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Restaurant recalls the tough old days

Update: September, 02/2012 - 14:53

 

Step back in time: The restaurant is fitted out as if it is a small museum of 1976-86 period with various objects once common in people's lives. — VNS Photos Le Huong
Plain and simple: A typical simple of bean curd, soup and pickled eggplant. Notice the army-ration tin pannikin.
Once popular: A table in the restaurant uses the frame of an old Singer sewing machine, which was popular in Vietnamese families at the time.

Cua Hang Mau Dich So 37 ("State-run" Food Shop No 37)

Add: 37 Nam Trang Street, Truc Bach Ward, Ba Dinh District

Tel: 04 37 154 336

Hours: 10am-10pm

Price: VND500,000 for a set menu of a typical meal for 6 people

Comment: Simple, hygienic Vietnamese food served in an impressively designed place. A good place for the old to remember the difficult era and the youth to understand a historic period, though the dishes are not all delicious.

A new restaurant in Ha Noi harks back to the tough old days when people had to queue for everything, including a simple meal of steamed rice and sweet potatoes. Le Huong reports.Taking a piece of fried tofu served with fish sauce and green onion with a pair of bamboo chopsticks, listening to sentimental songs from an old radio hung on the rough brick wall, 68-year-old Nguyen Duc Thien enjoys a simple meal with his wife at a restaurant that has the state-subsidised era as its theme.

A range of familiar objects that were popular in any Vietnamese family during the 1976-86 post-war period were hanging on the wall: a rusty bike, some conical hats, some worn out rubber sandals and even some bricks with names on them. These bricks were used to mind a person's spot in a queue, and queuing for food or fuel was a common practice during this difficult era. Some boxes inside the wall contained samples of food coupons, money and chipped metal bowls to decorate the room, which was lit by a faint yellow light with an enamel metal lampshade.

The waiters and waitresses here are in the uniform of sellers at state-owned shops of the time. They note down customers' orders in pieces of paper like food stamps used during the time.

"Everything here, even the food recalls the difficult time when the economy was under state-subsidy ["thoi bao cap" in Vietnamese]," said Thien in a low trembling voice. "At that time we, as any other Vietnamese family, had a subsistence salary, shared the same lack of food and poor living conditions but held the same optimism and patriotism as well as enthusiasm to maintain socialism."

"We could hardly make ends meet to raise up two children. That's why I had to earn some extra money after office hours by working at a sewing machine, trademarked Singer, like this one," Thien's wife, Mai Loan, added, pointing to the lower part of a Singer sewing machine used as the legs of the rustic wooden table they are sitting at.

"It's a great idea to set up a state-subsidy-era-themed restaurant," she said. "This is an ideal place for old people like us to remember the past as well as young people, who were born after the hard time, to find out about how their parents lived."

Some popular mottoes of the war time are also on the wall like "Stand in queue, don't break the rule!" or "Don't speak out secrets!" and these messages certainly amuse the youth.

"I remember queuing up from 3am to buy food, which was paid for by stamps distributed by the government," Thien said. "My grandchildren now cannot imagine that each government worker could only buy 4m of cloth per year and 300g of meat per month... It's like a fiction story."

The restaurant is the brain-child of 50-something Pham Quang Minh, whose memories of a hard childhood during the early 1980s run so deep that he had long considered setting up a restaurant that harks back to the era.

He asked for help from all his acquaintances to collect objects from the time. Many people laughed at his "crazy" idea while a few people encouraged him by contributing old objects they had kept for dozens of years.

His friends, including painters Quach Dong Phuong and Le Thiet Cuong, were especially helpful in gathering objects used in the state-subsidised period.

The menu lists the most popular dishes of the time, such as com don khoai (steamed rice with sweet potato, as at that time rice was in short supply and had to be supplemented with other starchy food such as sweet potatoes and peralballey), dua xao top mo (pickled cabbage stir-fried with pork fat residue) and ca kho kho (stewed, salted and sun-baked fish).

"We didn't have many difficulties with preparing the ingredients for the dishes of the time," said Dao Ha Linh, manager of the restaurant. "However, our cooks know exactly what kind of ingredients we should have. For example, for the special top mo, we ask butchers to spare us the fat from the cheeks of the pig rather than from the belly so that the fat can taste soft even after being heated for use as an oil."

A cook at the restaurant did admit that serving simple food from the time can be a little challenging, as the dishes still have to be authentic but also delicious enough to please customers.

"Tasting the fish sauce, I know they have made the right choice, as the sauce is not as rich in nutrition as the one that is popular now, it's simple and tastes exactly like the one I remember in the past," said customer Nguyen Vu Anh.

A small space in a quiet lane near Truc Bach Lake, the restaurant is a romantic return to a difficult time.

"It's completely different from the hustle and bustle outside," said 23-year-old Dang Tuyet Anh. "I experienced how simple food tastes from a metal bowl, and a sudden power cut during the meal like the ones my mom mentions in her stories was also memorable."

However, in the first few weeks after its official opening, the restaurant really was like food shops run by the State in early 1980s for many "unlucky" customers.

Le Tuyet Ha and her friends came to the restaurant twice but could not even enter. The first time was because they did not call before to book a table. The second time they had called before but were late by just a few minutes.

A member of the staff came out to ‘criticise' her: "Why do you come late? We have no free tables anymore!" — VNS

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