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On the Bookshelf: Chicken curry dish rooted in Vietnam

On the Bookshelf: Chicken curry dish rooted in Vietnam


Andrea Nguyen came to the United States from Vietnam with her family at age 6. Based now in San Francisco, she describes herself as a “bank examiner gone astray,” and is a food writer, teacher and consultant. She has written six cookbooks about Asian cuisine, one of which — “The Pho Cookbook” — won the 2018 James Beard Award for best single-subject book.

Her new cookbook is “Vietnamese Food Any Day,” which uses ingredients that can be found in regular supermarkets to create Vietnamese dishes at home. She says the book’s approach is based on the Vietnamese term khéo, which means “smart” or “adroit” but in the cooking sense means the recipes are “skillfully prepared with intention and a grounding in the fundamentals.”

“In the spirit of khéo, the recipes are streamlined but not dumbed down,” she writes in the book’s introduction. “They capture the essence of Vietnamese foodways while demystifying and decoding the cuisine for home cooks.”

She says this curry dish, which can be made in about 45 minutes, is one she grew up eating. It’s served with a baguette for dipping or with rice.

Though Thailand, with its variety of curry pastes, is next door, Vietnamese cooks prefer curry featuring Indian spice blends. Bone-in chicken is typically used, but the curry cooks faster with boneless, skinless thighs.

Chicken, Lemongrass and Sweet Potato Curry

  • 1/2 cup coarsely chopped lemongrass (from 2 medium stalks)
  • 2 tablespoons coarsely chopped peeled ginger
  • 1 medium yellow onion, coarsely chopped
  • 2 tablespoons Madras-style curry powder (preferably Sun brand)
  • 1/2 teaspoon recently ground black pepper
  • 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper (optional)
  • One (13-1/2 ounce) can full-fat, unsweetened coconut milk, unshaken
  • 2 tablespoons virgin coconut oil or neutral oil, such as canola
  • 4 large boneless, skinless chicken thighs (about 1-3/4 pounds total), each cut into 3 pieces (see notes)
  • Fine sea salt
  • 1-1/4 pounds sweet potatoes (white or orange flesh), peeled and cut into 1-inch chunks (see notes)
  • 3 to 5 fresh cilantro sprigs, coarsely chopped

In a food processor, whirl the lemongrass into a fine texture, about 3 minutes, pausing occasionally to scrape down the bowl. Add the ginger and pulse to finely chop. Add the onion and pulse again to chop. Add the curry powder, black pepper, and cayenne (if using) and whirl until you have a fragrant yellow paste.

Remove 1/3 cup of the thick cream at the top of the coconut milk, stir the remaining lighter milk, and set both aside.

In a 3- to 4-quart pot over medium-high heat, melt the coconut oil. Add the lemongrass paste and cook for 3 to 5 minutes, stirring frequently, until fragrant and no longer raw and harsh smelling. Lower the heat, as needed, to avoid scorching. Add the chicken and 1/2 teaspoon salt, stir to combine, and cook for 1 minute to meld the flavors. Add the coconut milk and a little water to cover the chicken. Bring to a simmer over medium-high heat, cover, and adjust the heat to gently simmer for 15 minutes; stirring occasionally.

Uncover the pot, add the sweet potatoes, and return the curry to a simmer. Continue cooking, uncovered, for 10 to 12 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the potatoes are tender. Turn off the heat, add the coconut cream, stirring it into the sauce, and let rest on the burner’s receding heat for 10 minutes, uncovered, to blend and mature flavors. Taste and season with salt (unsalted curry powder may require an additional teaspoon) and splash in water if the flavors are too strong.

Serve immediately, garnished with the cilantro.

Pair the bold curry with a mild vegetable side, such as sautéed chard. If the curry is too hot, squirt on some lime juice to cut the heat.

Notes: To divide each chicken thigh into three equal pieces, cut the flat side as one piece, then halve the thicker portion. If large thighs are unavailable, use smaller ones and cut each into two pieces.

Orange sweet potatoes used in this recipe can easily become mushy, so monitor the pot if you use them. For a more savory result, choose a potato suitable for boiling or roasting, such as red, white or Yukon gold.

Makes 4 to 6 servings.

