Sunday May 16, 2004
The aromatic fog that wafts like a banner from the soup cauldron and over the customers is the stall's advertisement. The pho vapours are, as one Vietnamese poet puts it, 'like the clouds of incense that make us quicken our steps and climb the mountain in order to arrive at the pagoda'.
You could bottle that incense and drink it. Under the base of meat or fish stock, there are whispers of liquorice, onion and cinnamon, smells with the promise of warmth and comfort. It is the smell of a national obsession. Pho is much more than just breakfast to the north Vietnamese: it is 'the soul of the nation', a 'contribution to human happiness' and an addiction 'worse than tobacco'. (It's also an enduring inspiration to Vietnamese writers.) Pho is a full-on sensual experience - when Vietnamese talk of pho they think of sex. 'We say that rice is a spouse, whereas pho is a lover,' says my friend Huong. When she was an adolescent, during Vietnam's famine years, pho was an unaffordable luxury.
I get up early for my first pho . Though every Hanoi resident has a favourite pho spot, the best advice is to stop at a stall with a large crowd round it. On this principle, by Dong Xuan market in the city's medieval merchant's district, I find Thao Van's portable restaurant. She has set it up on the steps of a shuttered shop, and around her are gathered a dozen customers, each of them sitting on a tiny plastic stool of the sort you might see in a kindergarten. Behind these people others queue patiently for their turn. Nearby are motor-scooters, hovering to deliver takeaways.
The centrepiece of Thao Van's soup stall is two huge, saucer-shaped wicker baskets. She carries this load through the narrow streets on a yoke across her shoulders before dawn every morning. In one basket bubbles the cauldron of stock, over a charcoal-fired stove. A smaller pot within the cauldron holds boiling water. This stove is said to give pho its name - the word is pronounced like feu , the French for fire, and may have come with the French colonialists from coffre-feu , a portable stove. Picnic gear like that is one of the very few good things the French brought to Vietnam. Another is great bread.
In Thao Van's other basket are the accessories, piles of chopped coriander, mint and spring onion; huge hanks of fresh rice noodles, white as marble. In bowls are slivers of beef, two types. There are slices from a hunk of the long-boiled shoulder that bolstered the stock. The other is little shavings of bloody fillet - the word for the raw and tender red beef is tai , which is the same word used rudely for Westerners. (Ordering yourself pho bo tai , raw beef noodle soup, at a street stall is a foolproof way of getting a laugh out of the locals.)
Thao Van squats between the two baskets with a little serving table in front of her. It holds the plastic bowls, china spoons ( pho is never eaten with a metal spoon), and the seasonings: lime chunks, chopped red chilli, ground pepper and a scary looking ketchup of chilli mixed with fermented fish sauce. With all her ingredients and cooking systems ergonomically arranged, stoves at her left elbow, bowls, noodles, meat and herbs to the right, she looks like a jet pilot in the cockpit. From this hot seat she serves up 100 bowls of noodles and broth before 9am, which seems to be about one every two minutes.
I sit on the steps to watch Thao Van in action. Next to me is Mai Hoay, an 81-year-old man busily sluicing his pho through a few black-stained teeth with the help of shots of a clear liquid he keeps in a Fanta bottle by his feet. This is a gullet-searing rice wine, and Mai Hoay is very generous with it. He explains that he enjoys Thao Van's noodle soup so much he has been coming here for 20 years and eating it three times a day. This gets lots of laughs from round the stall: the old man is Thao Van's father and he gets to eat her noodle soup free.
Thao Van is busy with the ambidextrous hand-jive that marks pho production. One arm grabs a fistful of noodles while the other finds a little sieve: the noodles are dunked in the smaller pan of boiling water for five seconds. Then the noodles slide into the bowl. One hand artfully arranges little bouquets of coriander, mint and chopped spring onion on top of the noodles: in Vietnam, even street soup is served to please the eye as well as the stomach. Next into the bowl are some slices of beef: I ask for some of the well-boiled and some of the raw, which the crowd thinks is greedy. And last of all, a great ladleful of the stock from the seething pot that is the real event. Then the bowl is thrust at me with battered wooden chopsticks and a porcelain spoon.
Crouched on a stool, my pho moment has come. It's beautiful. The gentle greens, the pinks and rain-cloud greys in the bowl are the stuff of watercolours. The vapour curls around my face like Vick under a towel. I inhale. There's that same sweet, come-hither smell that drew us to Thao Van's stall from the top of the street. Those Christmas cake flavours again - cinnamon and ginger.
