French Vietnamese chef Nicole Routhier was ahead of the curve with her cookbooks on Vietnamese cuisine. CONTRIBUTED BY ALLISONN + PARTNERS

Vietnamese cuisine made easy, thanks to chef Nicole Routhier

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.

A three-course Vietnamese meal from chef Nicole Routhier includes Salmon Braised in Ginger Caramel Sauce with Pickled Vegetables, served with rice; Banana Tapioca Pudding; and Spicy and Sour Shrimp Soup with Pineapple. STYLING BY NICOLE ROUTHIER / CONTRIBUTED BY MIA YAKEL
Photo: Mia Yakel

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.”

RECIPES

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 is a nod to the pineapple plantations of South Vietnam. The use of okra in chef Nicole Routhier’s recipe embraces a favorite of Georgians and the Vietnamese. STYLING BY NICOLE ROUTHIER / CONTRIBUTED BY MIA YAKEL
Photo: Mia Yakel

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.

Spicy and Sour Shrimp Soup With Pineapple (Canh Chua Tom)
  • 1 cup ripe pineapple cubes (1/2-inch)
  • 2 tablespoons sugar, divided
  • 6 cups chicken broth
  • 2 tablespoons fish sauce
  • 4 teaspoons tamarind puree
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 2 plum tomatoes, cored, seeded, each cut into 6 wedges
  • 12 jumbo shrimp (3/4 pound), shelled, deveined, halved lengthwise
  • 8 small okra pods, cut into halves on an angle
  • 1/2 cup thinly sliced celery
  • 1/2 cup fresh bean sprouts
  • 2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
  • 3 fresh Thai or serrano chile peppers, finely chopped
  • 1 scallion, trimmed, thinly sliced
  • 1 tablespoon finely chopped garlic
  • 1 tablespoon canola oil
  • 3 tablespoons coarsely chopped ngo om (rice paddy herb), or finely sliced mint leaves
  • Place pineapple cubes in a small bowl and sprinkle with 2 teaspoons of the sugar. Let stand 5 minutes.
  • Combine the chicken broth, remaining sugar, fish sauce, tamarind puree and salt in a large pot and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium and add the tomatoes and pineapple. Simmer for 3 minutes. Add the shrimp, okra, celery, bean sprouts and lime juice; simmer for 30 seconds longer, or until the shrimp is just cooked through, and the okra is crisp-tender. Add the chiles and scallion and remove from the heat.
  • Make garlic oil: combine chopped garlic and canola oil in a small saute pan. Place over medium heat and gently cook, stirring once or twice, until the garlic turns light golden, about 2 minutes. Remove and allow the mixture to cool.
  • Ladle soup into individual bowls or a large soup tureen, and sprinkle with herbs and garlic oil.
  • Serves 4 to 6.

Nutritional information

Per serving: Per serving, based on 4: 255 calories (percent of calories from fat, 18), 27 grams protein, 26 grams carbohydrates, 3 grams fiber, 5 grams fat (1 gram saturated), 130 milligrams cholesterol, 1,103 milligrams sodium.
Salmon Braised in Ginger Caramel Sauce with Pickled Vegetables, served with rice. Chef Nicole Routhier says, “The sauce is sweet and salty, so you need to balance it with something sour or acidic like pickled vegetables.” STYLING BY NICOLE ROUTHIER / CONTRIBUTED BY MIA YAKEL
Photo: Mia Yakel

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.

Salmon Braised in Ginger Caramel Sauce (Ca Kho Tieu)
  • 1/2 cup light brown sugar
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 4 tablespoons fish sauce
  • 2 tablespoons julienned fresh ginger
  • 2 medium shallots, finely chopped
  • 2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
  • 1 teaspoon chile paste, such as tuong ot toi (Vietnamese chile garlic sauce)
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 4 (6-ounce) salmon fillets without skin, preferably center-cut
  • 1 scallion, trimmed, cut into fine strips
  • 1/4 cup cilantro leaves
  • Pickled Vegetables (recipe follows)
  • In a large 10-inch saute pan, bring the sugar and water to a boil over medium high heat. Stir and reduce until the liquid becomes a thick syrup and turns a dark brown color, about 10 minutes. Remove from the heat and stir in the fish sauce. Add the ginger, shallots, garlic, chile paste, and black pepper. Set aside and allow the flavors to infuse for 15 minutes. Add fish fillets and turn to coat evenly with the sauce.
  • Bring the mixture slowly to a simmer, cover the pan, and gently braise over low heat until the fish flakes easily when tested with a fork, 15 to 20 minutes, turning the fillets once midway through cooking.
  • Transfer fillets to dinner plates. Spoon sauce over the fish and top with scallion and cilantro leaves. Serve with steamed rice and Pickled Vegetables.
  • Serves 4.

Nutritional information

Per serving: Per serving: 316 calories (percent of calories from fat, 24), 35 grams protein, 25 grams carbohydrates, trace fiber, 8 grams fat (2 grams saturated), 71 milligrams cholesterol, 135 milligrams sodium.

Pickled Vegetables(Do Chua)

Pickled Vegetables(Do Chua)
  • 2 cups white vinegar
  • 4 tablespoons sugar
  • 2 teaspoons kosher salt
  • 1/4 red bell pepper, seeded, cut into 1/2-inch strips
  • 1/4 yellow bell pepper, seeded, cut into 1/2-inch strips
  • 1/2 cup cauliflower florets
  • 1/2 cup sliced cucumber
  • 1/2 cup sliced carrot
  • 2 red radishes, sliced
  • Boil the vinegar, sugar and salt; allow to cool. Add 1/2 cup water and the vegetables. Cover and marinate in the refrigerator for at least 2 hours. Drain before serving.
  • Serves 4.

Nutritional information

Per serving: Per serving: 72 calories (percent of calories from fat, 1), 1 gram protein, 17 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram fiber, trace fat (trace saturated fat), no cholesterol, 451 milligrams sodium.
Chef Nicole Routhier puts a spin on a dish from her childhood memories with Banana Tapioca Pudding. STYLING BY NICOLE ROUTHIER / CONTRIBUTED BY MIA YAKEL
Photo: Mia Yakel

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.

Banana Tapioca Pudding (Che Chuoi)
  • 1 cup small tapioca pearls
  • 3 medium ripe bananas, peeled
  • 1/3 cup sugar, divided
  • 1/8 teaspoon salt
  • 1 can (13.5 ounces) unsweetened coconut milk
  • 1/3 cup unsweetened coconut cream
  • 1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1/8 teaspoon banana extract, or banana essence
  • 1 tablespoon toasted sesame seeds, lightly crushed
  • Soak the tapioca in cool water for 20 minutes. Drain.
  • In a saucepan set over medium high heat, bring the tapioca, remaining sugar, salt and coconut milk to a boil, stirring frequently. Turn the heat down to a bare simmer, and cook, stirring occasionally, for 15 minutes, or until the tapioca pearls are translucent.
  • Add the bananas, and cook until just heated through, about 1 minute. Remove from the heat, and stir in the coconut cream, and the vanilla and banana extracts. Allow to cool before serving.
  • Ladle the banana pudding into dessert bowls, sprinkle with sesame seeds, and serve.
  • Serves 4.

Nutritional information

Per serving: Per serving: 380 calories (percent of calories from fat, 23), 2 grams protein, 73 grams carbohydrates, 3 grams fiber, 10 grams fat (8 grams saturated), no cholesterol, 83 milligrams sodium.

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