Kim Thúy on the significance of Vietnamese home cooking and the Caramel Pork recipe from her new book
"The Vietnamese family... they'll ask you ‘Have you eaten?’ But never ‘How are you?’"
Before Vietnamese-Canadian writer Kim Thúy published her first bestseller (Ru, in 2009) she worked as an interpreter, a lawyer, and ran a restaurant in Montreal called Ru de Nam. Since then, her poetic novels have garnered international acclaim, been published in over a dozen countries, and won awards from Canada Reads and the Governor General’s Literary Awards.
This month, the English edition of her latest book, Secrets from My Vietnamese Kitchen: Simple Recipes from My Many Mothers, will be published by Appetite by Random House. A must-read for fans of Thúy’s beautiful prose and Vietnamese-cuisine enthusiasts alike, the book provides a thoughtful, personal introduction to Vietnamese home cooking.
In the book, interspersed in between beautifully photographed recipes for comfort-food dishes such as Sweet and Sour Soup and Caramel Pork are loving profiles of Thúy’s female relatives, excerpts from her bestselling novels, and straight-forward descriptions and photos of common herbs and other ingredients used in Vietnamese cuisine.
“It's not a cookbook, it's not a novel...it is a hybrid,” says Thúy. “It's a very personal book in the sense that you don't have so many recipes, there are only [just over] 50 of them; the rest is stories, and pictures of the women [in my family].”
The idea of compiling a recipe book came to Thúy over a family dinner, as something simple that she could put together for her aging aunts, whom she realized won’t always be around. “I just thought, ‘My God, this is a miracle that all of us are here, alive,’” she recalls. “We all left Vietnam at different times in different ways, and we are all alive. I just felt so incredibly lucky.”
In Vietnamese families, as Thúy explains in the book, emotions are often verbalized through food, and the recipes included are intended for a typical, uncomplicated dinner at home. “The Vietnamese family, as soon as you step into the door, there's food. They'll ask you ‘Have you eaten?’ But never ‘How are you?’...this book is more about [the emotion of] sharing a meal,” says Thúy.
The dishes in the book aren’t meant to be showy or overly complicated, and you won’t find time-consuming recipes for pho or hu tieu here. “I just put in what I really love and make every day,” Thúy says. For example, the rice porridge recipe on page 131 calls for just two ingredients — but it’s the one dish that Thúy craves when she’s feeling under the weather. And on page 32, there’s a guide to making a fresh vegetable and herb platter with vermicelli, a simple but mandatory accompaniment for many meat dishes and for making fresh spring rolls, the latter of which Thúy calls her one comfort food. “Any dish with herbs makes me happy,” she says. “When you bite [into a spring roll] you have one taste; you chew, you have more flavours because of the cocktail of the herbs mixed together; and then when you swallow, you have another bouquet opening up. From one bite to the next is different.”
By design, most of the recipes require less than a dozen ingredients, few of which would have to be specifically sourced from a Asian supermarket. “It's not a list of 10 ingredients, only 5 or 6 or whatever at the most…and not too many exotic ingredients. Especially when you live far away from the [urban] centers, you cannot have access to [them],” says Thúy, noting that her in-laws live five hours north of Montreal, where certain food items often aren’t available locally.
A few of her favourite recipes in the book are the Eggplant, Pork and Shrimp stir fry and the Oven-Baked Fish in Rice Paper Rolls, which she recommends for parties because of the communal nature of making rice paper rolls at the table. The Caramel Pork, is also one of her favourites — and convenient and versatile, according to Thúy. “You can make a big pot and put it in the fridge for lunch for many, many days. Just take it out, add a lot of [fresh] herbs or vegetables and it's satisfying every time. Or, it can serve as a base: you can add prawns or fish, and then it becomes something else.”
Here’s the Caramel Pork recipe from Secrets from My Vietnamese Kitchen:
Caramel Pork — Thịt Ram
The best sidekicks to this dish are a few slices of cucumber or pieces of blanched cabbage.
- 5 tbsp (60 g) sugar
- 3 tbsp (45 mL) water, divided
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 onion, minced
- ¼ lb (110 g) pork belly (rind on), cut into ¼-inch (6 mm) thick slices
- 1 lb (454 g) pork loin, cut into strips
- 1 bird's eye chili, minced
- Freshly ground black pepper
- 3 tbsp (45 mL) fish sauce
- 2 green onions, white and green parts, chopped
- Fresh cilantro leaves
1. Combine the sugar and 1 tablespoon (15 mL) of the water in a stockpot. Set over medium heat and boil until the sugar turns into a deep amber caramel.
2. Increase heat to medium-high, then add the garlic, onions, and pork belly. Cook, stirring constantly, for 5 minutes.
3. Add the pork loin strips and bird’s eye chili, then generously season with black pepper. Stir well to coat all the ingredients with caramel.
4. Add the remaining water and the fish sauce, and keep cooking, stirring frequently, until the sauce has a slightly syrupy texture.
5. Serve immediately, garnished with the green onions and cilantro.
Makes 4 servings.
Truc Nguyen is a Toronto-based writer, editor and stylist. Follow her at @trucnguyen.