I try a sip of the clear soup. It is shockingly sweet at first - a fizzy drink gone flat in the sun. But then the depths and riches of the flavour come through - down to the oaky, beef-stock base. Much subtler and more complex than the alcohol-heavy guay tieow noodle soups of Thailand and southern China. I dig with my chopsticks and come up with a tangle of noodles, a sliver of the raw beef that has poached itself just enough in the stock to go pearl-coloured, a crunchy shoot of spring onion. It is very good indeed. For the next bite I shake in a bit of chopped chilli and a squeeze of lime to give some edge to the sweetness and very soon I am looking at the bottom of the bowl. Mai Hoay applauds - you're supposed to eat fast. In five minutes the noodles become waterlogged and lose their texture - and he offers me another teacup of rice wine to celebrate.
Trying to get to the secrets of this fabulous breakfast is harder than eating it. Thao Van is busy and just a touch hesitant to reveal the mysteries before the crowd. Cow bone and beef bone go into the stock, she tells me (there is some a debate on the difference between these), ginger, cinnamon, cardamom and star anise accounting for that liquorice smell. Each day when Thao Van gets home around lunchtime she starts boiling the following day's stock - it needs at least 14 hours to brew.
The only question that's clearly answered is about those dwarf-sized stools. Why are they so small? 'That's so we can run away from the police quickly.' Street pho is outlawed in modern Vietnam, which of course makes it all the more pleasurable. 'They're guerrilla restaurants,' says Chau, who is translating. 'We Vietnamese, you know, we're famous for these tactics - a small unit, highly mobile, makes an impact and then moves out fast.'
The portable restaurants are now only illegal because they breach street-tidiness rules. Previously the police hounded the street vendors because they were capitalists. All restaurants were banned, as was all private enterprise, after 1954, when Ho Chi Minh and the Communist party took over. It was not until the late Eighties when the communist leadership began doi moi , Vietnam's own process of perestroika , that restaurants were officially permitted again.
Illicit pho stalls survived, though the soup became a luxury, even when food shortages meant the stock might be made from no more than tiny river crabs, the garnish the ground up shells and legs. Huong remembers the first time she tasted pho . It was in 1981, during what people call 'the hungry time', when the wars and the communists' policy of collectivising the farms had devastated the food supply. Aged 16, Huong had been selected for a scholarship in the Soviet Union. At the time her diet was rice, fish sauce and a yellow starch, said to be a feed for pigs donated by countries in Eastern Europe. She weighed only 33 kilos. Huong's mother decided she needed fattening up before she went off to Russia - so she invested in pho .
'It must have cost her five dong. She was a teacher, so that would have been more than her daily wage. It was a delicious luxury, an extraordinary thing. You cannot understand how hungry we were. When I arrived in Leningrad I had a room near the kitchens. And my first morning, I smelt butter frying. It smelt like happiness.'
Chau, similarly, could rarely afford to eat at the pho stalls of his youth: 'You've just eaten more beef than I would see in six months,' he tells me after our pho breakfast. He remembers a day during the famine years that his mother got hold of two eggs. She boiled them, shelled them and mixed them up with fish sauce. Then she shared them among the nine people of the household. 'Everything I eat now - eggs, peanuts, sugar - is precious,' says Chau.
Embarrassingly, this talk makes me feel more hungry than guilty. So Chau and I walk through the mad buzz of commuting mopeds to another street in the old city for the third of this day's breakfasts. On Hang Buom, among shop windows full of the gleaming reds and golds of Vietnamese lacquerware, we find a cupboard-sized café famous for its banh cuon nong . These are little rice flour crêpes , served hot and stuffed with pork, mushrooms, onion and coriander. The banh cuon are beautiful things, pale like altar candles among the dark green herbs that come with them. Tiny yellow fried onion chips are scattered on top.
The stallholder is another multi-tasker, rolling the crêpes and their stuffing with one hand while using the other to coax new sheets of wet rice paper off a steamer with a long chopstick. I ask her if I can have some stag beetle testosterone on my banh cuon . This takes a little translating, but eventually a tiny glass vial is produced, and a single drop of clear, oily liquid, ca cuong , from the belostomatid beetle is deposited on my pork rolls. My head instantly fills with an intense smell, indistinguishable from nail varnish. Which may be what it is, but the flavours of the banh cuon are greatly enhanced, as though someone has turned up the volume.
