Mai Pham left Vietnam more than 25 years ago, when she and her family fought their way onto an airplane days before Saigon fell. To write her latest cookbook, Pleasures of the Vietnamese Table ($28), she returned for the first time to the country that inspired the cooking at her Lemon Grass restaurants in Sacramento. "I had two dreams," she writes. "To reunite with my grandmother and to eat pho, my favorite food on earth, on Vietnamese soil." She did both, bringing her grandmother a wheelchair (the first in her village) and slurping bowls of the aromatic rice-noodle soup in the market stalls where she used to eat as a girl.
Pleasures has an entire chapter on pho, with recipes and helpfultips on eating it in restaurants, but it is the lesser-known, home-style dishes you most want to make for yourself. One of the best things about Pham is that she doesn't browbeat you about using authentic ingredients, so you can concentrate on cooking without feeling guilty about, say, substituting ordinary cilantro for the Vietnamese kind. Cilantro and fish sauce are hallmarks of Vietnamese cooking, to be sure, but Pham explains that what really sets the cuisine apart is the way each taste is kept distinct through a skillful use of contrast in flavors, textures and temperatures. If pho tastes like home to the author, it's in part because the clear flavor of the steaming broth is layered with the individual flavors of fresh herbs, lime juice and hot chiles.