Nicole Routhier may not be a very familiar name in current culinary circles. But the French Vietnamese chef, cookbook author, and teacher has long been considered an authority on Vietnamese cuisine. And since 1993, Routhier has had a hand in developing menus for multiple Le Colonial restaurants, including the new location at the Shops Buckhead Atlanta.
Routhier grew up in Saigon, where her mother was a cook, and studied in Belgium and France, before moving to New York City, and then Houston, where she lives now. When I met her during the opening of Le Colonial in Atlanta last year, she noted that Vietnamese food wasn’t well known in the U.S. when she wrote her first cookbook.
“I was way ahead of the curve, 30 years ago,” Routhier said. “That was at the time when there were barely any cookbooks on Vietnamese cuisine. There was nobody teaching people how to cook Vietnamese food at home. I said, ‘I’m going to be the one,’ because I was so passionate about it, and this is a cuisine that people should know about. So I just wrote what I knew, the food I grew up with, and I just happened to make a career out of cooking.”
Routhier graduated from the Culinary Institute of America at Hyde Park, New York, in 1985. And shortly before that, then-New York Times food editor Craig Claiborne wrote an effusive story about Routhier’s cooking, with the headline “The flavors of Vietnam re-created in America.”
Routhier’s “The Foods of Vietnam” was published in 1989, and won the Julia Child Award for Best American Cookbook from the International Association of Culinary Professionals. Two more acclaimed cookbooks followed: 1994’s “Cooking Under Wraps” and 1996’s “Nicole Routhier’s Fruit Cookbook.”
Recently, I asked Routhier if she would consider sharing some of her recipes for home cooks. She not only said yes, but traveled to Atlanta, where she prepared several dishes in the Le Colonial kitchen.
Then we sat down in the dining room to taste and talk about each one, including a Spicy and Sour Shrimp Soup with Pineapple, Salmon Braised in Ginger Caramel Sauce served with pickled vegetables, and a favorite Banana Tapioca Pudding.
“I don’t really create anything from scratch, because I prefer to work from heirloom and classic dishes,” Routhier said. “The Spicy and Sour Shrimp Soup is not something that I invented, but the flavors are to my taste. This dish is from South Vietnam, where they have pineapple plantations, and they are so sweet. And I chose to use okra because I know people in Georgia love it, and we love okra in Vietnam, too.”
Speaking about the salmon dish, Routhier said, “Braised fish is very old and classic. It’s something that my mother made almost every other day. It’s a go-to dish for most home cooks, because you can make a large amount and reheat it. I prefer fish, but my mother would cut pieces of chicken or pork or sometimes pork ribs. The marinade is very unique. You make a caramel with brown sugar and then you add fish sauce to it. The sauce is sweet and salty, so you need to balance it with something sour or acidic like pickled vegetables.”
Banana Tapioca Pudding is another dish from Routhier’s childhood memories, but she put her own spin on it when she developed the recipe.
“As a child, this was my favorite dessert,” she said. “We have street vendors, and each one of them specializes in one specific dish. In the afternoon, after I came back from school, it was our tea time, and I would eagerly await the chants of the vendors with the banana pudding. Mine is very basic. It’s tapioca, coconut milk, sugar and bananas cooked up together. But what goes after makes it special. We serve it with toasted sesame seeds, for a little crunch, and I elevated it a little bit by caramelizing the bananas.”
Routhier has been teaching cooking classes for years, and knows that tackling Vietnamese cuisine can be intimidating for many people.
“My job is to make it less intimidating,” she said. “But I insist on having hands-on classes, because that’s the only way that people can learn how the textures work, how fresh the ingredients are, and how things taste together. My first job is to help them understand the ingredients, where to find them, and give them options when they can’t find certain ingredients. Vietnamese cuisine made easy for the home cook is how I approach it.”
This easy, three-course Vietnamese meal from French Vietnamese chef Nicole Routhier features a bright and spicy shrimp soup, salmon braised in ginger caramel sauce, and banana tapioca pudding for dessert.
Spicy and Sour Shrimp Soup With Pineapple (Canh Chua Tom)
The subtle combination of sweet-and-sour ingredients makes this soup special. Ngo om (rice paddy herb) is an aromatic souring herb with a hint of cumin. If you have difficulty obtaining this item from your local Asian market, use fresh mint instead. Catfish fillets, red snapper, or thin slices of chicken breast can replace the shrimp. They may take a slightly longer time to cook through, though.
Salmon Braised in Ginger Caramel Sauce (Ca Kho Tieu)
This classic Vietnamese dish could be made with other proteins, such as chicken or pork, but Routhier prefers flaky salmon, and the balance of sweet and spicy flavors with quick pickled vegetables and steamed rice on the side.
Pickled Vegetables(Do Chua)
Banana Tapioca Pudding (Che Chuoi)
A childhood favorite elevated with a chef’s touch, this meeting of the soft, not too sweet flavors of caramelized bananas and tapioca gets some crunch with a topping of toasted and lightly crushed sesame seeds.
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