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An: To Eat
Recipes and Stories from a Vietnamese Family Kitchen
By Helene An
By Jacqueline An
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- ebook $20.99 $26.99 CAD
- Hardcover $35.00 $45.50 CAD
This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around May 3, 2016. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.
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Helene’s transformation from pampered “princess” in French Colonial Vietnam, to refugee then restaurateur, and her journey from Indochina’s lush fields to family kitchen gardens in California are beautifully chronicled throughout the book. The result is a fascinating peek at a lost world, and the evolution of an extraordinary cuisine. The 100 recipes in An: To Eat feature clean flavors, simple techniques, and unique twists that could only have come from Helene’s personal story.
the original farm-to-table diet
The same way American chefs shudder at the thought of fast food representing their national palate abroad, anyone with exposure to true Vietnamese cooking is dismayed by the lumping of our cuisine with what passes for Asian in this country. The steamy buffet lines in mall food courts and ubiquitous take-out places in strip malls have created a false impression of Asian food: that it is all either greasy or salty (sometimes both); that the only color in the limp and unrecognizable ingredients comes from a thick, unnaturally neon sauce; and that it requires a fussy, deep-fried preparation that is bad for the heart and makes one feel uncomfortably, yet temporarily, full. While this might be a fair and even deserved description of most mass-produced, fast-food type “Asian” entrées, it bears no resemblance to the style, substance, or flavor profiles of Vietnamese cooking.
Vietnamese cooking is the opposite of “Asian” fast food in almost every way. To start, it is one of the healthiest diets on the planet. True Vietnamese food is based on simply mixing good meat, especially lean seafood, with lots of fresh vegetables. Typically, food is cooked in water or broth instead of oil. Flavor comes from aromatic herbs rather than heavy sauces. Vietnamese cooking is organic, paleo, and naturally gluten-free—the original farm-to-table cuisine.
Vietnamese cooking is also unscientific and decidedly forgiving, a blessing to both the inexperienced and the perpetually busy cook. Unlike in baking, the measurements don’t have to be precise. Everyday meal preparation is about throwing together whatever you have on hand in the kitchen, mixing and matching flavor profiles to make almost anything work. The heart of Vietnamese cooking isn’t all rolling and steaming, it’s a light stir fry in a good, homemade stock that pairs different proteins with fresh vegetables in whatever ratio you prefer.
While traditional Chinese cooking can be oily and heavy, and Thai can be either very sweet or very spicy, Vietnamese cuisine is all about balance. It is not too salty, too sweet, too spicy, too oily, or too filling. It is not “too” anything. It is balanced for flavor with a subtle blend of sweet, salty, and umami, the fifth, secret savory taste. It is balanced for the seasons, highlighting what’s fresh and locally available alongside preserved foods from previous harvests. And it is balanced for the body, employing ingredients that work together for optimum digestion and wellness.
All of that said, Vietnamese cooking is still a mystery to most home cooks. While the patrons of our restaurants—some of the first Vietnamese establishments in America—have enjoyed our food for more than forty years, most of them confess that it is intimidating to try making these kinds of dishes on their own. Since the process itself is not hard—both American and Italian cooking are more complicated!—the reason can only be because it is unfamiliar. Most Americans don’t grow up knowing how to stir-fry in stock or caramelize in a clay pot, just as most Asians don’t grow up grilling hot dogs and hamburgers. World traveler Anthony Bourdain, who lists “life-changing” Vietnam as his favorite food destination, confirms that the country was “all so new and different to my life before and the world I grew up in . . . It just seemed like another planet; a delicious one that sort of sucked me in and never let go.” The unknown is only intimidating, however, while it remains unknown. Our hope is that this book will help unmask the secrets of our special way of cooking in a language that everyone can relate to. And just like learning a new language, once you master the foundations and get comfortable with the basic techniques, you’ll find that Vietnamese cooking will become fast, easy, and a new, very delicious addition to your life.