This is enough. Chau and I go for coffee. We have been breakfasting for three hours. Good Vietnamese coffee is probably the best you can get, east of the Mediterranean. The French colonialists had a catastrophic time in Indochina, their principal legacy being nearly 50 years of famine and war. But Hanoi retains a few happy mementos: glorious boulevards, the notion of sautéing, artichokes, baguettes and great coffee.
Thus the Vietnamese for coffee is ca pho (rather as the street steak and frîtes stalls - which are excellent - are called bit tek , after 'beefsteak'). The burnt chocolatey roast of Vietnamese Arabica is delicious, a brain-joltingly strong brew. We drink it in the smallest coffee house I've ever seen - a place on the silk-vendors street, Hang Gai, as wide as its doors. It holds 18 people. Here, as Chau says, if one person smokes, everyone smokes. Everyone's also on a mobile phone, because it is now 9.30am and the Hanoi stock exchange has just opened. This is modern Vietnam.
The coffee brings me to another landmark of Vietnam's confused twentieth century, the Metropole Hotel. This was colonial Hanoi's first grand hotel, built just over a century ago. It was the clubhouse of the French administrators, whose indulgence and dissipation led Hanoi to be called the paradis des fonctionnaires - heaven for bureaucrats. Graham Greene stayed here to write The Quiet American (of course). After independence in 1954, the communists made the Metropole into the Reunification Hotel, the Government's guesthouse for VIPs: it was Jane Fonda's base in 1972, when she came to broadcast anti-war messages to the American troops. Now the long, green-shuttered building is again Hanoi's poshest hotel. It's also behind what may be a renaissance in traditional north Vietnamese cooking.
In the kitchens, I meet Nguyen Thi Kim Hai, head Vietnamese chef at the hotel. Madame Hai, as everyone calls her, started her career here in 1978, when the staples, even under communist nationalism, were still canard à l'orange and the like. Now she finds herself and her staff preparing banh cuon, nem spring rolls and, of course, pho . She helps me kindly through the process of making the classic Vietnamese spring rolls. It is not unlike being taught how to make your first roll-up.
I ask Madame Hai how it feels preparing Hanoi street food, the food of the poor, for the Metropole's guests. 'People laugh when they find out how much we charge for pho [$4.50 in the restaurant, perhaps 10 times what it would cost on the street] but I think they are also proud. And now we have many Vietnamese people who come here for cooking classes, and many restaurants in Hanoi have taken the idea, and serve street food themselves.'
But the Hanoi street also penetrates the grand French restaurant at the hotel, though with some twists. The banh cuon are filled with salmon roe and the pho is duck-stock with slivers of foie gras. This is all driven by Didier Corlou, the head chef at the Metropole, a big, round Breton with a fanatical love for Vietnamese food. ' Pho is the best soup in the world,' he states, without any sort of qualification. 'It's the most pure, the most satisfying...'
Didier is noisy and passionate about food, as you would expect, but his remarkable devotion to Vietnam and its cooking goes beyond normal chef's enthusiasms. It began in 1991. When the government gave up control of the hotel, he came here to reopen the Metropole's kitchens. He discovered a simple, pure style of cooking dependent on fresh ingredients, that seduced him. Subsequently he married a Vietnamese chef, Mai. She and her parents, he says, are the inspiration for his mission: to train a new generation of Vietnamese chefs, restore their culinary heritage and establish pho and other Vietnamese dishes among the great cuisines of the world.
'For me, everything comes from the street and from the family. There is no traditional gastronomy here. Such a thing is impossible after so much war and famine,' he says. His elevation of street food translates in his restaurants into some extraordinary, and usually successful, dishes: fried tempura shrimps with fresh orange juice; frogs' legs stuffed with pork and studded with sesame seeds; green rice ice-cream; grilled oysters topped with caviar-filled banh cuon rolls.
Didier takes me on a tour of the Hanoi streets and markets that are the source of his ideas. This is a lot of fun. We start at the 19 December Market, named for the day in 1945 that the Viet Minh nationalists launched their first attack on the French in Hanoi. Didier enjoys that. In the market he's very popular, not just because of the liberal way in which he buys up everything that looks interesting - some flowering chives here, some good-looking crabs there - but because he is also a celebrity chef on Vietnamese TV. People come to thank him for speaking up for their food.