Reprinted with permission from: “Vietnamese Food Any Day: Simple Recipes for True, Fresh Flavors” by Andrea Nguyen. Published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House

Meat is precious and Buddhist traditions are strong in Vietnam, which is why dishes of beef are considered a luxury. Clever cooks cut tender, marbled cuts into small pieces so they soak up flavor, then cook them quickly and serve them hot with aromatic herbs.

Here, the peppery, salty-sweet, juicy beef mingles with the light salad dressing to create a great sauce that pools on the platter, perfect for drizzling over rice. Watercress leaves warm and wilt under the Shaking Beef (so named for the back-and-forth shaking of the pan), while their stems remain crunchy. In the summer, sub cherry tomatoes for the radicchio. For a stunning appetizer, serve the sautéed beef with some fresh herbs and toothpicks for easy sharing.

Shaking Beef

Total time: 35 minutes

For the beef:

  • 1-1/2 tablespoons oyster sauce, plus more to taste
  • 1 tablespoon soy sauce
  • 1-1/2 teaspoons granulated sugar
  • 1-1/2 teaspoons cornstarch
  • 1 teaspoon fish sauce
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 garlic cloves, smashed
  • 1-1/2 pounds boneless rib eye steak or New York strip steak, trimmed and cut into 3/4- to 1-inch pieces

For the salad:

  • 1/4 cup thinly sliced red onion or shallot
  • 2 tablespoons water
  • 1-1/2 tablespoons unseasoned rice vinegar
  • 1-1/2 teaspoons granulated sugar or honey
  • 1/8 teaspoon fine sea salt

  • 1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 4 cups lightly packed watercress, baby arugula, or other salad greens
  • 1 cup torn radicchio or 8 halved cherry tomatoes
  • 1/4 cup fresh mint, basil, or other herb leaves, torn
  • 2 tablespoons canola oil or other neutral oil (such as grapeseed)

Make the beef: Stir together oyster sauce, soy sauce, sugar, cornstarch, fish sauce, pepper, and garlic in a medium bowl. If a saltier finish is desired, add up to 1-1/2 teaspoons more oyster sauce. Add beef, toss well to coat, and let marinate 20 minutes at room temperature.

Make the salad: Rinse onions in a strainer under cold running water for about 10 seconds; set aside. Whisk together 2 tablespoons water, vinegar, sugar, salt, and pepper in a large bowl until sugar is dissolved. Add onion; top with watercress, radicchio, and herbs. Do not toss.

To cook and assemble: Heat a large, heavy skillet over high, and add oil. When oil is shimmering, carefully add beef in a single layer. Cook, shaking pan every 30 to 60 seconds, until seared on all sides and meat reaches desired degree of doneness, 3 to 4 minutes for medium-rare. Remove from heat. Quickly toss salad, and transfer to a platter or serving dish. Pile cooked beef and juices on salad, and serve immediately.

Makes 4 servings.

Reprinted with permission from: “Vietnamese Food Any Day: Simple Recipes for True, Fresh Flavors” by Andrea Nguyen. Published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House

These lettuce-herb wraps with well-seasoned grilled beef are a quintessential Viet way to eat. This was inspired by beef wrapped in wild betel leaf in Vietnam. Betel leaves release a peppery, incense-like aroma during cooking, which is simulated here by seasoning the meat with curry powder, fish sauce, oyster sauce and lots of black pepper.

To speed up prep, chop the peanuts and green onions in a small food processor.

Curry-Scented Grilled Beef Lettuce Wraps

  • Brimming 1/3 cup unsalted roasted peanuts or cashews, finely chopped
  • 3 medium green onions, white and green parts, finely chopped
  • 1 tablespoon Madras-style curry powder (see note)
  • 3/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • Brimming 1 tablespoon oyster sauce (see note)
  • 1 tablespoon fish sauce (see note)
  • 1-1/2 pounds ground beef (85 percent lean)
  • 6 ounces small dried round rice noodles (maifun), or 8 ounces dried rice capellini or thin spaghetti (see note)
  • 1 cup Nuoc Cham Dipping Sauce (recipe follows)
  • Leaves from 1 large head of soft-leaf lettuce (such as butter, Boston, or red or green leaf)
  • 6 to 8 bushy sprigs fresh mint or basil
  • 10 to 12 sprigs fresh cilantro
  • Vegetable oil

Notes: Find oyster sauce, fish sauce and maifun rice noodles in the Asian section of the supermarket. Madras-style curry powder is a hotter variety; you can substitute regular curry powder in an equal amount and add a little cayenne pepper to taste.

