Acclaimed Santa Cruz cookbook author Andrea Nguyen gives her tips on using local veggies, cookbook how-tos and where to find the best Asian produce right here on this side of the hill.
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When I love a cookbook, it’s obvious. The edges of the cover are dented, the pages stained with splashes and smudges of ingredients and little notes decorate the margins.
Case in point: my copy of “Vietnamese Food Any Day” by Andrea Nguyen is practically black and blue from constant use. When I pick it up, the binding flops open to reveal my most beloved recipes — the Shaking Beef, a marinated steak salad with baby greens and red onion in a tangy, funky dressing; Sriracha tofu, a three-ingredient recipe I use for everything from spring rolls to banh mi; baby kale stir-fried with garlic, a versatile vegetable stir-fry recipe that’s anything but boring; sizzling rice crepes, or bánh xèo, a savory crepe made with coconut milk with ground pork, shrimp and shiitakes that’s stuffed with fresh herbs and dipped into a salty, tangy nước chấm dipping sauce.
Nguyen knows cookbooks. Over the past 20 years, the Santa Cruz author has written six cookbooks focusing on Vietnamese and Asian cuisine that have garnered national and international praise and become beloved additions to many kitchens. Her first book, “Into the Vietnamese Kitchen,” became the first comprehensive full-color cookbook in the English language devoted to Vietnamese food when it was published in 2006. “The Pho Cookbook,” which focuses on Vietnam’s most well-known soups, won a prestigious James Beard Foundation Book Award in 2018. The New York Times, Bon Appetit, Saveur and many other major publications have featured her clever, approachable writing and recipes. Locally, she has taught cooking classes on dumpling making and pho crafting at New Leaf Community Markets.
As you can probably tell, I’m a big fan. So when Nguyen announced that she was starting a podcast with three other acclaimed authors on how to create a cookbook, I tuned in. In the first episode of “Everything Cookbooks,” Nguyen chats with co-hosts Molly Stevens, Kate Leahy and Kristin Donnelly on how to decide if you should write a cookbook. Throughout the season, they’ll cover the ins and outs of the industry, from agents and publishing to writing and recipe testing.
This week, I chatted with Nguyen about the new podcast, her cookbook-writing career, what it takes to make a cookbook and where to find Asian ingredients in Santa Cruz County.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
Lookout: How has living in Santa Cruz influenced your cooking?
Andrea Nguyen: One of the influences is the amazing amount of produce that we have in the county. For example, I’m working on a new vegetable-centric Vietnamese cookbook that will be out next year. It’s really influenced by the abundance that we have that comes to our farmers markets and our indie markets. Also, the fact that I have to drive over the 17 to get to an Asian market or go down to Marina or Seaside informed how I wrote “Vietnamese Food Any Day.” I shopped at local Santa Cruz supermarkets and the farmers market to make the recipes for that book. I didn’t go to a single Asian market.
When my family came here to America in 1975, the supermarkets in the United States were not as diverse as they are now. We cooked with what was available, and it became like this little adventure and to make do with what was available at the American supermarket.
Modern cooks now can find all kinds of things. The fact that you can go and buy fish sauce, and really good jasmine rice at a regular supermarket, is phenomenal. I think people take that for granted. At the same time, they expect authenticity to come from Asian markets only. The reality is that not all Asians need to go to an Asian market to make Asian food. There’s this really strange notion that to make the food of a particular heritage that you have to do these back bends and deep dives when, frankly, to me, the most authentic experience of cooking the food of other people is being able to make it part of your regular repertoire. That’s what I try to do in “Vietnamese Food Any Day.” If people are making tacos and Thai food and pizza, they can make Vietnamese food, too, during the week. It doesn’t need to be a project.
Lookout: How did you get your start writing cookbooks?
Nguyen: I loved cookbooks when I was a kid. That’s how I learned about American culture — that and watching a lot of prime-time television. I wanted to write about cookbooks. But I didn’t really know how, because to a first-generation immigrant refugee to this country, economic stability is found in more traditional careers. So I set out to be a banker. I have a degree in finance, but I realized that I’m really bad at accounting.
Then, a series of opportunities opened up in my life. I studied communication for a master’s degree, and I also found myself unemployed in Santa Cruz. I couldn’t get a job — I couldn’t get arrested! So I started building a website, and eventually I got a break in terms of meeting the owner of Ten Speed Press, a publishing house that does stellar cookbooks. By then, I’d already known about Ten Speed for many years. They helped me make my first book in 2006, which was when “Into the Vietnamese Kitchen” was released.
