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This book started as a quiet, seemingly innocuous project: a few years ago, I decided to learn more about Vietnamese cooking, because, after all, it is my cultural heritage, and also, I love to eat! My mother had an extensive collection of recipes, some neatly gathered in a notebook, but most scribbled on loose sheets of paper, often presenting several conflicting versions of the same dish. So, I decided to sort it out and write down those she thought were the best version for each of her specialties.
Any undertaking of mine has a tendency toward “mission creep,” as my husband will readily tell you, and this one was no exception. As I moved along, this book evolved into a project immortalizing a disappearing cuisine and a disappearing way of life. We decided to focus on my mom’s domain of expertise: Vietnamese food from the early 50s.
Vietnam has had a long, restless history, and the 20th century was particularly turbulent. These difficult, troubled times made the 50s of particular interest in the culinary sense: in those years, many Vietnamese people emigrated from the North (including my father’s family) and settled in the South, bringing with them, among other things, different ways of cooking and eating. They didn’t always have access to authentic Southern cuisine: old classics were modified, sometimes happily reinterpreted, sometimes badly misunderstood. Later in the century, more changes followed with the American presence, and yet more with the new affluence of peacetime.
This book’s ambition is to be a time capsule from the middle of the last century, when Vietnamese cuisine was still influenced by French culture, and before it evolved radically with the arrival of immigrants from the North.
I might be partial, but I feel that the cuisine of that time is particularly refined and worthy of being preserved. It is part of my parents’ cultural legacy and, for me, it is the classic cuisine of Vietnam.