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Chef Cameron Stauch’s new cookbook shares local stories and delicious recipes he picked up while living as a vegetarian in Vietnam.
What’s your cooking background?
I am a Canadian chef who has lived, worked, and travelled throughout Asia (Hong Kong, India, Vietnam, and now Bangkok, Thailand), since 2000, with a couple 3-year stints back in Canada.
What inspired you to cook vegetarian in Vietnam?
A few reasons. One day my son, at the age of 4, announced he wanted to eat in a vegetarian manner. Our family was already heading in that direction, as it was hard to learn about how and where the meat at the local markets in Vietnam was raised.
Vegetarian friends who had lived in Vietnam mentioned they had no resources in English to refer to if they wanted to make vegetarian Vietnamese dishes at home. Lastly, a curiosity to learn more about Vietnam through its food culture. It was a natural progression.
Who was the most interesting person you met while writing the book?
I enjoyed cooking with monks and nuns and learning about practicing mindfulness in their daily life and in the kitchen. People were very receptive. They were happy to learn others around the world would learn about Vietnamese vegetarian dishes and food culture.
Do you have a favourite Vietnamese dish?
I have several. Banh Trang Tron, rice paper ribbons tossed with tart green mango, chillies, peanuts, and Vietnamese herbs, is a relatively new street food that makes my mouth water at the mention of it. Banh xeo, a crispy rice and lentil crepe-like dish, that’s a cousin to the Indian dosa is a family favourite. And the fragrant lemongrass noodle soup, bun bo Hue, from Hue, a central Vietnamese city.
Did anything surprise you about living in Vietnam?
How helpful the Vietnamese people are when they learn you are curious and interested in learning more about their food and culture. Having some basic Vietnamese language skills also helps connecting with people and opens many doors.
Any tips for finding food that’s vegetarian in Vietnam?
Follow the lunar calendar. Lay Buddhists eat vegetarian on full moon and new moon days. On those days vegetarian restaurants serve wonderful buffets, and in the centre and south of the country some street vendors will serve vegetarian street food dishes. Look for the word chay, which means vegetarian, on food stall signs and in restaurant menus.
Did you find distinct differences between food in different regions?
Absolutely. Each region has its own specialities, say noodle soups or different fresh or deep-fried rolls. The food is spicier in the centre and south. Be curious. Learn what’s a local speciality and try it. You’ll be pleasantly surprised by what you’re served.
What is your favourite part of Vietnam?
I like the pace of life in central Vietnam, especially Hue. Hanoi holds a special place for me as I lived there and still have many friends there. I’d love to visit the northern region of Ha Giang.
Are there things you miss about living there?
The people. My daily chit chats with market vendors. The energy and entrepreneurial spirit of Vietnam’s youth. And of course, a nice strong iced coffee with condensed milk.
Do you have a favourite recipe from the book?
It changes regularly. Nowadays it’s Soy Ginger Glazed Eggplant. No matter how much I make we never have any leftovers! It’s that addictive.
Cook up a Vietnamese vegetarian feast with Cameron’s cookbook: Vegetarian Viet Nam published by W.W. Norton.
All photos © Cameron Stauch and W.W. Norton.