Book review: The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

I wasn’t expecting to like The Sympathizer because I was expecting it to be good.  Ha.  That doesn’t sound right, but I’ll explain.  The cover brags about being a Pulitzer Prize winner, which means that the book has got to be good … and when I have high expectations for a book, I tend to be disappointed.  This did not happen with this book.

The basic plot of the story is that the narrator is a biracial Communist spy.  He infiltrated the South Vietnamese military to send intelligence back to the Viet Cong.  He followed a S. Vietnamese general to the United States to monitor the new immigrants.

The writing style is descriptive and yet not overly flowery.  The author paints vivid pictures of life in Saigon and California.  Even if the book had no message, it would have been an enjoyable read.

Though the writing style is enjoyable, the best part of this book is its brutally honest look at relationships, racism, classism, politics, and society.  Many books explore racism between different races, but this one also looks at racism amongst ones own race.  The author doesn’t let anyone slide.  He points out our subtle biases, how we manifest these biases, and how affect others.

The narrator of the book is biracial, having an Asian mother and a French father.  This is enough to ostracize him amongst Vietnamese people.  At one point, he mentions that he has no hope of marrying anyone from a decent Vietnamese family because no decent family would agree to let their daughter marry a biracial person.  If both of your parents are Vietnamese, you must also come from the right family.

To be honest, the book felt a bit long towards the end, but I would definitely recommend this book.

book review: The Pho Cookbook by Andrea Nguyen

I’m not sure if I’ve ever said this before, but please don’t ever buy the e-version of a cookbook.  They are never formatted correctly, no matter which app you use and the page references are all messed up.  Unfortunately, The Pho Cookbook was not the e-exception.

Parts of the text were suddenly a light gray color, which made it very difficult to read against the white background while other parts of the text were black.  I really shouldn’t have to change the background color in the app just so that I can read the text all the way through.  The page references (the author refers to other recipes in her book) are all off because the page numbers never match up on the electronic version.  Sometimes pictures are cut off in the middle of a page and sometimes you get text saying that a recipe is continued in the middle of the page because it was in the hard copy version of the book.  I would absolutely love it if editors/publishers could edit the books so that they were formatted correctly … even if they say something like we recommend using such and such app for correct formatting.

I found the book itself to be okay.  I liked the basic beef and chicken recipes and the “quick” versions were a neat idea, but they fell flat in taste.  Plus, the “quick” versions only serve 2.  Pho takes a lot of time and a lot of ingredients.  Even if you’re only making the “quick” version that takes about 40 minutes to cook, it’s going to take longer to prep the condiments, toast the spices, etc.  Do you really want to go through the expense and time of doing something like that for only 2 servings?  Personally, when I make pho, I make it in a huge pot so that I can get at least 2 meals out of it for the family.  Here’s my recommendation: don’t bother with the quick version.  Make a huge batch of the real pho (yeah, you’ll have to set aside a weekend day to do it), eat some yummy pho, freeze the remaining broth and then just reheat that when you want some more pho.  Your pho broth will taste so much richer and be so much more yummy than the fake stuff made with store bought broth.

The other problem I had with this book is the pressure cooker recipes.  I hate it when recipes call for special equipment that aren’t found in most homes.  The other issue is that unless you have a large pressure cooker, you’re not going to be able to make enough broth for a family of 4 to have 1 meal.  Again, if you’re going through the expense and time to make the pho, just make a huge batch.

I did find the section on other things to do with pho interesting.  There were many items that I had never heard of, like the chicken pho noodle salad.  I wanted to try the homemade hoisin sauce, but it required ingredients that I don’t usually have on hand (miso paste, Japanese rice vinegar, tahini, rice flour), so I haven’t tried it yet.

All in all, this was an okay book, but nowhere as good as the Banh Mi Handbook.

Disclaimer: I received a free e-copy of this book in exchange for my honest review from NetGalley.  This book will be released February 7, 2017.

cookbook review: The Banh Mi Handbook

Andrea Nguyen has written several Vietnamese cookbooks and has now added one all about banh mi.  The Banh Mi Handbook is a compact yet comprehensive book.  When I saw how thin it was, I was a bit skeptical, but this book does a good job of covering all of the different components that make up banh mi.

