Andrea Nguyen: Connecting People, Food, and Culture
Discovering the Vietnamese Kitchen
Cookbook author, cooking teacher, and communications consultant Andrea Nguyen recalls her earliest food memory. She was five years old and still living in Vietnam. She sat on a little wooden bench eating a bowl of pho and using her own chopsticks.
“I ate through the bottom of the bowl all myself. My parents were so proud of me. I was chubby as a kid, which was an unusual thing in a developing country,” she laughs. “I just liked to eat and my mother was a really good cook. There was this grinder she cranked to make pate, and I was just fascinated by it.”
Her curiosity about the chemistry between food and culture eventually led to her debut cookbook Into the Vietnamese Kitchen, a comprehensive cookbook that celebrates traditional Vietnamese cooking culture in a contemporary context. Through the art of recipe-writing, Nguyen demystifies Asian food while still honoring the cuisine’s cultural complexities. She has no formal culinary training. However, she discovered the world of cookbooks at an early age.
“We moved to the United States when I was six, and I didn’t know any English. My mom loved cooking, but we no longer had access to the kinds of food we loved or were interested in. If we had American food, we had it with rice. I was curious about what Americans ate and what they did with different ingredients like butter and sugar, which were really expensive in Vietnam.”
As she started learning more and more English, she began reading cookbooks avidly. “I read them like they were novels,” she says. “I remember noticing that with Vietnamese cookbooks, none of them reflected my experience of being Vietnamese and coming to the United States. None of them told that story or preserved that story…and none of them actually explained Vietnamese food. It was always an exotification of [the] food. Writers weren’t making it easy for people to make the food or make Vietnamese food accessible.”
She wanted to write the cookbook that represented her story and culture as a Vietnamese American. With a communications background, she honed her writing and research skills until she started her own website in the early 2000s and was “discovered” by Ten Speed Press, one of the best cookbook publishers in the country.
“I was able to use my business skills, research skills, communications skills, and language skills as a cook book writer. You employ a lot of the skills you amass to chase dreams,” she says.
Food As Cultural Narratives
What is so special about Nguyen’s cookbooks is that they are like research pieces on people’s reactions and connections to food.
“I like to interview people to record their stories and techniques. Everyone I meet and talk to about food shapes my work. I survey a lot of people for different techniques and compare them to my own home kitchen. Food and cooking [are not done] in a vaccuum…you can relate to a lot of different cultures through food,” she says.
Nguyen constantly revisits her pho recipe by interviewing people to modify techniques. She says, “Recipes are written at a particular time and place, and most of my recipes are specific to a time and place. They’re great but I’m always wondering if I can tweak things.”
To write her books, she also travels extensively. For Asian Tofu, she went to Hanoi, Vietnam; Beijing, Nanjing, and Chengdu in China; Taipei, Taiwan; and Kyoto and Tokyo in Japan. She also visited New York City, the Bay Area, and Southern California and corresponded with people in Indonesia, Singapore, Thailand, Korea, and the Philippines. When writing the book, she realized that there was a world of tofu that connected people together by their stories.
“People misunderstand it,” she says. “They think of it as vegetarian, vegan, or a bland white block. No one in the West really asked Asian people what they did with it, yet tofu has been around for millennia as a crucial culinary element in Asian tradition and culture.”
Nguyen works to make the Asian perspective more accessible in the West. Asian food has long been appropriated or misinterpreted, and Nguyen’s cookbooks try to make authentic Asian cuisine easily understood.
The voice on Asian food in America
Part of what makes Nguyen so successful is that her recipes are visual cues. Her recipes use interesting and expressive descriptors to give people a sense of what she’s doing in the kitchen and how to replicate it. She takes home cooks on a journey with her so they arrive in the same place she does at the end of a recipe. She sees herself as a friend in the kitchen.
Her other books include Asian Dumplings and Asian Tofu; the latter was recently published this past February. Along with cookbooks, she writes articles for publications such as the Los Angeles Times, Bon Appetit, and the Wall Street Journal. She also created an app called the Asian Market Shopper, which features 100 commonly used items in Asian kitchens. Each item has a photo of a reliable brand. You can also hear Nguyen’s friendly voice pronouncing the food item to guide you through the grocery store.
She has been featured on NPR’s “Splendid Table” and Martha Stewart’s Everyday Food. She also teaches cooking classes at the Institute for Culinary Education in New York, Draeger’s in San Mateo, California, and Love Apple Farms in Santa Cruz. You can explore and discuss Asian food, cooking, and culture with her online at Vietworldkitchen.com.