Viet Nam News
by Hà Nguyễn
An unusual feature of Vietnamese cuisine is the ownership that people – chefs, restaurant owners, gourmets or just the “common man” – display for a dish, and the stories that they are prepared to share.
These stories may or may not overlap, and may even contradict each other, but they never fail to add some spice to the dish that is already tickling our palate.
In that spirit, meet 70-year-old Hoàng Thị Xuân, a sprightly senior from the erstwhile village of Ngũ Xã in Hà Nội, who used to sell noodle soup before one eventful night, many years ago, when necessity mothered an invention.
That night, she was about to close her noodle soup shop when a group of men came in and requested a bowl of phở each.
“I was very confused, because the men were regular and close customers. I wanted to say sorry, because it was too late and that I had run out of the broth. All I had was some uncut rice noodles and boiled beef.
“But, seeing that the men were really hungry, I decided to improvise. I wrapped the rice noodles with beef and dill and made a dipping sauce with vinegar, fish sauce, garlic and chilli, which are always there in the shop.
“To my great surprise, my customers heaped praise on me, saying the dish was so good that they would return for I the next night after watching a World Cup football match.”
Since then, Xuân said, she began making phở cuốn, which sold so well that she stopped selling noodle soup.
There may be a similar story about yet another dish that the capital city has become famous for, phở chua (sour noodle), but we can be confident one will emerge sooner or later.
These two dishes have become star attractions in their own right, giving company to the exalted, iconic phở (noodle soup) that the capital city is justly famous for.
Ngũ Xã, located near the Trúc Bạch Lake, was once a craft village dedicated to bronze casting, but its current claim to fame is the phở cuốn street in Hà Nội’s Ba Đình District.
Xuân said that after she stopped selling noodle soup and shifted to her new dish, a dozen neighbours began doing it too, but “we still cannot meet the increasing demand, particularly in summer, because during the hot weather, phở cuốn helps to cool down the heat inside the body”.
She said phở cuốn shops are typically very crowded weekends and late afternoons.
“At these times, all my four workers have to work very hard to serve our customers. Each skilled worker can wrap 30-40 phở cuốn in two minutes.
“I have to choose quality rice from Nam Định Province’s Hải Hậu District, get organic beef from a farm in Ba Vì and use clean fresh vegetables like lettuce, coriander and Láng basil so that the customer gets safe, tasty food.”
Xuân also said that the rice noodle sheets used must be made as thin as possible, and be a bit crispy to the same time to ensure that the roll is not shrivelled.
Hồ Thị Tỵ of Nghệ An recalled the first time she was in Hà Nội: “It was the first time I had phở cuốn. I cannot describe how tasty it was! The phở was thin, the beef fatty and soft and delicious while the dill, the Láng basil and cilantro added their own flavours and fragrances. I ate a lot, but could not have enough.
“I’ve also got the recipe, so I can make it at home. I’m surely that my family, including my grandparents, will love it.”
Phở chua (sour noodles) is said to have originated in the northern province of Lạng Sơn. The credit for bringing the tasty, aromatic dish to the capital city several decades ago is claimed by Tô Văn Định, a native of Lạng Sơn Town.
Định says the dish came into being a very long time ago in his native place. His mother sold it at the Kỳ Lừa Market there.
“All my five family members joined mother in cooking the dish because it has many ingredients and the cooking is a complicated process, such as making the rice noodles.”
The dish comprises rice noodles, fried sweet potato, roasted pork, fried ground nuts, carrots and cucumber. Preparing all these is a lot of work, Định said.
But, he added, the key to this dish being tasty or not is the sauce, a mix of tamarind juice, garlic, chili, honey and several other ingredientss.
“The dish gets much more enjoyable when diners toss the sauce well with the phở,” said Định.
Herbalist Nguyễn Văn Viện of the Hà Nội Hospital of Traditional Medicine, said phở chua helps people with digestion and reduces hypertension. It is very good dish to have in summer, and a bowl of phở chua is rich in protein and different vitamins, he said.
Định recalled that his two younger brothers would not anything except phở chua when growing up. “They would resist and reject everything else, but not the aroma of this dish.” — VNS