Chopstick Cinema

Celeste Heiter's Adventures in Asian Food & Film

Getting Acquainted with Vietnamese Cuisine

Okay, so I'm looking at all these Vietnamese recipes in my two cookbooks, plus a little extracurricular research on epicurious.com, and one thing is obvious. I'm definitely gonna need something called nuoc mam. Now although I may have originally given the impression that I'm a total neophyte when it comes to Vietnamese cuisine, that's not entirely true. I know what nuoc mam is.

Back in my hometown of Mobile, Alabama, I helped an ex-boyfriend open a gourmet restaurant called The Casbah, and although the menu was strictly 'continental', his #1 employee was a darling Vietnamese woman named Mai Nguyen. My ex was a Vietnam War veteran, and because he was so familiar with her culture, the two of them got along famously. Mai's story was heartbreaking (her family, one with a long and aristocratic heritage, had to flee the country in a homemade skiff with what few possessions they could carry on their backs), nevertheless, she had an amazingly buoyant spirit and an indomitable work ethic. Not only did Mai and her aged father Dan help restore the historic Mediterranean building for The Casbah restaurant, once it opened, Mai did most if not all of the daily prep and cooking for both the lunch and dinner shifts.

But when she prepared meals for herself and her family in the restaurant kitchen, she made Vietnamese food, and for that, she always kept a bottle of nuoc mam on the pantry shelf. Mai's nuoc mam was the subject of much curiosity and even a little good-natured kidding from the other staff members, who wanted no part of that strange brew.

Thanks to Mai's culinery expertise, the Casbah enjoyed a few good years in the Mobile restaurant scene, but when it finally closed, Mai had saved up enough money to open her own restaurant, The Ivory Chopstick, located in a turn-of-the-century home in the city's scenic garden district. Shortly after it opened, just a few months before I moved to California, I had the pleasure of enjoying one of the finest meals I have ever eaten: a delicate spring roll appetizer, followed by a heavenly lemongrass broth with seafood dumplings, and for the main course, pan-sauteed sole with a soy-ginger beurre blanc accompanied by a medley of perfectly steamed vegetables...Each dish lovingly and expertly prepared by the hands of Mai Nguyen.