a fan of Nguyen and her easy teaching style, so I was excited to have the opportunity to chat with her recently about her latest cookbook, Asian Dumplings.
Like many Asian children, Nguyen grew up making dumplings with her mother. When she gained proficiency, the task became a game. “My mom would give me two or three packets of wonton skins—you know how Asian families are, you have children, you put them to work!” she jokes. “My sister and I would have pleating contests to see who could pleat the neatest dumplings, the fastest.” And so, Asian Dumplings is a cookbook inspired by Nguyen’s lifelong love for this simple food. Her family would often drive 90 minutes to visit the Chinatown in LA on the weekends for dim sum: “Ha Gao, Shu Mai! That’s how I learned Cantonese,” said Nguyen, giving me the names of two common dim sum offerings—one made of shrimp, the other pork. “In college, I would go to this mom-and-pop shop called Mandarin Deli and watch the guy roll out the dough, then steam or boil the dumplings. I learned by observation.”
When Nguyen returned to the US after studying abroad, she craved the taste of the food she ate in Asia. Inevitably, she’d find herself standing by the window at the Arcadia location of Din Tai Fung, a world-renowned restaurant known for their paper thin-skinned Shanghainese soup dumplings. Nguyen also looked for cookbooks that would teach her a full range of dumplings—not just the obligatory one or two recipes found tucked in the back of nearly every Chinese cookbook. When she couldn’t find a comprehensive resource, she decided to write one. Asian Dumplings grew from her desire to put into words her years of practice, her years of pinching and pleating little rounds of dough and filling them with various tasty tidbits.
Some of these ingredients referenced in Nguyen’s latest work--bamboo shoots, woodear mushrooms, or daikon--may sound exotic, but she assures me that the recipes are perfectly appealing for the Asian food novice. She reconciles the busy, average home cook’s need to sometimes simplify a recipe by offering “Lazy Day Tips” scattered throughout. Instead of making the pastry for the daikon cakes, she suggests puff pastry as an acceptable substitute. Instead of simmering pork skin to use as the gelatin for her Shanghai soup dumplings—a recipe that took her an entire month to perfect—she uses agar agar. “By the time I boil down pig skin, I don’t want to finish making xiao long bao (soup dumplings). It’s not worth the time. If I can’t get myself to feel excited enough to do a recipe over and over, I can’t expect the average home cook to do it,” she explains.
This Friday, Andrea Nguyen will be back in Seattle for her third visit. Her Lunar New Year Luncheon at Monsoon East, where an array of recipes from Asian Dumplings will be paired with teas, is currently sold out.
You can follow Andrea on Twitter @aqnguyen, or visit her blog at vietworldkitchen.typepad.com
For more info on Monsoon East, please go to their website at monsoonrestaurants.com