Kim Fay’s Communion, A Culinary Journey through Vietnam, is a
book that lives up to its title. The author takes the reader along as she travels
Việt Nam from north to south, researching, cooking and tasting along the way.
It’s also a personal journey, as her travels spark memories and
thoughts of sharing food with her family.
During the 1990s, the author lived in Việt Nam for four years. During that time, she sampled many dishes, but never learned about what went into them, or how to cook them. Still, the food became intertwined with her experience of the country:
“. . . food nurtured every aspect of my life in Vietnam. It cradled my relationships, not only with people, but also with the country, no matter how simple the dish.” (p. 8 – 9)
Driven to return by a desire to know how to prepare these foods, Kim became consumed with the passion and plotting of a major culinary journey. After six years away, she returned with her sister, Julie Fay Ashborn, who did the photography for the book. Also along for a major portion of the trip was Kim’s close friend Hương, with her insatiable appetite for food and for finding the best version of each dish in its hometown. (A girl after my own heart; I want to travel with her too! I’d become fat, but it would be worth it.)
Communion is an honest book; Kim doesn’t pretend to be a gourmet chef. She makes it clear that she is a foodie who likes to cook and taste, and who wanted to be able to prepare an authentic Vietnamese meal for her friends. Her descriptions of the wonders and anxieties of learning a new cuisine make this book accessible and interesting for novices and chefs alike.
Reading the passages about how Kim felt so self -conscious cooking in public, I felt as if I were looking into a mirror. I remembered how deeply self-conscious I was when cooking in my husband’s Vietnamese family kitchen. It was a long time before I got used to it, the others stopped watching, and neighbours’ eyeballs stopped appearing at the knothole in the back door. As I read how Kim worried that she would be the only student at a cooking lesson to create blobs instead of round, soft rice papers, I was rooting for her. I wanted to cheer when her rice paper came out perfect, while the honour for gelatinous blobs went to someone else.
Kim paints with words. With a daub from her palette of understated adjectives, or a well-chosen quote, she brings alive not only the food of Việt Nam but the ritual of iced coffee on a green-gold morning, the twinkles in the eyes of women whose smiles are hidden behind dust masks, and the way local flavours can change so much between one town and the next.
A question of terroir
Kim begins her journey by walking through a Hà Nội market with expat chef Didier Corlou. He teaches her the importance of terroir, a lesson she carries with her on the rest of the journey, and shares with the reader along the way. Although Việt Nam is a small country, the variation in ingredients and flavours is much wider than most visitors expect. The different landscapes, climates and microclimates all influence which foods are grown and how they are prepared in each region. As Kim points out, “Vietnamese food is a product of history, geography, and even a bit of science, and the more a person knows about any of this, the more satisfying it is to learn to make each dish.” (p. 29)
I’m always a little sad to see expats sticking to the “safe” dishes: the crispy noodles with sautéed veg or beef, the fried rice, and phở. Kim visits a few of Việt Nam’s expat hangouts, but she doesn’t shy away from the places hidden deep in lanes with only the smoke of a brazier to tell you it’s a food stall. She discusses places both on and off the beaten path, from five star restaurants to food carts on the roadside and from family kitchens to the oldest restaurant in Hà Nội , presenting a broad cross-section of Vietnamese cuisine.
Having spent several years in Huế, I read the chapter on Việt Nam’s ancient capital with a mixture of curiosity to see what places she’d discovered that I didn’t know, and familiarity as she describes visits to some of my favourites. I was happy to learn that the author is a kindred cơm hến spirit; someone who has fallen for this spicy dish of tiny clams from Huế as much as I have.
Fish sauce plays a pivotal role in Vietnamese cuisine, and Kim takes an in-depth look at this condiment. Her account of a fish sauce tasting in Phan Thiết left me wanting to follow in her footsteps immediately. I’d wanted to visit a fish sauce plant and do a tasting during my first visit to Việt Nam back in 2004, but I was travelling with my niece who was already battling culture shock and preferred that I not even speak the word “fish sauce”. I put it off for another time, and it’s still on my list of things to do and see. Alas, when I finally get there, I’ll probably be doing it alone, but Kim’s notes will make a great guide as to what to look for.
Communion includes eleven recipes. The Ragu from Đà Lạt sounded both easy and tempting so I tried it first. I didn’t have any pork shoulder on hand so I replaced it with some ribs that I had in the freezer, with great results. This is one of those recipes the simplicity of which belies the complex flavours of the finished dish. My husband couldn’t get enough. My Canadian dinner guest couldn’t get enough. With Kim’s permission, I’ve included the recipe at the end of this post. I’ve also tried Miss Vy’s Crispy Fried Eggplant, another resounding success, and I’m planning to attempt Linh’s Strawberry Wine as soon as possible. The recipe for Hoang Anh’s Clam Noodles sounds tempting, and Kim’s recipe for Claypot Fish, a dish I cook often, is quite similar to my mother-in-law’s method.
