Chef goes to great lengths for authentic taste

Update: February, 07/2016 - 13:08
Ambiance: A corner of Ngon Pho Restaurant, which serves hundreds of traditional dishes from Viet Nam's three regions.

Nguyen Phuong Hai is a culinary expert of the Quan An Ngon chain including Ngon Pho (Food Street) at Aeon Shopping Mall in Ha Noi's 27 Co Linh, Long Bien District.

He is trying to preserve traditional Vietnamese dishes. He talked with Viet Nam News about his job and his secrets of preservation.

What are main dishes of Ngon Pho?

On arriving in Ngon Pho, local and foreign visitors will have a chance to enjoy traditional dishes from the country's three regions, which would make you feel as if you are enjoying the real dish that you had eaten earlier from those regions.

For example, eating banh khoai, banh tom or banh hoi you could recognise that you are enjoying Vietnamese crepe of Hue, deep fried crispy shrimp cake of the West Lake in Ha Noi, and southern fine rice noodles with grilled pork of Can Tho.

Diverse flavours: Chef Hai (centre) guides diners on how to wrap banh chung (square cake). Hai's main courses: bun cha, a well-known dish both in Viet Nam and abroad, and his special dish banh gac, which has received much praise. — Photos courtesy of Ngon Pho

At Ngon Pho, we have hundreds of dishes from our northern, central and southern regions for you to savour. These include lotus root salad with pork and shrimps, or green mango salad with seafood; grilled beef in wild betel leaves or Vietnamese traditional steak with eggs; grilled bacon with fermented rice and galingate; and steamed tiger prawns with lemon grass and sauteed tiger prawns with tamarind sauce, and many others.

Despite Vietnamese food, which is available anywhere in the city, eaters still rush to Ngon Pho ? What is your secret?

Our aim is to try and preserve our Vietnamese traditional dishes and its authentic tastes for eaters to savour and enjoy.

Apart from using fresh and quality food, we have to carefully choose real spices which have the specific characteristics of each region. For example, when we cook bun bo Hue, we have to order real and quality mam ruoc (shrimp paste) from Hue's prestigious makers.

Mini food street: A stand serves authentic Hue dishes from the centre's most famous Dong Ba Market at Ngon Pho Restaurant in Ha Noi.

Another example is that we have to travel far distances to the northern provinces of Son La and Lai Chau to find manh cong (a kind of wild leaf to dye our foods for traditional party anniversaries such as Tet), instead of using artificial colouring which could cause food poisoning.

The elders in these provinces said the leaves were nearly extinct, but we still tried to find them. Our efforts finally paid off. After two weeks of searching, we found several plants in a deep valley and brought the plants home to grow in our garden.

Thank God, the leaves remained unchanged compared to their origins.

Could you introduce our readers to your main dishes?

My main dishes are bun cha (vermicelli with grilled pork), which the National Geographic magazine listed as one of the ten most famous dishes in the world, and the banh gac (momordica cochinchinensisor) cake.

It is said that you have made tireless efforts to preserve the traditional Vietnamese dishes. Who inspired you the most?

Our Phuc Hung Thinh Company chairwoman Pham Thi Bich Hanh, who is a founder of Quan An Ngon chain, has inspired me the most.

Steaming hot: Lau bong, a kind of hotpot that includes 15 sorts of flowers and vegetables collected from the country's three regions, is a favourite dish of both locals and foreigners.

Although she is very busy being a CEO, she still spends most of her time travelling throughout the country to taste, cook and learn about traditional dishes and how to preserve them.

She has never compromised with a chef when it comes to cooking. She told us to completely follow original recipes of a dish.

I have learnt a lot from her and admire her tireless efforts in preserving Vietnamese traditional dishes. She deserves to be the culinary ambassador of Viet Nam, as CNN called her. — VNS