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The Little Saigon Cookbook

by Ann Le

The Little Saigon Cookbook



These days, expectations for cookbooks are high. You can't just gather up your favorite recipes, toss in an introduction and an index, and call it a day. Would-be chefs want stories, anecdotes with each recipe, and—if a dish is from another culture—context. Cookbooks can serve as travel guides, acts of preservation, and in the case of The Little Saigon Cookbook, tokens of love.

When we first met author Ann Le, her book was at the publisher, being prepared to go to press. She seemed an unlikely person for this project, a young, stylish investment banker who left the Little Saigon community where she grew up and now lives in L.A.'s hip Silverlake neighborhood. But as we got to know her, we realized that few could do this subject justice in the way that she would. Her respect for Little Saigon is reverential, but in an admirably practical way. And by leaving that community—although she still visits her parents there often—she gained a unique appreciation and can shed light on it from perspectives both outside and in.

Little Saigon, an hour south of Los Angeles in Orange County, is a unique enclave, built up by refugees from the Vietnam War and now home to the largest population of Vietnamese people outside Vietnam. It is a self-contained community, one that relies on itself for many things: companionship, spiritual sustenance, and most notably to visitors, food. There are around 200 Vietnamese restaurants in the area, all serving dishes that originated in the homeland. Le's target audience? People like herself, American-born Vietnamese who are migrating out of the area, and whose parents didn't have time while working hard in their new land to teach their offspring the fundamentals of Vietnamese cookery.

Recipes are plentiful, and most are simple, with the potential to become staples in your diet: grilled pork chops with herb noodle salad, fresh crab sautéed in salt and pepper, and catfish braised in caramel sauce are among our favorites. You will also learn how to make dishes that are not common home cooking, but have historic significance, such as Hanoi-style fried fish with turmeric and dill, which comes from a restaurant in Vietnam that is over 100 years old. For easy reference, excellent glossaries for cooking tools, techniques and ingredients are provided.

As Le walks you through the recipes, she also walks you through Little Saigon, with short essays and sidebars that explore topics from fish sauce to local churches—services are held both in traditional temples and tiny ranch houses turned into sanctuaries. The personal aspect of the book is enhanced by Le's reliance on her family's expertise in various areas. For example, she uses her brother's background as a biochemist to explain umami, the fifth flavor that complements the Asian taste quartet of hot, sour, salty, sweet.

Intimate, black and white photos by Julie Fay provide the faces of the community, and you can almost feel the steam on your skin in a shot of a woman making rice paper in a confined restaurant kitchen. The photographs also serve to illustrate the ultimate purpose of Le's book. In order to understand the food of Little Saigon, you must first understand the people who prepare it, and in whose life it has both physical and spiritual significance.

Reviewed by Kim Fay

Going to Orange County ? Check out our guide.

(Published: 01/30/06)

(Updated: 12/02/08 SB)

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