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A Simple Problem of Editing : SIMPLE ART OF VIETNAMESE COOKING, By Binh Duong and Marcia Kiesel (Prentice Hall Press: $30; 384pp.)

February 13, 1992|ANNE MENDELSON

Much of what you see when you open a cookbook has nothing to do with the author's cooking skill or the general merits of the food. It's almost a foregone conclusion that what went in at one end of the publishing process will emerge at the other as different as a box of cornflakes is from the raw materials someone fed into the assembly line.

Inchoate manuscripts can be retooled into excellent final organizations. Bits of fluff can be pumped up to look like blockbusters. Conversely, good efforts can come out looking like nothing much. The ultimate impression a book makes reflects a lot of unsung history. A case in point is the promising new "Simple Art of Vietnamese Cooking," by Binh Duong and Marcia Kiesel.

Inevitably it will be compared to Nicole Routhier's "The Foods of Vietnam," which made a well-deserved splash a couple of years ago. In terms of culinary contents the two works are a close match--some 160 recipes in Duong and Kiesel to about 155 in Routhier, with the newer book paying more attention to the family of piquant dipping sauces and devoting some space to Buddhist vegetarian cooking, while Routhier places more emphasis on sweets.

Both are fairly closely tailored to American menu preferences, though Routhier makes a better attempt to convey how people actually eat in Vietnam. (Duong and Kiesel, on the other hand, are better on kitchen equipment.) Both have chosen recipes that require a certain investment of effort in finding ingredients such as fish sauce, rice noodles, tamarind pulp, preserved plums and fresh Vietnamese herbs (Duong and Kiesel use a larger, more interesting array of the latter and suggest seed sources).

But in physical presentation and editorial handling, these books couldn't be more different. The choice is unfortunately between a glitzy coffeetable book so elaborately done that you hate to take it into the kitchen ("The Food of Vietnam") and an indifferently produced volume whose worthy elements are never quite pulled together ("Simple Art"). In my opinion, neither got all of what it deserved to make it ideally useful to cooks. But each has its advantages.

Perhaps the most attractive feature of the Duong-Kiesel book is that the recipes remain the center of attention (those in "The Foods of Vietnam" are more upstaged than enhanced by the flashy packaging) and are well planned for moderately, rather than extraordinarily, dedicated home cooks. Dishes requiring huge lists of ingredients and marathons of preparation are the exception, not the rule.

Three rock-bottom components of the Vietnamese table introduced before the main recipe sections point to the underpinnings of this cuisine: the "table salad" of fresh herbs, greens and raw vegetables presented with most meals, the plain steamed rice that really is the staff of life and the omnipresent dipping sauce nuoc cham , the archetypal Vietnamese table condiment.

These basic keynote setters are followed by a lively selection of dishes, including many often seen on Vietnamese-American restaurant menus (hot-and-sour fish or shrimp soup, various noodle soups and stir-fries, the famous Vietnamese spring rolls, shrimp paste broiled on sugar cane, steamed whole fish, coconut-based chicken curry) as well as less usual fare (bright-orange "wedding rice," shrimp dumplings filled with snails, grilled rabbit). In addition, there are some interesting Americanized or Frenchified dishes from Duong, a Connecticut- and Florida-based restaurateur who goes easy on the slicker sorts of East/West culinary marriages. But he doesn't mind trying unusual approaches such as flank steak marinated in a curry mixture, spaghetti squash as part of a pork-shrimp salad, an orange-and-chile-flavored cream sauce for seafood or a purely Western rabbit stew.

All this is well and good--but not as well and good as it would have been with a little more TLC from the publishers. Unfortunately, neither author seems to be the sort of clear, confident writer or organizer who can make the leap from idea to mot juste without more help than is provided here.

Not only does the text keep painting English grammar and logic into corners (e.g., "Preserved prunes have a sugary coating that when bitten into impart a salty, sweet and intensely tart sensation"), but the actual recipe directions often obscure some necessary detail. An instruction for decoratively slicing a cucumber gives no idea as to how two sets of cuts are to be angled in relation to each other; the ingredients list vaguely calls for "dried wide Chinese wheat noodles" (does this mean the flat, egg-less flour-and-water soup noodles?); the recipe for skewered beef slices rolled around fresh ginger doesn't suggest how many slices you want from a pound of "very thinly sliced" lean round or how many should go on a skewer. Such things aren't difficult for a careful editor to fix in basically intelligent recipes (as these are), and they make a big difference to users.

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