LJ Talks with Cookbook Author Helen Le

Helen Le, author of the forthcoming Vegan Vietnamese and creator of the YouTube channel Helen's Recipes, talks with LJ about designing cookbooks, crafting flavors, and starter recipes.

Helen Le, author of the forthcoming Vegan Vietnamese and creator of the YouTube channel Helen's Recipes, talks with LJ about designing cookbooks, crafting flavors, and starter recipes.

Vegan Vietnamese begins with an annotated pantry list, full of details, descriptions, tips, and guidance. In addition to being very useful, it adds a lovely layer to the reading experience. When making the cookbook, how did you think about designing it for readers to enjoy as a book as well as a source for cooking?

When creating Vegan Vietnamese, I had the readers in mind, especially those living outside of Vietnam who may face challenges in accessing authentic Vietnamese ingredients. Many of my viewers on Helen’s Recipes YouTube channel, as well as the readers of this book, are primarily based in foreign countries. One of their biggest obstacles when cooking Vietnamese cuisine is the lack of access to traditional Vietnamese ingredients.

I placed a significant emphasis on providing detailed explanations and descriptions of the special ingredients at the beginning of the book. I also provide detailed, step-by-step recipes for several Vietnamese kitchen staples like vegan fish sauce, fermented bean curd, pickles, and more. This ensures that readers who may not have access to these ingredients at their local supermarkets can still enjoy authentic flavors by making them at home.

I wanted to ensure that readers have a clear understanding and feel confident in navigating the Vietnamese culinary landscape. I believe that this approach adds an extra layer of depth to the reading experience, allowing readers to immerse themselves in the culture and flavors of Vietnam, even if they are thousands of miles away.

The visual design of your book is also notable. What drove those design decisions?

The visual design…was driven by a desire to capture the essence of authentic Vietnamese aesthetics. All the photographs in the book were taken by a talented photographer from Da Nang, ensuring that the props and styling remained true to the traditional Vietnamese ambiance. The design aimed to evoke a vintage classic vibe, creating a timeless treasure for readers to cherish. The main theme color of green was chosen to symbolize the freshness and abundance of plant-based ingredients used in Vietnamese cuisine.

As you point out in your introduction, many Vietnamese dishes are already vegan, but there are some standards of the cuisine, such as anchovy sauce, that are defined by not being vegan. What was the most difficult dish or sauce for you to make vegan? What did you discover in the process of creating it?

Anchovy sauce is known for its unique umami and savory qualities, which can be difficult to replicate in a vegan context. However, through experimentation and exploration, I discovered that fermented soybean paste and fermented bean curd can provide a similar bold flavor profile that can mimic the essence of anchovy sauce.

By utilizing these fermented soy products, I was able to capture the deep and complex flavors that are characteristic of anchovy sauce. It was an exciting revelation that these plant-based alternatives could deliver a comparable taste experience.

You’ve been teaching people to cook for some time on your popular YouTube channel, Helen’s Recipes. What did you learn from cooking on video that helped you create your cookbooks?

Cooking on video has been an invaluable experience that greatly influenced the creation of my print cookbooks. One of the key lessons I learned from my YouTube journey is the importance of listening to my audience.

Through my YouTube channel, I gained insights into the specific needs and preferences of my audience. I learned about their dietary choices, their desire for vegan alternatives, and the challenges they faced in adapting traditional Vietnamese recipes to fit their lifestyles. This direct interaction with my viewers allowed me to better understand their perspectives and tailor my approach to meet their expectations.

The feedback and engagement I received from my YouTube community became the foundation for the creation of my print cookbooks, including Vegan Vietnamese. It inspired me to carefully curate and develop recipes that catered to their interests, while still staying true to the flavors and essence of Vietnamese cuisine.

While every recipe in the book is inviting, do you have a few favorites you would suggest making first?

Absolutely! In Vegan Vietnamese, every recipe is crafted with care and designed to delight your taste buds. If you're new to Vietnamese cuisine and looking for some recommendations to start with, I have a couple of favorites in mind.

Firstly, I would suggest trying the mushroom banh xeo. This dish is a vegan twist on the classic Vietnamese savory crepe, and it’s a great introduction to the vibrant flavors of Vietnamese cuisine. The combination of crispy crepes, savory mushrooms, and fresh herbs creates a delightful culinary experience.

Another dish that I highly recommend is the lemongrass chili tofu. This recipe showcases the bold and aromatic flavors that are characteristic of Vietnamese cooking. The tofu is infused with lemongrass and chili, resulting in a perfect balance of tangy, spicy, and fragrant elements.

What are some of your favorite cookbooks?

One book that stands out for me is The Flavor Bible: The Essential Guide to Culinary Creativity, Based on the Wisdom of America's Most Imaginative Chefs [by Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg. Little, Brown]. This book is a treasure trove of flavor combinations and serves as a valuable resource for sparking creativity in the kitchen. This comprehensive guide to pairing ingredients goes beyond traditional recipes, empowering me to experiment and create unique dishes. It’s invaluable when developing new recipes for my cookbooks, ensuring harmonious flavor combinations.

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