I know I’m not really qualified to say this, but I love Vietnamese food. Having spent a total of only three weeks in but a handful of the country’s cities, my exposure to Vietnam’s vast culinary vocabulary is limited at best. Still, the meals I enjoyed when I was there were some of the most mouth-watering I’ve ever had. Maybe it’s the fresh greens that accompany almost every dish, maybe it’s the subtlety of the sauces and dips – always perfectly balanced and bordering, sometimes, on the sublime. Heck, maybe it’s those tiny stools that do little more than support a squat while eating street side. Whatever it is (all of this and much more, no doubt), once I had a taste of Vietnam, the cuisine rose quickly to the top of my favorites list.
I’m no expert on Vietnam’s cuisine, but Kim Fay certainly is. Her new book, Communion is, as the subtitle states, a “culinary journey” through the country. The book traces her five week, north-to-south tour, accompanied by her sister Julie Fay Ashborn, and (for most of it) Vietnamese friend Nguyen thi Lan Huong.
This is no cook book, nor is it an ordinary traveler’s tale. This is the author’s personal relationship with a nation and a people as told through its food. Kim had lived in Vietnam for four years in the early 1990s. Her culinary sojourn a decade later was a joyful reunion of sorts, but with a host of experts to guide her along the way. During the five weeks, she, Julie and Huong met with chefs, produce farmers, fish sauce makers, local cooks, fishermen, lobster farmers, ragu-masters and even the grand-daughter of an imperial chef. Among them, they fished in Nha Trang, sought out snacks in Hue, discussed umami in Hanoi, learned to make rice paper in Hoi An, shared a family meal in Saigon, took cooking courses in Hanoi, Hoi An and Saigon, and swooned over ‘clam rice’ more times than any respectable girl aught.
Kim translates her keen observations of place, taste and character into descriptions that engage all the senses. The differing terrains, dishes and people she encounters all come vividly alive on the page, assisted by an ample supply of Julie’s color photos. And while the story clearly shows Kim’s love for the country and its people, the book is by no means a glossed-over view of Vietnam. She honestly includes criticism when called for (regarding rude people or bad food), offers a sensitive but pull-no-punches treatment of the country’s hunger years and it’s impact on the Vietnamese people, and takes us along on a number of physically challenging adventures (like unceasing downpours, an entire town that reeks of fish sauce and a choking encounter with too much chili).
I loved reading this book almost as much as I love Vietnamese food. I felt like the unseen, fourth traveler, invited into the conversations, opinions and insights of Kim, Julie and Huong. Kim’s narrative is fluid: deftly detailed to engage the senses; personal without being indulgent; funny without being irreverent and thoughtful without being preachy.
If you have even the slightest curiosity about Vietnam, Communion will surely wet your appetite for a visit. There’s enough history to clarify this cuisine in its context, some recipes to get you started, and plenty of delicious dishes described with (pardon the pun) great relish, throughout. My only question is – how did they eat so much and stay so thin?
Communion by Kim Fay. Photos by Julie Fay Ashborn. San Francisco, Things Asian Press; 2010. ThingsAsian Press