You can generally tell how complicated a cooking style will be based on the list of tools required. When gram-specific kitchen scales, pressure cookers, and sous vide machines are mentioned, you know the process will be meticulous and labor intensive. The difficulty level of Vietnamese cooking is similarly revealed by what is needed to create it: mainly the pots, pans, and knives you already have on hand. This makes sense considering that most Vietnamese refugees left with little more than the shirts on their backs and were able to still conjure up the incredible tastes and flavors with what they found in their new homes. Everything in this book can be made without purchasing a single new item or gadget. Stir-frying can be done in a sauté pan; rice can be cooked in a regular pot. However, if you wish to streamline the process even further, we recommend having just two essential items: a wok and an electric rice cooker.
Selecting Your Wok
While a sauté pan or cast iron skillet can be used to successfully stir-fry, using a wok is preferable for many reasons. Although Vietnamese recipes use little oil, using a wok will require less of it than a regular pan. The high, sloped sides of a wok allow for faster, more even cooking. And only the wok will produce what Chinese cooks call wok hei, or “the breath of the wok,” the special taste that comes from food seared perfectly in the perfect pan.
The magic of the wok comes from its shape: the slope provides extra cooking surface area while allowing heat to flare up around the pan. Ideal wok cooking requires extremely high heat. There are many choices to consider when selecting a wok for home use in a Western kitchen. Here are our recommendations:
MATERIAL: CARBON STEEL
Carbon steel will heat up and cool down quickly, and it is durable and inexpensive. Cast iron tends to be too heavy to lift and flip food; stainless steel is not recommended as it takes too long to heat up and cool down, and it is difficult to clean.
NONSTICK SURFACE: NO
There are two problems with nonstick woks. The first is that they’re unnecessary: properly seasoned woks are by nature nonstick. Secondly, wok cooking requires high heat that artificially applied nonstick coatings can’t safely handle.
While a rounded bottom will allow for a smoother internal surface that can assist in cooking, it’s not helpful if the wok won’t balance on your stove. In Vietnam, kitchens are equipped with special wok burners or wok rings that can be added to accommodate these special pans. In Western kitchens, however, especially when cooking with induction, glass top, or electric burners, flat-bottom woks are a better choice.
HANDLES: ONE LONG HANDLE, PREFERABLY WOODEN
Woks come with two styles of handle: two small loops on either side (called Cantonese-style) or one longer handle paired with one short loop. We recommend the ones with longer handles, since they are much easier to lift and allow you to flip foods for even cooking. The longer handle can be made of either wood or metal, but remember that metal handles get hot. Never grab one without a potholder! If you think you might forget this in the passion of cooking, go for wooden.
SIZE: 14 INCHES
Woks come in many different sizes. The standard workhorse and a good starter wok is one with a 14-inch diameter.
Having a lid that fits your wok will help you get more use out of it when simmering, braising, or steaming.
USEFUL ACCESSORY: STEAMER TRAY
While you can steam food any number of ways, doing so in your wok is especially convenient and fast. You can set bamboo steamers right inside a wok, but we prefer an aluminum steamer rack.
ELECTRIC WOKS: NO
To avoid the hassle of fitting a wok on a Western stove, you might think about turning to a freestanding electric wok. Don’t, since most have non-stick coatings and are hard to clean.
HOW TO SEASON A WOK
Much like a beloved cast-iron skillet which was passed down from a grandmother and works better than anything you could ever buy new, woks that have been used frequently become prized possessions. While new woks will start out light gray in color, over time they will develop a lovely, deep black patina that will make them even more non-stick and will enhance the flavors of whatever you cook in them. Like cast-iron skillets, before they can be used, new woks must be seasoned. Here’s how:
WHAT YOU’LL NEED
Steel wool scrubber
Heat-resistant BBQ brush
¼ cup vegetable oil
4 inch piece fresh unpeeled ginger, sliced in ½-inch pieces (½ cup)
½ bunch garlic chives or scallions, cut into 2-inch pieces and patted dry with paper towels (¼ cup)
1) New woks come with a protective coating to prevent rusting during shipping and storing that must be thoroughly removed before use. To do this, scrub both the inside and outside of your new wok with hot water, dish soap, and a steel wool scrubber. This is the only time you will ever use a soap or a scrubber on your wok. Rinse well but do not towel dry. Instead, set the wok on a burner over low heat until all of the water evaporates and the wok is completely dry.
