Kim Thúy dishes on latest endeavour — a cookbook featuring her Vietnamese heritage

The well-known Montreal author sets fiction aside to showcase her Vietnamese heritage through family recipes in her latest book, Le Secret des Vietnamiennes.

Montreal author best known for her award-winning novels sets fiction aside to showcase family recipes

Famed Montreal novelist Kim Thúy takes readers on a journey through food, highlighting her Vietnamese heritage to tell the story of her family through their cooking. (Guillaume Charbonneau/Radio-Canada)

Some people say that food can tell a story. If that's the case, then Kim Thúy has quite a tale to tell.

You may know Thúy as one of Montreal's best-known authors — her first novel, Ru, won the Governor General's Literary Award for French-language fiction in 2010.

But in her newest work, Thúy breaks form to tell the story of her family through their cooking.

Le Secret des Vietnamiennes isn't a novel, but a cookbook — highlighting Thúy's mother, her aunts and the dishes she learned from them.

"My mom says all the time there are two groups of people who can cook," she told CBC Montreal's Daybreak.

"Those who are really cooks … and those who can eat. If they know how to eat, they can find that taste again."

A history of cooking

When asked why she decided to turn away from novels to write a cookbook, Thúy said it felt like a natural extension. Food had always played a role in her books and her life.

For five years, Thúy owned and operated a restaurant in Montreal. It served one dish a day — a decision born out of necessity.

Le Secret des Vietnamiennes isn't a novel, but a cookbook, highlighting recipes from the women in Thúy's traditional Vietnamese family. (Sarah Scott/Trécarré)

"I didn't know how to cook when I opened it up," she said with a laugh. "I had to learn [a dish] from my mom the day before, so I just offered what I knew."

Her interest in cooking began when she went to visit Vietnam and realized that authentic local cuisine in the country tasted nothing like the Vietnamese food back in Montreal.

Since the first wave of Vietnamese immigrants had trouble finding the ingredients used in Southeast Asian cooking, Thúy suspects that the recipes had to be adapted to the ingredients found in Canada.

Now that's all changed.

"Most of the ingredients in this book, you can buy them from anywhere," she said.

A family affair

The recipes are separated into sections, each beginning with a full-page photograph of one of Thúy's aunts. On the opposite page, there is a profile of the women, along with a description of their personalities.

Thúy said it felt natural to weave her family into the cookbook, seeing as they have always been a part of her writing, starting with her account of escaping from Vietnam after the war.

"So many families had lost a member somehow while they crossed the sea," she said. "So I feel very lucky to still have my aunts."

Each woman is also identified by a number. Thúy explained that in Vietnam, using a person's name can be seen as impolite, so referring to people by their hierarchy in the family is a common practice.

In Thúy's case, her mother is number three.

"So when you speak to one another, you know right away who is older," she explained.

"The person who is older has authority."

Cultural divide

The recipes are no secret to most Vietnamese people, said Thúy.

Kim Thúy's cookbook Le Secret des Vietnamiennes highlights recipes to introduce a new audience to traditional eats from her native country. (Sarah Scott/Trécarré)

Her goal was to acquaint a new audience with the traditional recipes.

"I wanted to introduce Vietnamese cuisine to a non-Vietnamese — to someone who doesn't cook Vietnamese at all."

She said that there are key differences between Vietnamese food and Quebec's often French-inspired dishes.

"Vietnamese cuisine isn't about spices. It's about fresh herbs, more about aromas," she said.

"The particularity is not so much about ingredients but about the combination."

For example, one combines mixing ground pork and shrimp — the kind of blend you don't usually see in Quebec food. 

"I want to share what I find so beautiful or different between the Vietnamese culture and the Quebec culture," she said.

"It's possible to bring out even more the beauty of both."

With files from CBC Montreal's Daybreak