ALMOST EVERYONE WHO has eaten at Hartford, Conn.'s Truc Orient Express has come away impressed. In his deceptively modest-looking restaurant, owner Binh Duong turns out inspired Vietnamese food that is good enough to draw chefs and food writers from New York and Boston.
But there is an edge to Mr. Duong's food that has little to do with Vietnam and much to do with coming of age in the United States. For although he learned the basics of his art as a youngster in Vietnam -- both his aunt and his mother, he says, were inspiring cooks -- he left that country in 1975, at the age of 14. He knows the tradition and he knows the boundaries, but he has used them as tools to almost single-handedly update Vietnamese food in accordance with current American culinary trends.
Thus "Simple Art of Vietnamese Cooking" (Prentice Hall Press, $30), written by Mr. Duong and Marcia Kiesel, the test kitchen director of Food and Wine magazine, may be the most important Asian cookbook to appear on bookstore shelves since the works of Barbara Tropp and Julie Sahni. Despite repeated attempts, no one has done for Japanese, Thai, Korean, Indonesian, or any other Pacific Rim food what Duong and Kiesel have now done for the cuisine of Vietnam. They have made it immediately accessible to anyone who cares to make the effort.
This is not to say that Mr. Duong's cooking is lightweight, watered-down stuff. On the contrary, it is exciting, real food that is steeped in the tradition of his native country. "Of course my cooking is different from my mother's," he says, "but it has changed based on my experience rather than in an attempt to appease Americans." Over the years, Mr. Duong has developed a repertoire of faithfully Vietnamese dishes that are his alone. Duck with spicy eggplant, for example, is something that, Mr. Duong admits, "You won't find anywhere in Vietnam. It is an untraditional combination," he says, "but grilling duck after marinating it is common, and the Vietnamese do eat a lot of eggplant." The pairing is thrilling, and seems in no way contrived.
Traditional or no, there are few who would argue that the food in Mr. Duong's restaurants (he opened a second, called La Truc, in Boca Raton, Fla., last year) is less than sensational. But, as anyone who has sampled the cookbooks of the leading California chefs can tell you, that doesn't guarantee that this food can make the transition to the home kitchen, where stoves are puny, ingredients scarce, and help non-existent.
The collaboration with Ms. Kiesel is an important one. Ms. Kiesel has managed to clarify not only Mr. Duong's ingredients but his techniques, and to translate them into recipes that can be tackled by any dedicated home cook. When you get to the point where you are making crunchy sweet potato nests with shrimp, you'll begin to feel as though Mr. Duong's magic has entered your soul, thanks to Ms. Kiesel's clear directions.
She says it wasn't that difficult. "Originally, I thought that Vietnamese food was like Chinese food, that you needed a cabinet full of bottles to make sauces while you stir-fried. Then I found out how clean and subtle it all is." According to Ms. Kiesel, you probably have most of what you need right now to begin cooking Vietnamese food; the basic staples are lime juice, garlic, water and hot pepper, plus nuoc mam, the Vietnamese fish sauce that falls somewhere between Worcestershire and soy in flavor.
It's not quite that simple, of course. There are a few esoteric ingredients you might look for (some of which are identical to those used in Chinese cooking), and many dishes require stock, rice noodles, bean sprouts, ginger and fresh herbs -- lots of fresh herbs. "In Vietnam," says Ms. Kiesel, who visited the country with Mr. Duong in order to better understand the cuisine while working on the book, "everyone has at least a small garden, with cilantro, basil, mint, chiles, tomatoes or scallions. And although some dishes require dried lemon grass, fresh herbs are really important -- sometimes it's better to leave them out rather than try to substitute dried herbs."
Golden Pepper Steak
1 pound eye of beef round, or other steak, cut into 1/8 -inch thick slices
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
4 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 teaspoon sesame oil
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1 1/2 tablespoons sugar
1/2 tablespoon sherry or dry white wine
3 1/2 tablespoons vegetable oil, divided
2 large yellow bell peppers, cut into 1x3-inch pieces
1 red bell pepper, cut into 1x3-inch pieces
1 medium onion, cut into 1x3-inch pieces
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon oyster sauce
2/3 cup chicken stock
1 teaspoon cornstarch
Cooked rice, enough for four people
In large bowl, combine beef, black pepper, garlic, sesame oil, soy sauce, sugar and sherry. Set aside and marinate at least one hour but no more than three hours.