Note: The next step requires heating oil and aromatics in the wok at high temperatures. This can cause excessive amounts of smoke and possibly a chemical smell from the leftover sealant. Make sure all windows are open and exhaust fans turned on. If you are worried about the smoke and/or smell, you can season your wok outdoors over an open flame on a grill or camp stove.
2) Place the dry wok on a burner turned up to high heat. Let the empty wok heat up for a few minutes. You’ll know it’s hot enough when a drop of water in the pan evaporates in seconds.
3) Remove the wok from the heat. Brush oil over the inside of the wok to form thin coating, all the way up the sides, being careful not to spill any. Return the wok to high heat and cook for 3 minutes. Remove the wok from the heat; allow it to cool slightly. Carefully wipe the oil from the wok with a paper towel. Repeat this step one more time.
4) Brush the inside of the pan with another coating of oil. Turn the heat down to medium and return the wok to the stove. Add the ginger and chives or scallions and stir-fry for 15 minutes, making sure to rub the herbs onto every part of the interior; this will help remove any metallic taste from the wok. The pan should be changing colors from gray to brown to black; it might even look splotchy or “ruined,” but don’t worry, this is what you want!
5) Remove the wok from the heat; allow it to cool to room temperature. Discard the ginger and scallions. Once the wok is cool, wash it with a soft sponge and hot water, then return it to low heat to dry for 1 to 2 minutes. Remove the wok from the heat and allow it to cool again. Using a paper towel, spread a very thin layer of oil around the inside surface of the wok before storing. Your wok is now ready to use.
CARING FOR YOUR WOK
Woks should only be washed in water with soft sponges; no soap whatsoever. You can soak the wok in water to help soften and remove stubborn food, but over time this shouldn’t be necessary, as your wok develops its own nonstick surface. Always dry the wok on the stove over low heat, otherwise it will rust. And rub a very thin layer of cooking oil over the surface before storing it to help protect the finish. To remove stuck-on food or rust spots—which are perfectly natural in a newer wok but will decrease with time—sprinkle kosher salt over the offending spot and scrub with a paper towel.
Electric Rice Cooker
The second kitchen item we recommend for Asian cooking is an electric rice cooker.
Using one will free up a spot on your stove, allow you to cook large quantities of rice, and perhaps best of all, eliminate the need to monitor the process. It’s a welcome relief to be able to just pour in dry rice and water and walk away knowing that you will get a perfect batch every time.
Small rice cookers with basic functionality can be purchased for around $30, but if you plan on cooking rice frequently, it might be worth investing in a higher-end model. The best ones offer a host of fabulous features including digital controls, delay timers, keep warm functions, and quick cook and simmer capabilities, and some can even cook oatmeal, one pot meals, and dessert, too.
There are two other relatively inexpensive items that can be useful for frequent Asian cooking: a mortal and pestle and a steamer pot.
While a food processor can be used to grind herbs, there’s something so inherently satisfying about crushing them with an ancient bowl and stick. A mortar and pestle set can be purchased almost anywhere for just a few dollars. Look for one made of stone, especially the pestle, that is neither too smooth nor too grainy.
While we generally use a steamer tray set inside our wok, you can also use a separate, stainless steel steamer pot, which is essentially just a large stockpot and lid with a steamer “basket” that fits inside. To get the most use out of it, choose a three-tier or double stacked one, also called a Chinese steamer; this will allow you to steam two different groups of food at the same time. You can also use traditional bamboo steamers, but they are a little trickier to work with: They require liners, are a bit more difficult to clean, and won’t last as long. The bamboo will soak up some of the moisture during the steaming process, and while some believe this adds to the crispness of the food, others argue that it takes away some of the flavor. It is purely a matter of preference, but no matter how you like to steam your food, a dedicated system can save time.
CLAY POT COOKING
For centuries in early Asian and Mediterranean civilizations, clay pots were the only available vessels for cooking, and today many dishes still rely on this ancient cooking method for one simple reason: clay pots do a wonderful job! Clay is porous so it soaks up steam and keeps food tender and moist. clay pots can be used either in ovens or on stovetops and require very little, if any, oil. The traditional clay pot—which can be purchased at most kitchen stores or online—helps in the caramelization process for many dishes, but it isn’t essential. A Dutch oven, covered casserole, terra cotta pan, or Korean stone pot will work just as well.
