Viet Nam News
As a former student at Lê Ngọc Hân Primary School, I look back on good memories every time I pass the old Lò Đúc Street of Hà Nội.
I spent five years studying and getting acquainted with the places and the people living nearby, including many of my friends. So whenever I pass by and see students lining up neatly in a queue and preparing to cross the road with the guidance of their teacher, I feel like I’ve gone back in time.
The thing I love about the area around Lò Đúc Street is that things don’t change much. There’s still many shops that remain the same as they were when I studied there 12 years ago. The “Phở Thìn” restaurant at 13 Lò Đúc, the traditional Thái Nguyên tea at 16 Lò Đúc, even the “Bún chả Hương Liên” (or Bún Chả Obama) at 24 Lê Văn Hưu nearby has been there since 1993. Everything seems to retain its old beauty.
But for a nostalgic person like me, and in this cool but good-tempered weather of autumn, the most wonderful place is a bánh đúc (Vietnamese salted rice flour cake) shop nearby at Lane 8B Lê Ngọc Hân Street. My father and I used to eat there after school every winter. The place today brings me so much emotion every time I pass by.
Local favourite: Nội and her well-decorated kitchen are ready to serve hundreds of eaters a day.
The shop called “Bánh Đúc Nóng Bà Nội”, or Nội’s Hot Bánh Đúc, is considered among the most famous of the area’s long-standing eateries, serving Hanoians for more than 30 years.
The dish is described by Vietnamese gastronome and famous writer Vũ Bằng as having “the cool taste typical of the east – deep and gentle without any garishness and noisiness” in his book entitled The Tasty Dishes of Hà Nội.
There is no other better explanation for this pleasant snack than that from the legendary Vũ Bằng. Almost every Bánh Đúc shop in the capital, including Bánh Đúc Bà Nội, is really simple, cozy with a small and warm space. Most of them look very old and that’s one reason they often trigger such nostalgia.
Placed inside a very small lane (Lane 8B) of Lê Ngọc Hân Street, customers have to park outside and walk a little bit to get a seat in the shop, and it can be crowded during peak times.
Of course, the recipe is as simple and gentle as Vũ Bằng described, but a perfect combination of delicious ingredients.
The ingredients are chosen carefully by Nội – from rice, pork, black fungus, dried onion, herbs and fried tofu with the trademark sour, salty and sweet flavour balance, all together creates a wonderful combination inside a hot bowl.
The initial steps involve several meticulous processes, from making the rice cake with oil and tapioca starch and forming the steamed rice flour into the right shape, to carefully grinding the pork and mixing it with black fungus. Mix them all together with dried onion and herbs, and a complete bowl is ready to serve.
The master at work: Nội and her fragrant hot bánh đúc pot.
The amazing part of this bowl is that, when I taste the first bite, it was just like I remembered from 12 years ago. The oily rice cake is so rich, warm and flexible and the mix of ground pork and black fungus delivers a unique pleasant taste. Each bowl consists of three pieces of tofu, fried in perfect heat so it’s not too crunchy and still soft inside. If you get a bite that’s too greasy, adding the herbs and dried onion can deliver a refreshing sensation.
According to owner Phạm Thị Nội, her family is a pioneer of serving the dish in the capital with more than 30 years of experience. Before opening the restaurant, making the dish at home was a family tradition.
“My family started making bánh đúc from the very early days, through out several generations until my time. I’ve learned from my grandmother. To tell you whether it is easy or hard is very difficult to say because the recipe of making hot bánh đúc is quite similar at each establishment and quite straightforward, but you can make it unique and better by adjusting certain ingredients. For example, for me three pieces of tofu is enough and my family has our own secret recipe for the sauce,” Nội shares.
“Many of my customers have been eating at this shop since the day they were young. We also welcome guests from other districts, and foreign tourists from many countries come to try the dish at this tiny shop instead of going to other much fancier modern Bánh Đúc shops nowadays, and that’s what makes me feel so proud of our family’s career,” she added.
The shop had to move from its original street-side location to the small lane of Lê Ngọc Hân Street, which led to a decrease in customers. But the reputation of this shop has remained strong and they still serve the delicious hot dish for hundreds of customers every day.
Labour of love: A tasty and delicious bowl of Bánh Đúc, cooked and decorated meticulously by Nội.
“I have been eating the dish at this shop for 20 years now because it is the best in this city. From the early days, when life was still very hard, I still remember there was only rice cake and fried tofu with a little bit of onion, but it was still very good. Now, with the addition of ground pork, black fungus, dried onion and herb, it is even better. I love the way the shop is still standing strong for a long time, it’s like a witness to the development of Hà Nội,” said 50-year-old Nguyễn Mạnh Dũng.
“The price still stays very cheap at VNĐ15,000 for so many years without any changes even though ingredients’ prices have been increasing day by day. As a gastronome, I understand the value of this traditional food and I am totally happy with the way Nội is keeping the cheap price in order to preserve the value of the dish,” said Ngỗ Đức Anh.
Delicious, healthy and cheap food is the key for Nội to attract customers. On the other hand, despite facing difficulties, especially in dealing with the rising price of ingredients, Nội is still trying her best to deliver the finest bánh đúc with an unchanged price.
“I accept the risk to earn just a profit. All of my family members have been involved in the job in order to preserve the value of the dish. It is a traditional and very meaningful food of Vietnamese people. It represents a hard time of the country when people were still struggling and dealing with hunger. Bánh đúc was a very cheap snack for people those days and became a symbol of a simple but wonderful food for poor people. Our family has been operating the shop from that time till now, so we understand the value and still try our best to preserve it,” Nội told me. — VNS