Editor’s note: Each Piglet judge receives a cheat sheet on how the tournament works—how to approach the judging process, our expectations for a review, and more. One of our asks is that judges cook at least 3 recipes from each book they’re evaluating. As Piglet superfans know, many judges go above and beyond, preparing far more than the 6 recipes asked of them. Today’s judge chose to approach her review in a different way.
I adore cookbooks. I covet them, I collect them, and I appreciate them as guides to the food of other cultures, or other worlds. But I don’t use them—at least, not to cook from.
Even at the outset of this project, I didn’t really have any intention of cooking from these books: I’m renovating my kitchen, travelling a lot and mourning the death of my beloved dad. But the truth is I don’t cook from cookbooks, even when the extenuating circumstances aren’t so destabilizing.
That said, I appreciate what cookbooks can do. Which is partly why I chose to advance the book I did; it doesn’t just introduce you to the food of another culture, it creates its own world, one you’d happily inhabit permanently.
But we’re not there yet. First, you should know that both of these cookbooks are excellent guides.
Food writer and educator Andrea Nguyen’s The Pho Cookbook—pronounced “faww,” in this case (if there were a side hook on the “o,” it would be “fuh”)—opens with a beautiful essay on pho’s origins, weaving class, colonialism, and modernity vs. history into a genesis narrative of the beef and noodle soup, so specific to Vietnam, to a time and a place.
She goes on to offer incredibly detailed instructions for ingredient and equipment preparation (including a reminder to use good water, which I love). All the elements of a great pho broth are given consideration. There’s a how and why for everything, which makes perfect sense: this is a book totally devoted to one thing, from cover to cover. It’s all pho, all the time (which is not a criticism—I am very much of the “do one thing really well” school).
Cookbook covers often provide a lot of content clues and the cover of chef/restaurateur Kris Yenbamroong’s Night + Market is no exception. The heavy-flash, blown-out look is a nod to a photographic style popularized by VICE and, no doubt, to the too-bright lighting at its namesake Silver Lake restaurant, Night + Market Song. (TBH, Night + Market’s lighting drove me crazy when I ate there a few years ago, even though I understood it as a specific wink at “authenticity.” But also, fuck authenticity—we are all capable of holding more than one idea in our heads at the same time).
The cover’s high-low mix of a Pét-Nat-ish sparkling wine—label casually turned half-away so as to only connect with it-getters—alongside a basic Thai beer (that probably costs too much once it’s imported) is an instant way to slyly identify yourself as my favorite type of person: the discerning snob who somehow is completely without pretension.
There’s this insane idea that some people have about “cool,” low-budget, (*gulp*) hipster-y restaurants: that they are the height of pretension. It’s an ironic conclusion to draw, considering how little money went into making, say, The Black Hoof (disclaimer: I own the joint), or—I assume—Kris’s restaurants. Thanks to pioneers like David Chang, more than a decade after the restaurant revolution in the mid-aughts, young people opening spots they might actually want to hang out in and can sort-of afford to eat in isn’t a novelty, it’s a category.
Night + Market the book is an exploration of this category—there’s the superfluous plus sign (“for the record, it’s just pronounced Night Market”); the forward by Pok Pok’s Andy Ricker; the author’s intro in black print on mustard-yellow pages (if you have trouble reading it, you’re too damn old). Then there are the stories preceding each recipe, each one funny, detailed, heartfelt, and direct. For example, a headnote begins like this: “Things that were ahead of their time: Nikola Tesla, Twin Peaks, Pets.com, and Golden Triangles.” This appropriately leads into a recipe for Golden Triangles, which Kris describes as “seafood mortadella pancakes,” while acknowledging this as a “weird visual.” It’s a pretty direct call-out to a certain type of person born basically anytime after 1975 and before 1985. As I started reading I fell into Kris’ universe, one that’s informed by the clearly massive influence of his paternal grandma and his having grown up in the family business of restaurants. It’s anchored by a life lived in LA, and a love of chenin. WHAT IS NOT TO LOVE?
I enjoyed hanging out with a lot of the recipes, but Crispy Pig Tails tickled me in two ways. One, it talks about a few of my fave things: pig tails, Jonathan Gold, and Anthony Bourdain. At the same time, it serves as an illustrative reminder of the importance for a restaurant like this to be “blessed.” The approval of a food writer like Gold and heavyweights of the industry is often the difference between a restaurant that barely survives and one that thrives. You’ll notice that they’re all men. I did. (ALWAYS BE ON BRAND.)
Despite being a feminist killjoy, one of the things I most enjoy killing is a bottle of wine. I also really like having fun, and this book brings the fun + great wine suggestions all over the place (you pronounce it “plus” in this context). There’s a Thai Beef Jerky recipe that looks great, a hot tip for why stir-fried packaged ramen noodles are superior to reconstituted, and photography that highlights all the people who make Night + Market (and Night + Market Song) what they are.
By comparison, Andrea Nguyen’s The Pho Cookbook, while a loving ode, is a lot more staid. Everything from ingredients to assembly is (as mentioned) laid out in great detail, the photography is lush and beautiful, and the recipes enticing. I feel it could benefit from a little tongue-in-cheek playfulness. But that’s a minor complaint.
Like I said, both of these are excellent guides. Neither will disappoint readers, research junkies, or food-culture vultures. Kris’s book just spoke to me more, in the sense that there is shared language, a certain sort of approach to restaurants, and a firm understanding that the level of fun achievable in this “world of food” is inversely proportional to how seriously one takes oneself and one’s “cuisine.” It’s a delightful lesson in self-awareness, and a friendly reminder that you probably shouldn’t invest too much ego in something that turns to shit so fast.
Night + Market takes it.