Southern California's large Vietnamese population has made its food so widely accessible that a lot of us are now familiar with pho (beef and rice noodle soup) and Vietnamese sandwiches without exploring the cuisine more deeply, much less trying to cook the dishes ourselves.
Southern Californian Muoi Thai Loangkote's "Vietnamese Cuisine" (Wei-Chuan, $16.95) could change that. The recipes are so simple that anyone could make a Vietnamese meal without prior experience. Shrimp paste on sugar cane might require practice to master the technique, but nothing could be easier than charbroiled meatballs (they're actually baked), made with common Western ingredients. Other dishes may call for nothing more exotic than fish sauce, lemon grass or oyster sauce, which are widely available in local markets.
Loangkote was born in Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City), immigrated to the United States in 1980 and lives in Monterey Park. Tuyet Linh Wong, who consulted on the food, was also born in Vietnam and now lives in Arcadia.
Oddly, Vietnamese names are not used; dishes are listed in English and Chinese, as is typical of most Wei-Chuan books. Pho must be pieced together using a beef stock recipe in one part of the book and a recipe for rice noodles with cooked or rare beef, which are variations of another recipe. A spicier soup, bun bo Hue, appears as beef shank on rice noodles.
But the Vietnamese sandwich (banh mi) is shown in full glory in a photograph. And the instructions faithfully copy the snack-shop version: French bread spread with mayonnaise and pa^te and topped with various pork luncheon meats, cilantro and sweet and sour vegetables. The book even tells how to make one of the components, pale-pink Vietnamese ham (pork meat loaf), which turns out to contain more chicken than pork.
The Vietnamese pancake (banh xeo) is also easy to spot, and the recipe gives the authentic version with options for simplification.
Abundant photographs clarify how the dishes should look and show ingredients that may not be familiar, such as Vietnamese herbs, dried scallops, tapioca sticks and prepared flour for banh xeo. The straightforward format avoids lengthy commentary, but some interesting tidbits are worked into the recipe instructions.