Asian American Originals: Andrea Nguyen, food writer extraordinaire

   

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Andrea Nguyen is a culinary writer and editor. One of her books, "The Pho Cookbook" was awarded a 2018 James Beard award, and her most recent cookbook is called "Vietnamese Food Any Day." She has written for The Los Angeles Times, The Wall Street Journal, Sunset, Bon Appetit, Cooking Light, and Saveur.

 

How has being Asian American impacted your work as a journalist?

 

My overarching goal is to push Asian foodways from the margins into the mainstream without dumbing things down. It's been my motivation from the get-go -- to demystify, record, and further the Asian American food experience. People of Asian descent have been in America for a long time yet many people still see us as being different, unfamiliar, and 'exotic'. There are language and cultural differences between the many Asian heritages so I do my best to respect the roots of those cuisines while presenting how they've played out in America. If people make tacos or pizza on a weeknight, why not make dal or pho?

 

How do you think your identity has affected how you approach certain stories?

 

I was born in Vietnam and raised in America. I learned Spanish and Mandarin in school and was mentored by a black political scientist who grew up in segregated southern Texas. Given all that, I try to observe subjects from many perspectives and to help people understand the nuances and grey areas.

 

Vietnam is a funny country because it's an amalgam of cultures (cue banh mi sandwiches and pho noodle soup) and being part of America's diverse fabric has pushed what Vietnamese is and can be (cue banh mi tacos, phorittos, and pho dumplings!). My job is to explore and define Vietnamese savors but to also let it evolve. But certain things remain fixed for me, like using the word Viet in my writing. It's what we call ourselves. We are Viet people. I have to explain the usage to my copy editors each I write a book.

 

I'm into building coalitions between people and food isn't a fixed thing. Authenticity is a moving target and ever changing. I recently moderated a panel in Minneapolis titled "Who Owns Asian Food?" and my answer was: We all own it. We all have a responsibility to inquire and explore and understand.

 

I have no formal cooking training but learned through reading and practicing. I'm highly curious so I love going down a rabbit hole and coming up for air to distill the essences of food and cooking. It's a great way to understand people, to bridge differences.

 

How has being Asian American affected how people react to your stories?

 

When my first cookbook, Into the Vietnamese Kitchen, came out in 2006, the food world wasn't fully tuned into the Asian American experience. Asian anything was mostly considered international, foreign, unfamiliar. But I wanted to bridge the Pacific with America so I kept at it, writing books and articles that discussed refugee and immigrant food, but also to discuss cooking techniques. Once you actually do something, you realize all cultural connections in say, a dumpling dough. I found editors who appreciated my work. I also found a readership that identified with it too. Most of my readers are not Asian but they're interested and I open a door to help them explore.

 

With the new book, Vietnamese Food Any Day, I aim to underscore how much Viet people, and Asian people in general, belong here -- all the ingredients are found at American supermarkets. You don't have to shop at an Asian market to make legit Viet food. My family shopped at mainstream markets and my mother still does. There are people who may say that that approach is inauthentic. They're welcome to go to Asian markets. But if I ask cooks to shop exclusively at Asian markets, Vietnamese food will continue to be exotic, ghettoized and fetishized. We will continue to be the 'other.'

 

The cool thing is there's a strong Asian American audience out there looking for Asian voices in food. I have a growing cohort of professional colleagues in the food media space who are Asian American. It used to be really lonely and now we have an expanding community. Asian American food is also now a thing. I've seen it labeled as 'fusion' food. Apparently, from what I've read, David Chang does fusion food. I think there's only good and bad tasting food.

 

Who are other AAPI journalists who inspire you?

 

In the current food reporting space, I enjoy work by Ligaya Mishan, Soleil Ho, Lucas Kwan Peterson, Eleanore Park, Mayukh Sen, Khushbu Shah, Clarissa Wei, and Hugh Garvey. Frank Shyong isn't in the food sphere, but often weaves food into insightful pieces. Newspaper-wise, I subscribe to the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times and New York Times so I'm always discovering new AAPI voices.

 

Artwork by Nicole Vas, a designer at The Hill newspaper.

 

AAJA's Asian American Originals campaign is sponsored by our partners at Panda Express, which has launched its own campaign highlighting Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders making their mark.