While your kitchen probably has enough ladles and spoons and spatulas to make any of the recipes in this book, if you want to purchase additional, traditional utensils to assist with Asian cooking, here are a few of our favorites:
A wok brush, also called a bamboo brush or cleaning whisk, is a short, stubby brush that looks like a tiny broom made of bamboo. Available for just a couple of dollars, it is the perfect tool for cleaning your wok with hot water and saving your sponges from shredding. A shorter rather than a longer one will be easier to use. Simply swirl it in circles over your dirty wok under hot water. To clean, swirl the bristles in a pot of hot water and hang the brush to dry.
A wok turner or stir-fry spatula is exactly what it sounds like: a spatula specially designed for the shape of a wok to help quickly turn food while stir-frying. Make sure the end is adequately curved to reach food in any part of the wok (a too-straight edge won’t do), and pick a product that will not conduct the high heat up to your hand. Get one big enough for your wok—at least as long as the diameter of your pan. We prefer a natural material such as bamboo over silicone because it is harder and therefore easier to move food with, and won’t ever melt.
A spider strainer, also called a steamer strainer or skimmer, is a basket on a handle meant to retrieve dumplings, wontons, or other food from hot liquid.
A CUT ABOVE
There are dozens of specialty knives out there styled to cut things from sashimi to watermelon—nice to have, but certainly not necessary. And while you can make do with what you already have in your kitchen, Vietnamese cooking is made easier with these four knives:
Santoku or Chef’s knife: An all-purpose knife, great for cutting everything from steak to vegetables. Though these come in many different sizes, an 8- to 10-inch blade is best. This is the only knife worth spending a considerable amount of money on.
Paring knife: A 3- to 4-inch knife used for fruits, garnishes, and small, soft vegetables. Great for mushrooms, scallions, and strawberries; not so much for carrots.
Boning knife: A flexible knife for de-boning fish, meat, or poultry; meant to cut around bones, not through them.
Meat Cleaver: A knife meant to hack through bones and cartilage, especially useful when making homemade stock. Heavy is more important than sharp in this case; a good cleaver can be purchased for under $30. Beware of “Chinese cleavers,” as these are actually chef’s knives and not sharp enough for butchering.
Vietnamese food is easy to cook and to prepare, but it does require more ingredients and prep work than you might be used to. In particular, a lot of things must be cut up before cooking can begin. The secret to a smooth and quick preparation is three-fold: Use the right knife, cut on the right surface, and chop your ingredients into uniform pieces.
Make sure you are using the right knife for the right job. A boning knife is meant to cut around bone, not through it. A paring knife is meant for small, soft foods. If you have to use pressure to cut something with a paring knife, you’re using the wrong knife; choose something bigger.
It doesn’t matter how fancy your knives are, or whether they are full or partial tang, as long as you are comfortable using them and they are sharp. Sharp knives make for fast, clean, and safe cooking. Use a home sharpener or take your knives to have them professionally sharpened every three to four months.
Nothing will dull a blade faster than cutting down onto a too-hard surface. For this reason, avoid glass or stone cutting boards. Plastic cutting boards are cheap and convenient, but they can harbor bacteria in the surface cuts, even after dishwashing. The best choice is a solid wood cutting board, preferably maple. Some people prefer eco-friendly bamboo, but those boards do split and can retain odors. You should ideally have two cutting boards, one for foods that can be eaten raw like fruits and vegetables, and another for meats and fish to avoid cross-contamination. And always hand wash wood cutting boards (along with any other wooden utensils) rather than putting them in the dishwasher, as they can absorb chemicals from the detergent.
Finally, uniform cutting is important in Vietnamese cuisine, not because it has to look like it came out of a restaurant kitchen (although it will), but because food of the same size will have the same cooking time and consistency. Of course, perfect cuts will leave some extras, but there’s no need to waste them: save the scraps for salads or stock. Good knife skills take practice; the more you cut, the better you’ll become.
