interview series, we explore what it means when we say “to truly experience a culture, you must taste it.” Food often helps us make meaningful connections that we never would otherwise. As new installment is published each Friday, we learn more about the role food plays in other travelers’ journeys. This week we hear from Andrea Nguyen of
. We’ve long been fans of Andrea’s recipes, and how she so successfully makes the culinary traditions of Asia accessible to everyone willing to explore them! We’re honored to have her participate in the series.
Andrea Nguyen is an author, teacher, and consultant whose work interprets traditional techniques and conveys personal stories. Her writing appears in the Wall Street Journal
, Los Angeles Times
, Bon Appetit,
, where she is also a contributing editor. Andrea’s landmark cookbooks, Into the Vietnamese Kitchen
, Asian Dumplings
and Asian Tofu
were selected as James Beard and IACP cookbook award finalists. Her new work, The Banh Mi Handbook
, is due out July 2014. Andrea lives in Santa Cruz, where she also publishes Vietworldkitchen.com
Food for Thought
The underlying idea of the “Food for Thought” series is that to truly experience a culture you must taste it. Do you agree or disagree? Why?
Yes, you must taste the food of a culture but you should also try to make it. Touching ingredients and preparing them for a particular dish allows you to get deeper into the mindset and experiences of those who savor that dish on a regular basis. Think of method acting. This would be method tasting.
What food do you identify with “home?” Does it reflect something about your own culture or upbringing? Do you crave it while you’re away?
Rice. I grew up eating rice practically every day. I miss it when I don’t have it four or five times a week for dinner.
How has travel affected the way you think about food?
I love to watch people cook, eat, even shop for their food. Travel allows me to make those observations. But wherever I am, what I really want to do is get some local ingredients and cook with it. There’s something different about being in situ and cooking. You don’t have to go to an exotic place. Go to an ethnic market or neighborhood.
Do you have a technique to try and understand local cuisine? (ie: Attending cooking classes or food tours? Hunting the best street food?)
My strategy is to try various kinds of street food, visit local market large and small, and tasting local ingredients. If I can, I talk up local vendors and in the best case, get someone to cook for me in their home.
Taipei Stinky Tofu
Tell us about a memorable meal that was so special it is forever ingrained in your memory. Where was it and what set it apart? What was served, and who shared it with you?
In 2010, I was in Chengdu (the capital of Sichuan province) doing research for my Asian Tofu cookbook. A friend in America connected me with a friend of his at Chengdu university, who in turn had one of graduate students show us around the city. Her family invited my two friends and I to their home for a Mid-Autumn festival meal. That’s a holiday that’s mostly for family so our invitation was unusual and precious.
They prepared about thirteen (13!) dishes. Her parents came from out of town and brought me a special kind of tofu. Her aunts and uncles made tofu dishes for me to try, explained key techniques, let me look in their kitchen drawers. There were other dishes on the menu but they were such generous, fun people to spend the day with. I was able to photograph the meal and write about the experience in my book. We were strangers before I arrived in Chengdu. That meal made us friends.
What food have you tried in your travels that some might find shocking or surprising? Would you eat it again?
I don’t think I eat anything that people would find shocking or surprising. People may find certain ingredients – like the pear-like fragrance of a certain giant water beetle to be weird but heck, you can get fake versions of that stuff, called ca cuong, at Viet and Thai markets in the United States.
In Taiwan there are street vendors who sell stinky tofu. I went to Taipei to try it out and even visited a factory that made it. The marinated tofu is a local favorite, not quite mine, though anything that’s fried, doused with sauce and eaten with pickles is fine by me!
I suppose that it’s all relative. People shouldn’t be scared of unfamiliar food. It’s just food.
And just for fun, if you had to choose one country’s cuisine to eat for the rest of your life what would it be?
Vietnamese food, of course!