A full bowl of bún quậy will have fish cakes, shrimps, squids, beef mixed with onions, peppers and sauce that creates a wonderful flavour. — VNS Photo Thu Hà
Hoàng Hồ and Thu Hà
I never imagined in my wildest dreams that I would be unable to satisfy my cravings for Vietnamese food in my home country.
Normally, if you want a bowl of phở (noodle soup), you just have to go out and get it, simple as that.
But the COVID-19 pandemic has changed everything, even the most basic things like eating outside.
Restaurants have closed down, leaving the only way order online, which for me pales in comparison to eating out.
Stuck inside, counting the days to finally say goodbye to the pandemic, I was thinking about all the food that I’d have savoured if it hadn’t been for these days of isolation.
My imagination has gone quite far, more than 1,700km to the southwest of the country, where having one of the most unique restaurants, which serves bún quậy (vermicelli with fish cake, shrimp cake, squid and beef).
In Phú Quốc, one of the most, if not the most beautiful island in Việt Nam, the restaurant Kiến Xây makes hundreds of vermicelli bowls per day, and they are widely recognised as a perfect combination of the country’s greatest resources: sea and land.
Diners have to be their own sauce bartender. — VNS Photo Hồ Hoàng
I may have last eaten it a long time ago, but the one-of-the-kind flavour is still wandering through my mind, making my mouth water.
The mixture of fresh fish cakes, shrimp and squid blended with onions, peppers and vermicelli is so wonderful that you can sense the richness of Việt Nam’s fisheries and agriculture in just one bowl.
“If you’re thinking of having a delicious bowl of vermicelli served right to your table, it’s not going to happen here,” said Lưu Thu Hà, my companion in the trip to Kiến Xây restaurant who has been to Phú Quốc many times and is a true fan of bún quậy.
Each bowl of bún quậy costs VNĐ50,000 at Bún Quậy Kiến Xây restaurant located at 28 Bạch Đằng Road, Dương Đông Town, Phú Quốc District, Kiên Giang Province.
'Quậy' In Vietnamese means 'stir', but it also means 'breaking the rules'. It's easy to understand the meaning behind its name.
Just like Hà said, no one will bring it to you beside yourself.
Finding a seat and waiting for the bell to ring are things most diners would do, but if you stand at the cooking counter which is right inside the entrance, you might thoroughly understand more about the word 'quậy'.
Waiting at the cooking counter, you can see your dish being prepared. — VNS Photo Hồ Hoàng
Since 1995, following the footsteps of the Kiến Xây’s founders from the centre of Việt Nam, bún quậy made its first mark in Phú Quốc at VNĐ2,000 per bowl.
About 25 years later, so many things have changed, the price has rocketed to VNĐ50,000, but the quality is still fantastic.
Perhaps it comes from their making diners serve themselves, allowing them to observe the cooking process, a major difference between Kiến Xây and other restaurants, or even between bún quậy and its ancestor Bình Định bún nước (water vermicelli).
That was the first time I had witnessed vermicelli being made from rice flour, pureed, swirled into chunks and pressed into noodles and then go straight to boiled broth. It was completely different from any other restaurant in which the noodles are already cooked.
After the vermicelli, all the main ingredients, including fish cake, shrimp cake, squid and beef, which have to be raw and fresh, are carefully pounded and mixed with spices.
Mixing the vermicelli with one-third of the sauce will boost the taste to another level. — VNS Photo Hồ Hoàng
This is when it gets 'quậy', after being pounded, everything is stirred and blended in the bowl. Seconds later, the whole bowl will be flooded with broth from the vermicelli, making the seafood deliciously cooked.
Last but not least, chopped onions and pepper are put on top as a decoration, not only to make it look good, but it also plays an important role in stimulating your tastebuds.
“Not so fast! It isn’t the final step yet, if you forget about the sauce, it will never be completed," Hà reminded me, pointing her finger to the sauce making counter, where kumquats, salt, sugar, pepper and chilli were neatly placed in trays, waiting to be mixed to create an indispensable element of the dish.
“After having the sauce, here comes the final step: put one-third of the sauce bowl into your vermicelli and stir it evenly. That’s when you’re ready to taste the food with maximum sensation."
Following a connoisseur's guide is always the right decision.
The broth, after being enriched by the seafood and spices, combined with the sweet, salty, sour and spicy of the sauce, created an amazing flavour and aroma.
The ingredients by themselves, with fresh fish, shrimp and squid from Phú Quốc’s ocean, spices grown in the backyard of the restaurant and vermicelli made from the highest quality rice, were wonderful.
Just thinking the dish makes me want to book a flight to Phú Quốc.
If I had to make a list of what food I can’t wait to have again after this pandemic, bún quậy is definitely near the top. — VNS
Vermicelli coming directly from machine is one unique thing about Kiến Xây Restaurant. (Bún Quậy Phú Quốc). — VNS Photo Hồ Hoàng