by Ha Nguyen
For many native Hanoians, no breakfast can compare to pho ( noodle soup). Served everywhere from markets to street corners, pho can be found in any place that has enough room for a street vendor to set up a stall.
Tran Thi Thanh in Dong Da's Trung Hoa Nhan Chinh New Urban Area is a self-described pho addict. When she heard that producers put formaldehyde in the noodles to soften them, she got very upset and stopped eating pho for several days.
"But on the third day I couldn't ignore my craving for the dish. I missed the taste of beef and the flavour of ginger and chillies," said Thanh. Now, she has resumed eating pho on downtown Ha Noi's Cau Go Street before going to work.
Cau Go's broth is light and sweet, she said, and the portions are ample compared with others.
Even when she has to stand to eat pho because the street stall is too crowded, she enjoys the dish very much.
As can be seen from Thanh's case, Hanoians have strong allegiances to their local pho shops. Government employee Nguyen Bich Ngoc in Ha Noi's Hai Ba Trung Street likes to eat her morning meal at Pho Thin.
"I like the pho tai (noodles served with half-cooked beef) at Thin's shop very much. The beef is stir-fried quickly over high heat, giving off a delicious smell. The big bowl of pho here is perfect for when you're so hungry you feel like you could eat a horse," said Ngoc.
It's not an instant satisfaction. When you arrive at the shop at 7 or 8am, you have to wait at least 10-15 minutes for your pho. And after eating, diners often get quite sweaty, particularly in summer. But faithful pho fans will endure all this just to get their daily bowl.
Besides the city's most famous establishments - Pho Thin, Pho Ly Quoc Su, Pho Bat Dan - the Pho Nam Dinh chain from the northern province of the same name also attracts many diners due to its low prices.
Pho is not the only breakfast food Ha Noi is famous for. Others include bun rieu (rice vermicelli in a sour tomato-crab broth), bun oc (vermicelli and snail soup), xoi xeo (steamed glutinous rice with green beans, fat and fried onions), xoi ngo (steamed glutinous rice with boiled maize), banh cuon (steamed rice rolls with pork and woodear mushrooms) and banh gio (pyramidal rice dumplings filled with pork, onions and mushrooms).
There are also various styles of dining. Some people like to perch on small stools on the pavement to eat bun for breakfast, while others prefer to buy VND5,000-7,000 of xoi (glutinous rice) in a takeout box.
My friend Le Hang said she likes to eat bun mang vit (bamboo shoot soup with duck meat) on a corner of Ngo Quyen Street usually crowded with diners despite a city ban on occupying the pavement.
The stall owner has to constantly look out for local traffic wardens, telling diners that they should help her to watch out so they don't come to punish her.
"Eating breakfast on pavement is enjoyable not only for the delicious dishes, but also the fresh early morning air and peaceful street," Hang said.
Yet Hanoians are increasingly forsaking the traditional style of eating on the street to eat xoi ga (glutinous rice with chicken) or bun thang (noodles in chicken broth) in large shops.
As they leave tradition behind, many people forget how foods are meant to taste. I saw one woman order a bowl of pho with pig heart, lean pork paste and a hodgepodge of other ingredients.
Looking at her bowl of pho, I felt like she wanted to show off her richness and status as a connoisseur of fine food and drink. But her bowl of soup is not authentically Hanoian.
During the country's subsidy period almost all families in Ha Noi used to cook breakfast on an oil stove or a charcoal oven. All the family members ate the meal before going to school or to work.
I still remember that my mother-in-law woke up early in the morning to cook both breakfast and lunch at the same time to save energy.
"Eating breakfast at home saves a certain amount of money, but more importantly it is hygienic and ensures the family eats a nutritious meal," she said.
During my childhood in the 1960s, my father often cooked us com rang (stir-fried rice) with pork fat and fish sauce. Sometimes he added a chicken egg to the rice, turning it yellow and deliciously buttery. At that time we all felt very happy and thought that we would never forget the dish.
Sometimes my mother gave us VND2,000 to buy a small pack of green bean glutinous rice wrapped in banana leaves from elderly Hoang Ngoan near my home.
Although Ngoan has passed away, the variety of delicious xoi she sold is now prepared by her daughter Nguyen Thi Nghia.
Nghia said thanks to her mother's fame, her xoi sells very well every morning even on rainy or stormy days. — VNS