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Bring home the unique flavours of Vietnam

Cha Ca La Vong, the oldest continuously operating restaurant in Hanoi, Vietnam, serves one dish. It's so well known that customers wait in line in a narrow street.

Customers have to climb narrow, uneven stairs to a small room with a low ceiling and sit cafeteria-style on folding chairs pulled up to Formica tables.

The payoff is a delicious fish, marinated and fried in oil with fresh greens. Patrons help themselves to the fish in a pan sizzling on a tabletop burner. Each serving comes with rice noodles and sauce -- a beer is de rigueur. (Cha Ca means fried fish.) Now cookbook author Nancie McDermott shares a facsimile of this famous dish in her new cookbook, Quick & Easy Vietnamese: 75 Everyday Recipes (Chronicle Books, $19.95 soft cover, 168 pages).

The book follows her splendid Quick & Easy Thai and several other excellent books on Southeast Asian cooking. McDermott, a onetime Peace Corps volunteer in Thailand, has the knack for capturing vibrant flavors with simple, easy-to-follow directions.

And she does it with a reasonable ingredient list. We tried McDermott's version of the Cha Ca La Vong fish. We used red snapper instead of the called-for catfish or tilapia. The result was delicious -- and close to what our taste buds recall. Next time, I will double the marinade (with fish sauce, ginger, turmeric) to have more sauce for the finished dish. Cooks who savor the foods of Vietnam can thank McDermott for making this wonderful cuisine accessible.

 Although Vietnam is part of Southeast Asia, its geography and political history make its cuisine unique. As McDermott writes, "noodles rule" in Vietnam the Vietnamese eat them morning, noon and night. Anyone who's struggled to cook rice noodles will appreciate McDermott's easy method: Simply soak the thin rice noodles in warm water for at least 15 minutes, drain and put in boiling water, immediately remove from heat and let stand for 10 minutes, drain well and set aside until needed.

McDermott organizes her recipes into 10 food categories, such as salads and vegetables, soups, beef and pork. She includes 11 suggested menus, a list of mail-order sources for ingredients and a glossary.

VIETNAMNET - (19/06/2006)

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