Thu's book, My Quest for Yummy Banh Mi in Vietnam, documents her discovery of different regional delicacies in Vietnam
"My belly and my heart are full of happiness and love now."
Vietnamese-Canadian Thu Nguyen did not believe she could actually write a book, but her fascination with one of the most common street food items in her homeland the ubiquitous, humble and cheap banh mi (baguette sandwich) made it possible.
Her first plan was: "I am going to Vietnam for two months. I will learn how to make and prepare each component of banh mi from local street vendors, home bakeries, families, restaurants, chefs and culinary schools."
But the project lasted seven months and went beyond the banh mi into other culinary realms, not to mention Vietnam's culture and traditional heritage, and these discoveries only enhanced her gastronomic and emotional fulfillment.
All the emotions of discovering a homeland Thu moved to Canada with her family in 1985, when she was just four, find expression in the book titled My Quest for Yummy Banh Mi in Vietnam.
The book was published in both print and PDF versions on August 2. Five days later, Thu left Vietnam with a box of a thousand copies of the brand new book for releasing in Canada.
"I am already beginning to miss Vietnam, even before I leave, despite a lot of bother that I went through during my stay. My homeland is a lot different since my first visit ten years ago. I really love Vietnam," said Thu.
Thu's quest for the perfect banh mi in all its Vietnamese variations took seven months of traveling, feeling, writing and designing, and its end result, the book, is being sold worldwide through Amazon and eBay. It will be available in Vietnam at a later time."
Thu said that she hopes the book will be available in Vietnamese book stores when she is here the next time.
Thu has done her research well. She traces the banh mi's origins to the French colonial days and shows how it evolved into a quintessentially Vietnamese dish for the common person, even delving into its ying and yang aspects:
A photo taken in 1960 of Hoa Ma banh mi shop, said to be the first banh mi shop in southern Vietnam.
"The French colonized Vietnam for a century and left behind some of their culinary practices like the art of making baguette, charcuterie, paté, butter and mayonnaise. The Vietnamese were employed to make headcheese, ham, and cold cuts for French restaurants all over the country.
One lady, Nguyá»…n Thá»‹ Tá»‹nh, who used to provide cold cuts for French restaurant in Hanoi relocated with her husband, Lê Minh Ngọc, to Saigon and opened up the first bánh mì shop in the south. Hòa Mã was open in 1958 and still exists today on 53 Cao Thắng Street, District 3.
Traditionally, the French charcuterie, paté, butter and bread were served separately on the plate and eaten with a knife and fork. The restaurant also serves the cold cuts on a plate, separate from the bread. Today, if you eat there, you will still get the slice of ham on the side.
The couple soon realized that students and labor workers really like the bánh mì, but did not have time to sit and eat before heading out to school or work in the mornings.
They baked the new baguettes into single serving sizes (eight inches) and stuffed them with cold cut meats, Vietnamese sausage and pate, so that the could be easily packed and eaten later. They were an instant hit!"
But she revels equally in the pleasure of discovering culinary delight after culinary delight in nearly 21 cities and provinces, not to mention their links with the history and culture of the country.
About one such discovery, "Chè bá»™t lọc/tapioca balls with crispy BBQ pork," she writes: "I fell in love with the dessert at first bite. It is one of the only salty and sweet soup desserts in Vietnam. It is almost impossible to find outside of Huế." Thu's book, then, invites readers to share her discoveries and partake of the delicacies. The book's strengths are its spontaneity and straightforward nature.
Author Thu Nguyen did not miss a chance to enjoy a banh mi at a well-known bakery on Bui Thi Xuan Street during her last days in Vietnam
It is one that both the novice and the expert on Vietnamese cuisine and culture will enjoy, and for those who like to try to cook new dishes from cookbooks, this is a veritable treat.
"At first, I did not believe that I could write a book. But I made it. I hope the book will be my small contribution to popularize Vietnam's tourism and culture to the world. There are many more stories to tell and recipes to carry, but I had to save and post them on the website because the book does not have space for everything. "
Now, with the first book out, things have changed. Thu said My Quest for Yummy Banh Mi in Vietnam will foster the birth of her second book, which will be another exotic journey to different lands and spaces, but she did not want to reveal the details now.
Nguyen Viet Uyen Thu, 29 and better known as Thu Nguyen, is the managing editor of website www.youcook.ca based in Vancouver.
The website that aims to bring "your favorite restaurant recipes into your home" has become popular in just two years.
Thu said the idea of bringing Asian, especially Vietnamese food, to the website flashed through her mind when the Winter Olympics were held in Canada last year, many people visited her website and posted the recipes of their country's delicacies.
"When the website began working, my partners and I, including a baker and business manager, started to think about bringing Asian food in general and Vietnamese food in particular to our website's fans. I love banh mi and I intended to start with it. But the trip to Vietnam changed my plan."
The website and the book do not just post information. "We can make all the recipes including those that we carry in My Quest for Yummy Banh Mi in Vietnam. But sometimes, it is hard to find the right material and we have to use close replacements. But they taste the same," said Thu.
She said her partners also augment their small enterprise's earnings by setting up websites or designing menus for local restaurants.
Thu graduated from Waterloo University as a computing engineer. She worked in US before returning to Canada to open her own company 2Cre8tive Solutions and www.youcook.ca.
During her Vietnam trip, she also hosted a seminar to share tips about running a small enterprise to several students at HCMC's University of Natural Sciences.
For all the raving about Vietnam, Thu has had her share of troubles here.
"I was cheated twice by the unlicensed taxi drivers. They overcharged me. Social evils like this will prevent foreigners from visiting Vietnam. The local bistro, with their tasty food but bad sanitation will also fail to attract foreign tourists," she said.
But Thu still believes that Vietnam is still an appealing destination with great hospitality and a mouthwatering cuisine.
We signed off on that by enjoying a couple of banh mi at a well-known bakery on Bui Thi Xuan Street.