Nguyen prefers the Sun brand of Madras-style curry powder. To prepare noodles in advance, boil them as indicated, then refresh them before serving by sprinkling with water and microwaving on high for 60 to 90 seconds.


In medium bowl, combine peanuts, green onions, curry powder, pepper, 3 tablespoons water, oyster sauce and fish sauce. Add beef and mix with your fingers. (If not cooking right away, cover and refrigerate for up to 24 hours.) Form into 24 patties, each a good 2 inches wide and 1/2 inch thick. Set aside.

The length of time the noodles need to cook will vary by type. Keep in mind that many packages are not accurate in stating the length of cooking time. Judge the noodles’ doneness by tasting. In large pot of unsalted water, boil the noodles until tender, then drain and rinse again with water. Drain and let cool for 5 minutes. Since the noodles are unwieldy, arrange as 2-inch nests on a plate or in a shallow bowl. Set at the table with the dipping sauce, lettuce and fresh herbs.

Lightly oil a cast-iron stovetop grill (or lightly film a heavy skillet with oil) and set over medium-high heat. In batches, cook beef for 4 to 5 minutes, turning midway, until medium to medium-well done. (These are usually not eaten medium-rare, but you can cook for less time, if you like.) Transfer to a platter and let cool for a few minutes.

Have diners build wraps with lettuce, herbs (mint or basil, cilantro), noodles and beef (for easier eating, you can break or cut each patty into 2 or 3 bite-size pieces). Drizzle with, or dunk in, Nuoc Cham Dipping Sauce.

Makes 4 servings.

Variation: For rice bowls, cut the lettuce into ribbons, coarsely chop the herbs, and put them all in soup bowls. Add room temperature or slightly warm cooked rice (about 3/4 cup per bowl) and the cooked beef, then drizzle with the Nuoc Cham Dipping Sauce.

Nuoc Cham Dipping Sauce

  • 2 to 2-1/2 tablespoons sugar or 3 to 4 tablespoons maple syrup
  • 3 to 4 tablespoons fresh lime juice (see note)
  • 2 teaspoons unseasoned Japanese rice vinegar, optional
  • 3 to 4 tablespoons fish sauce (see note)
  • Optional add-ins: 1 or 2 Thai or serrano chiles, thinly sliced (keep seeds intact); or 2 to 3 teaspoons chile garlic sauce or sambal oelek; 1 minced large garlic clove; 1/2 small carrot, cut into thin matchsticks or coarsely grated (see note)

Notes: Lime juice can turn the sauce slightly bitter when left overnight. If making the sauce ahead and refrigerating it for up to 2 weeks, add the lime juice, vinegar, if using, and add-ins before serving. Start with this recipe, then create your own formula.

With the optional additions, choose chile for heat, garlic for pungency, and/or carrot for texture. Fish sauce, chile garlic sauce and sambal oelek are available in the Asian section of the supermarket.


In small bowl, combine 2 tablespoons sugar (or 3 tablespoons maple sugar), 3 tablespoons lime juice and 1/2 cup warm water. Taste the mixture and, if needed, add remaining 1 1/2 tablespoons sugar (or 1 tablespoon maple syrup) and/or 1 tablespoon lime juice. Dilute with more water if you go too far. If there’s an unpleasant tart-bitter edge, add the vinegar to fix the flavor.

Add the fish sauce to the bowl; how much you use depends on the brand and your own taste. Aim for a bold, forward finish that’s a little gutsy. (Keep in mind that this sauce typically dresses dishes that include unsalted ingredients such as lettuce and herbs, which will need an extra flavor lift.) If desired, add the chiles, garlic and/or carrot. (Or offer the chiles on the side if diners are sensitive to the heat.) The sauce can sit at room temperature for up to 8 hours until serving.

Set the sauce at the table so diners may help themselves, or portion it out in small bowls in advance of serving.

Makes about 1 cup.

Reprinted with permission from: “Vietnamese Food Any Day: Simple Recipes for True, Fresh Flavors” by Andrea Nguyen. Published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House

Chris Ross is a section editor for the San Diego Union Tribune and covers food, travel, and home and garden. Email her at

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