Banh mi in Vietnamese means bread, but it also refers to Vietnamese sandwiches.  Often, the sandwiches include a schmear of pate (optional, but pate makes it taste better), meat or other protein, pickled veggies (usually carrots & daikon), some cilantro, and thin slices of jalapeno.  It’s a meal that you can eat with one hand and may provide all or almost all of the food groups.  It’s no wonder that it’s so popular.  The problem that I have is that I live in the Midwest, which isn’t exactly known for its Asian cuisine.  The other problem with banh mi is that, even though it is a simple concept and it’s hard to mess it up, it’s also hard to get it just right – just the right amount of pate, just the right ratio of meat to pickled veggies … and it’s hard to get just right because everyone has their own preferences.

The Banh Mi Handbook shows home cooks how to make their own banh mi to suit their own tastes.  It includes a recipe for making banh mi (although I’m lazy and just buy some small Italian/French loaves from the grocery store), pate recipes (again, I’m lazy and just use liverwurst), Vietnamese meatloaf (her book calls it garlic pepper pork tenderloin – I was able to find some premade stuff at an Asian grocery store).  The pickled carrots & daikon are super easy and fast to make, especially if you have a food processor.  The book includes other pickled veggie recipes like snowpea and lemongrass pickle, but I’ve never seen those things on banh mi before so I just stuck with the carrots & daikon.  The meat or other protein is the part that takes the longest to prepare … and really, it’s entirely up to you if you want to spend more time making some of the more complicated recipes that require more ingredients (I’m looking at you, Sri Lankan Black Curry Chicken) or something simple but still delicious such as the  Grilled Lemongrass Pork.  For vegetarians, edamame pate, coconut curry tofu, baked maggi tofu, and lemongrass sriracha tempeh recipes are included.  I think, though, that you could substitute tofu for the meat in many of the other recipes and it would be fine.  The grilled lemongrass pork seemed versatile – just put the tofu between 2 plates to get rid of more of the water and to firm it up more.

The one pretty minor complaint I have about this book is that I would have loved to have seen more pictures of the different recipes.  Don’t get me wrong, there are quite a few color pictures, but I’m greedy like that.

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this book from Blogging for Books for my honest review.

Cookbook review: The Slanted Door: Modern Vietnamese Food

I had high hopes for The Slanted Door: Modern Vietnamese Food, but I was disappointed upon receiving this book.  First, the book is huge.  It’s one of those big cookbooks that looks good on your coffee table.  Unfortunately, that’s the most use I’ll be getting out of this book.

My first disappointment came with the formatting of the pages.  Even though the pages are big, the recipes themselves are written in small font.  There is a lot of white (wasted) space on the pages with recipes.  You can look at the preview on Amazon to see what I’m talking about.  When you’re in the kitchen, you want a recipe book that is easier to read.  I don’t know why the author and publisher didn’t fill up the wasted space to make the recipes easier to read.  Note: my eyesight is fine; I just don’t understand why they didn’t use the space to their advantage?

The second issue I had was with the format of the book itself.  It seemed like appetizers were listed first and then were listed again after cocktails.  There didn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to the order of the recipes.  The restaurant stories that preceded the recipes weren’t very interesting to me because I’m not a regular at The Slanted Door and really didn’t want to learn about how their business started.

This leads me to my third gripe about the book.  I wanted a cookbook with Vietnamese recipes.  The stories about the restaurant, as I mentioned earlier, were not interesting.  I didn’t care for the cocktail recipes.  There were also a lot of recipes that were not Vietnamese – they were Western dishes to which the author added some fish sauce.  This does not make a Vietnamese dish, even if you stick the word “modern” in front of it.

Even simple recipes like the spring rolls were a failure for me.  I understand that mayo is popular in California (many people dip their fries in mayonnaise).  Putting mayo in a spring roll is just wrong.  Spring rolls are supposed to have light, delicate flavors.  The rice noodles, shrimp, mint, and cilantro complement each other subtly and pick up on the nouc cham to make the dish.  Mayonnaise in the spring roll overpowers those light flavors.  The vegetarian spring roll recipe called for cabbage.  I find that cabbage is too tough a texture for spring rolls.  It’s much better with green leaf lettuce.  Again, spring rolls are supposed to be light.

This book was not for me.  Mai Pham has better Vietnamese cookbooks.

I received a free copy of this book from Blogging for Books in exchange for my honest review.