Sunday, June 3, 2012
In "Communion: A Culinary Journey Through Vietnam,"we follow author Kim Fay in her edible adventures as she travels to the cities of Hanoi, Hue, Hoi An, Nha Trang, Dalat, Phan Thiet and finally Saigon. Thirty-three episodes detail not just her encounters with the local cuisines but also how the foods and their basic ingredients came to be in the context of a fascinating history and culture. Eleven of the chapters include irresistible recipes for readers to try themselves, including Julie’s Banana Flower Salad, Kim’s Caramelized Clay Pot Fish, Chef Huong’s Dalat Ragu and Phan Thiet Spring Rolls.
Kim came to Vietnam in the 1990s ‘for the adventure of living in an exotic country, and to write a novel.’ She lived there for four years, teaching English to pay the rent in a small, family-run guesthouse in Saigon. Kim recalls the delectable nuances of each relished meal in such vivid, sweet-spicy-tangy-savoury detail that even as a long-time resident of Vietnam, she has my mouth watering. At the end of each chapter I’m anxious to get out of the house and head to the alleys in my own town for lunch.
Upon returning to the USA, Kim began to miss her Vietnam and the food that she relished so much. She began to try to recreate her experiences with Vietnamese food but found herself unsatisfied with recipes she found online or in cookbooks because they weren’t quite the Vietnam that she experienced—the Vietnam she wanted to share with friends.
To cook authentically, and to carry her Vietnam experience into her daily life in the US, she would need to return to Vietnam and not only learn to cook the dishes that she loved--from the people who made them--but to learn intimately about the ingredients and culture that went into them.
Kim returned to Vietnam ten years after her original adventure, accompanied by her sister and photographer, Julie Fay Ashborn, and friend and translator Nguyen Thi Lan Huong. The trio bring to life an odyssey of re-discovery and a deeper exploration of Kim’s beloved Vietnam.
Julie’s lavish photos, like Kim’s text, pull readers into the adventure, presenting not only the dishes that they discover, but also scenes from daily life in rural Vietnam, and the process of producing, harvesting and preparing the basic ingredients themselves. Scenes unfold as local farmers in conical hats select produce in terraced gardens; fisherman in wooden boats bring home the day’s catch, and merchants sell their large spread of foods in local wet markets.
Understandably, I was particularly interested in Kim’s visit to my adopted home town of Phan Thiet in southern, coastal Vietnam. The first of two chapters, “Afishionados” begins with a hair-raising drive from Dalat through the winding mountain roads, down to the coast. In Phan Thiet, Kim explores the pungent aromas of a local fish sauce factory. Fermented fish sauce is the foundation of Vietnamese cuisine and Phan Thiet’s local product is arguably (I’m doing the arguing) the best in the world. Kim details the historical origins and uses of fish sauce, and in doing so teaches us quite a few interesting things that even I didn’t know.
In the next chapter, “Fish Sauce Snob,” Kim and friends partake in a “Fish Sauce Tasting,” exploring the subtle--and not-so-subtle--flavours and colours of Phan Thiet’s own liquid gold.
Kim ends her Phan Thiet journey with a recipe for Banh Cuon; the local fresh spring rolls, with a tangy nuoc cham dipping sauce made with Phan Thiet fish sauce.
What’s unique—and great—about Communion is that Kim doesn’t simply act as a surrogate and relay the end experience of how the food tastes or what the table setting looked like (enough food writers do that already). Kim draws us in behind the scenes to the context of where and how each dish, each ingredient, came into being. She takes us through her impressing so that we feel like we’ve taken the journey with her. This is not just a book for foodies or casual travellers… even seasoned expats will enjoy and learn from Kim’s musings. Kim Fay certainly inspires me to get out the door and eat!
Order your copy of Communion at Amazon now!
Pacific Northwest native Kim Fay is the creator and editor of ThingsAsian’s travel guide series, “To Asia with Love," and author of the upcoming adventure novel, "The Map of Lost Memories."
Visit Kim Fay’s website at www.kimfay.net or follow her on Twitter at @kimkfay. Browse ThingsAsian Press’ titles on life and travel in Asia at www.thingsasianpress.com.