A book to reread
Communion is one of those books I’ll be reading again and again. It comes as no surprise to learn that it was a winner of the World Gourmand Cookbook Awards’ Best Asian Cuisine Book in the United States. The author seamlessly ties in the culture and history of Việt Nam through the personal stories of the people she meets, painting in a lot of background information without it ever becoming dry or boring.
For most Vietnamese, eating is inseparable from history, family, friendship, and health—in short, from one’s very identity. The inclusion of some of Kim’s own family stories in this culinary journey could have detracted from the main story, but the author has somehow managed a perfect balance: the book has a warm, personal approach without ever sounding self-centered. The author’s thoughts of home illustrate how eating is such a part of our identities no matter where we are from, and how our outlooks about home and the dishes we grew up with can shift through travel and through new ways of preparing and eating food.
A new book from Kim Fay: The Map of Lost Memories
Kim Fay’s new historical novel, The Map of Lost Memories, will be published in the United States on August 21st, and can also be purchased online. The novel “ takes readers on a daring expedition to a remote land, where the search for an elusive treasure becomes a journey into the darkest recesses of the mind and heart.” (From the hardcover edition.) Visit Kim’s website to purchase The Map of Lost Memories.
Chef Huong’s Dalat Ragu
Because the key to this recipe is fresh vegetables, you can play around with it, substituting different kinds of beans and mushrooms, or perhaps adding white pearl onions, depending on what is in season. The one ingredient that is essential is tomatoes. You must get the freshest, best tomatoes you can find. It is the liquefied tomatoes combined with the fish sauce that creates the buttery flavor of this dish.
Serving: 4 as a main dish.
1 lb. pork shoulder, cut into 1-inch cubes
1/4 lb. carrots, cubed
1/4 lb. potato, cubed
1/4 lb. taro, cubed
1/4 lb. fresh beans (cranberry, fava/broad, lima/butter)
1/4 lb. fresh straw mushroom (button or crimini can be substituted)
1 small shallot, minced
1 clove garlic, minced
2/3 lb. fresh ripe tomatoes, skinned and thoroughly seeded, chopped. I blanch the tomatoes for easy peeling. Don’t overdo it with the tomatoes or the sauce will be sour.
1 French bay leaf
2 tbsp. vegetable oil
6 cups vegetable stock
Salt and pepper to taste
1 tbsp. + 1 tsp. fish sauce
Loaf of crusty French bread for dipping
- Cut pork into cubes, and marinate with 1 tbsp. fish sauce and pepper for 30 minutes. Do not marinate in the fridge.
- In a medium frying pan, brown pork in 1tbsp. oil. Salt to taste.
- In a separate medium frying pan, sauté shallot in 1 tbsp. oil, and then add garlic.
- Add tomatoes to shallot/garlic, and sauté on low heat, reducing until it is almost liquid. Reduce thoroughly to remove sourness. There should be no trace of tomato left in the pan.
- While tomatoes are simmering, remove pork from the pan with a slotted spoon (to keep as much grease in the pan as possible), and put in a bowl.
- Pan-fry carrots in pork grease for flavor. Remove, and add to pork bowl.
- Pan-fry potatoes in pork grease for flavor. Remove, and set aside.
- Pan-fry taro in pork grease for flavor. Remove, and set aside.
- Pan-fry mushrooms in pork oil with a little salt, for flavor. Remove, and set aside. (As you fry the vegetables, you may need to add a little oil and even a tad of fish sauce. You can also add the juices draining from the pork in the bowl.)
- While simmering tomatoes and pan-frying vegetables, blanch beans to remove acid from the skin. You should use fresh beans. If using dried beans, let them soak overnight. If you must use canned beans, don’t stress over it. This dish will still be terrific.
- While the last of the veggies are frying, pour tomato liquid in a large soup pot, and add pork, beans, and carrots. Stir in 1 tsp. of fish sauce.
- Add stock and bay leaf. Cook for 1 hour on low heat, covered, until meat is tender.
- Add potato and taro, and simmer, covered, for 20 more minutes.
- Add mushrooms, and simmer, covered, for 10 more minutes. Keep an eye on the taro/potatoes to make sure they don’t get too soft.
- Serve hot with a fresh, crusty French bread.
Adam Bray, intrepid travel writer and Vietnam resident, has also posted a review of Communion on his blog, “The Fish Egg Tree”.
*recipe and all photos used with permission from Kim Fay
*first author photo by Julie Fay Ashborn