Phat Loc Lane in the east of Ha Noi’s Old Quarter is famous for its fragrant bun dau mam tom (fresh rice vermicelli, tofu and shrimp paste) – particularly Trung Huong Shop, Nguyen Thanh Ha reports.
When we arrived at the shop at 11am recently, it was already crowded with customers, including some foreigners. The special smell of shrimp paste and fried tofu attracted us.
We had to wait about 15 minutes. At our table, a server brought us a tray containing a dish of fresh rice vermicelli, a dish of fried tofu and two small bowls of shrimp paste with lemon, chilli and a spoonful of cooking oil. Each tray cost about VND25,000 (more than US$1).
Different from others, the white vermicelli here is formed into small coils, called con bun, with small and soft threads. The tofu is well fried, leaving it crispy outside but hot, soft, fatty and having a buttery taste, while the shrimp paste is delicious and sweet.
The dish is particularly enjoyable with basil, coming from the well-known Lang Village, along with perilla, marijoram, cucumber and other ingredients.
Regarding her secrets, Huong said she ordered vermicelli from Phu Do Village in Ha Noi’s Tu Liem District, tofu from Mo Village, and shrimp paste from the central province of Thanh Hoa.
She recalled a story when, more than 20 years ago, her family was very poor. She was struggling with many difficulties, as she had a newborn to feed. Huong had to think hard about how to earn a living. Finally, she made bun dau mam tom and peddled it along street pavements.
” Despite my efforts, the food didn’t sell well at that time because, after the wars, Hanoians didn’t like to eat shrimp paste, but liked pork and fish,” Huong recalled, adding that she continued carrying the food to sell around the Old Quarter streets.
|Traditional dishes: Bun dau mam tom, bun thang (centre) and bun oc are aromatic dishes available in Ha Noi’s Old Quarter. — VNS Photos Doan Tung.|
After decades, she saved enough money and bought a house at 49 Phat Loc Lane of Hang Bac Street, from where she could continue selling food.
” I always try to improve my food and often survey my customers about the quality of my food,” said Huong, adding that word about her good food had spread far.
As a result, she gained more customers, resulting in her needing to acquire two more nearby shops to sell her food.
A customer named Nguyen Thanh Hang, 45, in Ha Noi’s Hai Ba Trung District, was seated next to our table. She said that she was addicted to Huong’s food because of its unique flavour.
Despite being very busy, Huong continues making shrimp paste sauce herself, because “it is the soul of the food”.
Huong has a stand at Quan An Ngon which is famous in Viet Nam, and throughout the world, for traditional dishes.
I introduced the shop to my friends. They said they prefer bun oc (rice vermicelli with fresh water snails), which can be found throughout the city, though they thought it was most tasty and delicious at 25 Hang Chai Street also in the Old Quarter.
Bun dau mam tom Trung Huong: 49 Phat Loc Lane, Hang Bac St
Bun oc: Co Them, 25 Hang Chai Str
Bun thang: 33 Hang Hom Str
Prices: VND30,000- 45,000
Comments: Tasty, delicious and varying combinations of ingredients that you will never forget.
Last weekend, cold temperature increased our cravings for a hot bun oc bowl. We headed to the shop, which is not large, though, as always, many customers were there.
Seeing the crowded dining room, I intended to give up my trip here, but the fragrant smells of the sour, peppery and pure broth flavour was so aromatic that I told myself to be patient.
The shop owner, Nguyen Thi Them, 52, who has been selling the food more than 30 years, gave me a bowl of hot bun oc, which was very attractive to my eyes, with fatty snails, tomatoes, onions, perilla and violet shrimp paste.
I started with a spoonful of broth, and experienced the hot flavour of chilli, sour and fragrant wine vinegar, along with sweet shrimp paste.
It was so tasty and delicious that I ate it all.
Her bun oc does not include fried tofu and other ingredients, as others do, but only large and small edible snails.
The technique of boiling snails should be well done to keep its crispy, but not tough, said Them, adding that there is no grit in her boiled bun oc.
She also told us that the snails have to be kept in clean fresh water for about ten hours before being boiled for serving, to allow sufficient time for the snails to release any organic matter from their shells. The soup for the dish is made from the water in which the snails have been boiled.
Each bowl of bun oc costs VND30,000-35,000.
“My bun oc really sells well after Tet, when people are so filled with heavy foods, such as square glutinous cake and meat,” said Them.
Apart from these foods, many people prefer bun thang or vermicelli with chicken, fried eggs and lean pork.
There are many bun thang shops in the city, but the most delicious one is at 33 Hang Hom Street.
Early this week, I pedaled there to try it.
The shop owner, Nguyen Thi Cam, 55, an original Hanoian, said her technique for making the food have been handed down to her from her grandmother.
Cam said bun thang could not be sold on the pavement, because it is ‘noble’, high quality and a ‘luxurious’ food made by a cook who has skilled hands, a fussy disposition and who must be thoughtful.
I couldn’t wait, when a server delivered me a bowl that include thin fried eggs and lean pork paste threads, chicken torn to pieces (not cut), salted shredded shrimp, field mushrooms and dried turnip pickle.
Cam told me that a good bun thang bowl should never be lacking in Vietnamese coriander.
“It could be more enjoyable if you put some shrimp paste into the bowl,” she said, while using a toothpick to take out a drop of belostomatid essence and placing it into my bowl, which made the bun thang more fragrant and tasty.
A bowl is VND35,000- 45,000.
I don’t know who was the first Vietnamese to think of putting the belostomatid essence into the bowl, which made millions of eaters inside and outside the country, including me, become ecstatic.
I enjoyed the food and all of its 20 ingredients, which Cam said she had carefully chosen and ordered from organic farms in Da Lat and Cao Bang.
But I still have no words to describe how this was the quintessence of such food.