I had written a cookbook proposal many many years before, and was told that I couldn’t get published or a place with a publisher because I wasn’t on television. Even in the ‘90s it was this whole thing about, “Do you have a platform?” And not so much about, “Do you have anything to say?” That has changed nowadays because people can have a social media presence, or a blog, they can do many things. I didn’t have a platform but Ten Speed Press recognized my work as being good and unusual and being full of depth. I was very, very lucky.
Lookout: What’s an important characteristic to have if you want to write a cookbook?
Nguyen: You have to love to write good instructions. Cookbooks are how-to manuals. Recipes are a GPS route, and you want to get people to their destination without them getting into accidents. They can take a detour if they want to, but you want them to get there. You have to be able to have communication skills and to make food exciting for people and the detail skills to communicate quantities and visual and tactile cues.
At the end of the line, you need to love your food. As Molly Stevens, who’s a friend of mine, and one of the co-hosts of “Everything Cookbooks,” said, you really have to have something to say and you gotta love it. Because it’s not a glamorous career. I mean, I clean the kitchen myself, I clean my floors. But I have work that I really, really love. You’ve got to love it, because you’ve got to live it for years.
I also have recipe testers who have been with me for years. They’re all volunteers, and that’s how they can participate in making cookbooks without having their name on a byline.
Lookout: You have a new cookbook coming out next year. What’s it about?
Nguyen: It’s called “Ever-Green Vietnamese.” It is a celebration of plants from land and sea. It’s a reflection of how I eat now. When I reached mid-life, I realized that I needed to change my diet, and plants have given me so much joy. This book is a celebration of Vietnamese traditional and modern ways with vegetables. In many ways I returned to my food roots in terms of many dishes being plant-based or plant-forward. I am not going to be a total vegetarian. I grew up in a household that always had meat, but we had a lot of vegetables, too, because that’s just part of the Vietnamese repertoire.
Lookout: How has the process of cookbook writing changed from when you wrote your first cookbook to now?
Nguyen: People nowadays do a lot of substitutions and expect flexibility. The pandemic has certainly taught us that. People have certain food preferences or dietary needs. Starting with “Vietnamese Food Any Day,” I try to give as many options as possible for variations or substitutions. In the past, I gave one way to make something and maybe a few suggestions for tweaks. Nowadays people want to have the ability to make changes to a recipe, and I want them to feel that liberation level. At the same time, you have to substitute with care. Not everything’s going to work.
Lookout: Why are cookbooks important?
Nguyen: People think that cookbooks need to be this kind of high-profile celebrity thing, but I also love cookbooks that are made for communities and projects, for a fundraiser or even for your family. I think that there is so much heart that goes into projects like that. Not everybody needs to write something that hits the bestsellers list.
The payoff of writing a good recipe and putting together a good cookbook is that it provides context. The food tastes much better if it has a story behind it. I’ve been told by people that they don’t want the story. They don’t care about the story. They just want to know how to make something and if it tastes good. It’s hard for me to connect with that notion because if I’m trying to show you how to make a dish that you have absolutely no idea what it is, I need to give you a description. I need to tell you why you need to make this dish. So without giving you that context, what’s the point?
Lookout: What are some of your favorite cookbooks?
Nguyen: I have books written in Vietnamese that are really old. Julia Child’s cookbooks are full of wisdom. I read cookbooks for a lot of different reasons. Sometimes I read cookbooks or their instructions, because I want to see how a writer presents certain techniques. One of my favorite cookbooks is “The Key to Chinese Cooking” by Irene Kuo. She had this way of writing cooking instructions for Chinese recipes that just made you understand and vividly see the technique happening. She was not a native English speaker, but she had this incredible ability with language.
Another cookbook that I’m getting a lot of joy from is “Happy in the Kitchen” by Michel Richard. He was a professionally trained French chef, but he had all these different ways of doing things, particularly with vegetables, that were so innovative. He broke the rules of traditional French cooking. His ideas teach me that you don’t always have to do things the same way. There’s always room for improvement, but you also need to understand the traditional roots of something before you can really play. I think that that applies to many things, not just recipe writing and cookbook writing. Get a sense of the foundation, the basics, and then you can riff from there because you’ve got a solid foundation for creating your craft.
Lookout: Do you have any tips for your local fans who where to find great Asian ingredients?
If anyone is interested in Asian produce, look for CE Farms at the Cabrillo farmers market on Saturdays starting in the spring. They sell wonderful Asian produce, and they’re just really great people. If people are interested in exploring Asian produce but they don’t want to go over the hill, they can just go to Cabrillo on Saturday.