Stir-frying is essentially just searing food quickly on all sides at a very high temperature. Doing so locks in flavor, color, and moisture, requiring little, if any, oil to be added to the dish. For this reason, stir-frying is extremely healthy and delicious. Rather than being transformed into something else or buried in sauce, stir-fried foods retain their original fresh flavor.
Cooks new to stir-frying can get nervous because of the high temperatures and quickness of the cooking process, but like everything, it will get easier with time and practice. After just a few recipes, this technique will seem like second nature to you. As you are learning though, be careful around the high heat. If you ever feel that your pan is getting out of control, remove the pan to a cold burner and turn the heat down. While stir-frying uses high heat, that doesn’t mean leaving a pan on the highest setting indefinitely. Every stove and every pan will handle heat differently. You want your food to sear but not burn. When it is necessary, lower the heat or remove the pan for a few seconds.
Here are some more tips for stir-frying success:
Since food will cook so quickly in a stir-fry, all ingredients must be pre-chopped, pre-measured, pre-marinated, and right on hand for adding to the wok or pan. You will not be able to walk away from your stir-fry once it’s started, so read through each recipe thoroughly and have required items ready and set up in the order that you will use them.
Preheat the Pan
The delicious sizzle you hear when adding food to a pan for stir-frying comes from the fact that the pan is already nice and hot. To achieve this, you must preheat the pan first, and preheat it empty. If you add oil too early, it can reach its smoking point too soon, and if you add food too soon, it can cook too slowly and break down before it ever has a chance to sear. You will know the pan is hot enough when a drop of water evaporates almost immediately.
When adding broth, oil, or any other liquid to a hot pan, if you are a new cook, it is advisable to first lift the pan off the burner to avoid excessive smoking or the possibility of spilling onto the heating unit. Add the liquid and swirl it around the pan, and then return to the burner for a few seconds to let the liquid heat up.
As in Italian cooking, where the garlic and onions are added first to help flavor the broth, in stir-frying we do the same, adding shallots, garlic, onion, and ginger first. Make sure to keep stirring and flipping them, though, to keep them from burning. Aromatics are ready when they start to get tender and you can smell them—after about 1 to 2 minutes of cooking.
The next step is to sear the protein. Add any meat, fish, or poultry to the pan in a single layer and let it sit for 1 minute to form a “crust.” Then flip it to sear the other side, tossing it frequently with the aromatics. Once the protein is almost but not quite cooked, remove it from the pan and set it aside on a separate plate.
To sear quickly and correctly, food needs enough room. Don’t overcrowd the pan, as that can lead to food steaming instead of searing. Generally, you should only sear 1 pound of protein at a time. Work in batches if you need to make more, but know that the process will go very quickly.
Return the pan to the heat, adding more liquid if the recipe requires it, and toss in the vegetables. Vegetables do not need to be spread out in a single layer, but they do need to be kept in constant motion. That is the true secret of stir-fry: to keep the food tumbling around, so all sides of it hit the hot pan ever so briefly. You can achieve this motion with a spatula, by lifting and shaking the pan, or with a combination of both.
Vegetables must be completely dry before they are added to a hot stir-fry, as any moisture will make them soggy. During prep, use a salad spinner if you need to remove excess water.
Adding Protein Back to the Pan
An: To Eat isn't just a good cookbook, it's a hell of a story.”
An: To Eat is a beautifully photographed (by Evan Sung) book that combines many of Crustacean's recipes with the central story of the An family.”
Los Angeles Times
"It's so wonderful: The An story, the An family, and especially the An food. Vietnamese royal cuisine meets L.A. flair."
Alan Richman, 16-time James Beard Foundation winner for food writing and GQ food correspondent
Chef Helene An's talent for composing flavors is virtuosic. Her contribution to the California culinary landscape places her firmly in the ranks of Alice Waters and Wolfgang Puck. An: To Eat grants us a peek at some of her delectably covert recipes--after all, everyone loves a tasty secret."
Eddie Lin, Los Angeles Times food writer
"Chef An's cooking isn't simply about food. It's a celebration of life, of family, of survival and triumph. Her life is a tribute to living well and living with love!"
Merrill Shindler, KABC Radio
- On Sale
- May 3, 2016
- Page Count
- 304 pages
- Running Press