Viet Nam News
Returning to Hải Phòng
to have a bowl of canh bánh đa
Dearly missing Cát Dài
Waiting for Cát Cụt
When poet Nguyễn Thụy Kha, a Hải Phòng native, penned these verses, he was speaking for all the people of the port city who never fail to get nostalgic for this particular dish when they are away from home.
The canh bánh đa that the poet wrote about is a noodle soup, but the noodles are very different from what is found elsewhere in the country, and the dish’s flavours are particular to the port city, too.
“Hải Phòng food is in the middle range: not too sour, spicy, salty or sweet. Hải Phòng cooks are not very meticulous in their presentation, like in the royal Huế cuisine, for example; they pay more attention to the freshness of the ingredients, especially seafood and river-food,” said Đào Thị Thanh Mai, a culture and tourism lecturer at a private university in the port town.
“Delicacies of Hải Phòng are often associated with seafood and river-food like fish, crab and shrimp. And bánh đa cua has been the dish that has been attached with the memory of Hải Phòng natives for long.”
The dish features bánh đa (locally-made flat rice noodle), crab meat, pork bones-based broth and vegetables. It is the city’s pride, just as phở is to Hanoians.
If phở represents the delicateness of Hà Nội cooks and food connoiseurs, bánh đa cua can be said to be an expression and demonstration of traits of people from Hải Phòng – sharp, bold and frank.
Bánh đa cua can be found in any street of the port city and can be had at any time of the day, from dawn to midnight, said Nguyễn Hoài Phương, a resident of the city’s Ngô Quyền Street.
“I still remember the early mornings when I walked to school with my friends or the wintery evenings when I sat in a street-food stall, breathing in the aroma of fried minced dried onions and watching smoke swirl from the broth of bánh đa cua .
“As far as I am concerned, a Hải Phòng woman is one who knows how to cook a bowl of bánh đa cua. It is easy and always satisfies. A full bowl can have mọc (pork ball) or chả lá lốt (fried minced pork wrapped in lá lốt leaves), or chả cá (fried minced fish). But to keep it simple, they just need to put the brown noodle in broth with crab meat,” said Phương.
In the old days, Tam Thuật alley off Cát Dài Street was one of the places that had a large number of bánh đa cua sellers.
Everyday from 3 to 4am, when the night lights were still on, residents could hear the familiar sound of crab meat being pounded with a mortar and pestle, said Trần Thị Bính, a Hải Phòng native.
Some home cooks still use a mortar and pestle instead of using a blender to pound the crabs when making the noodle soup, and they swear by the superior taste it imparts.
Then there are those who will use only the water spinach grown in the Đồ Sơn area, which is best known for its crunchy taste.
Bánh đa cua now is available in different regions of Việt Nam, but natives and many others claim that it is only in Hải Phòng that one gets the must authentic taste of this specialty. They say that the locally made rice noodles make a difference, and the difference makes this dish specific to Hải Phòng.
Hải Phòng has three villages – Lạng Côn, Hỗ and Dư Hàng Kênh – that have a 700-year history of making this noodle.
Hải Phòng’s bánh đa strip, white or dark brown, is wider than the normal noodle, carries a strong fragrance of rice and has a chewy taste. To make bánh đa cua, Hải Phòng people will use fresh bánh đa, dipping in hot water and then putting it in the broth. Cooks in other regions use dry bánh đa instead and soak it in cool water for several minutes before putting it in the broth.
No discussion of any crab dish in the country is complete without mentioning the crab broth.
The broth is not particular to any locality, and it has its roots in rural areas, but it has gone from humble beginnings to receive royal approval.
“When I was small, life was very difficult. Those that had corn and sweet potato for their daily meal were considered wealthy. Most families experienced hunger, and meat was an unaffordable luxury. My friends and I would go often to the rice fields and catch crabs to supplement our meager meals,” said Nguyễn Văn Thành of Nam Định Province.
“Being away from my rural hometown for a long time, crab broth is the thing that I always miss the most. For me, it is linked to my childhood, my mother, the best cook, and the countryside,” Thành said.
It is said that King Lê Hiến Tông (1461-1504) once visited his master teacher, Nguyễn Bảo, in Châu Khê village, Hải Dương Province. The teacher invited his royal student to have a meal with him. It was simple fare with crab broth made in a rural kitchen, something that could not be found in the palace. The king told his teacher the crab broth was more tasty than any other dish.
Later, the king missed the broth, and locals began offering crabs to the royal palace. Since then, there is a folk saying that goes:
Canh cua nấu cải thêm gừng
Xưa nay vua chúa đã từng khen ngon
Crab broth cooked with canola and ginger
Has for long been praised by the king.
These days, even after considerable improvements in living standards, crab broth remains a favourite for many. It is cooked with many different vegetables including rau ngót (star gooseberry), rau cải (canola), bầu (gourd) or hoa thiên lý (cowslip creeper flowers). — VNS
Bánh đa cua can be found at:
26 Kỳ Đồng Street
124 Nguyễn Đức Cảnh Street
60 Lương Khánh Thiện Street
57 Cầu Đất Street
135 Lam Sơn Street
111 Triệu Việt Vương Street
8 Hàng Đồng Street
59A Phùng Hưng Street
87 Lý Thường Kiệt Street