'I am a dog - sniffing out the new,' he says. Didier the bloodhound progresses through the narrow alleys of stalls, snuffling over the intriguing and, just occasionally, the unknown. We inspect snails as big as fists and rich-smelling vegetables from the great fertile fields of central Vietnam; beautiful grey mullet and bundles of plump, lime-green frogs, flapping grumpily on a string like a chain-gang; bottles of rice wine, each with a snake marinating in the bottom,('good for the belly,' according to Didier), a pile of hairless roast dogs. It is the market that has everything, including bundles of photocopied dollar bills, to burn as a sacrifice for dead relatives. In our wake, Didier's secretary hands out money to the traders, scribbling down notes of the ideas that occur to the chef.
And there are many of those. He wants to try a sorbet made of nuoc mam , the Vietnamese fermented fish sauce that is a staple in most dishes, though not an obvious ingredient in desserts. We see people selling slices of pineapple, with a dip of sugar, salt and chilli powder: Didier wonders if you could caramelise this into a sauce he could serve on pineapple in the hotel. This sounds pretty unlikely to me, until later I try his lime sorbet sprinkled with chopped, candied red chilli, and I see he has a point. The secretary keeps scribbling.
One of the things that interests Didier - and indeed his deputy head chef and collaborator, Nguyen Thanh Van - is how the food of necessity becomes the food of choice. In the market I see people grinding up thumb-joint sized crabs in a pestle and mortar to make a vile green-brown mash. During the hungry time it was a make-do flavouring for noodle soups; now it is part of the Hanoi culinary habit. 'It's strange,' says Madame Van, 'that an idea from the war turns into a deluxe dish we can serve in a five-star restaurant. Who would have imagined that, 20 years ago?'
The pressed rice cakes that were developed as a way of getting nutritious, long-lasting food down the Ho Chi Minh Trail to soldiers fighting in the South are now a favoured snack. The water that vegetables have been steamed in is kept for use in soups, as it was in the famine time, and bits of the greens you might chuck out are prized. 'In Europe we throw away too much,' says Didier. The Metropole restaurants serve a street dish that takes the stalks and leaves of pumpkins, strips their hairy skin, and sautés them with garlic and fish sauce. Pork offal fetches a higher price in the market than does the animal's fillet. Indeed, there's another Vietnamese food-equals-sex saying that states that while the greatest pleasure in the world is forbidden love, pig's entrails are a close runner up. 'Yes,' says Didier. 'Fifty years of war can teach you some things.'
Pho bò beef and noodle soup
Stocks for the noodle broths of North Vietnam are made from almost any meat or fish. Eel is popular, so is pork and chicken, but the pho that Vietnamese poets write rapturously about is Hanoi's beef-stock based pho bò.
the stock: 600g raw beef bones, 250g beef rump or shoulder
15g shallot 15g, 20g ginger root, 1 star anise, 3cm cinnamon stick, 1 pod black cardamom
(To make the stock from chicken, substitute 300g of chicken bones and a 1kg free-range chicken)
600g fresh pho rice noodles, or 400g dried rice noodles
beef fillet, 100g, sliced into the thinnest strips possible
6og each of sweet mint, European coriander, saw-tooth coriander (if not available get double the quantity of ordinary coriander); spring onion and 2 red chillies both finely chopped /2 limes, chopped into quarters
cup of Vietnamese nuoc mam, or another fermented fish sauce
Grill the ginger and shallots until blackened on the outside. Crush anise and cardamom, and put all these with the cinnamon into a clean cloth, and tie into a secure bag. Mix the sliced raw beef with a little crushed fresh ginger. Wash the beef bones and put them into three litres of cold water. Boil briskly, skimming the surface when necessary for about 10 mins. Add the bag of spices, the fish sauce and the chunk of rump or shoulder, reduce the heat and simmer gently for about 2 hrs.
Remove the spice bag and bones. Take out the beef rump (or chicken) and let it drain and dry. Skim the surface of the stock again, if necessary and check the seasoning. Keep the stock hot, but be careful not to let it reduce too much. (Some people let the stock stand and cool, so that some of the fat can be removed from the surface - more healthy, but not traditional.)
Slice some of the drained boiled rump (or chicken) into bite-sized slivers. If using fresh rice noodles, blanche them in boiling water for two seconds. (If using dried noodles or pasta, follow the instructions on the packet, but make sure they are served hot and reasonably firm.) Arrange the noodles in individual bowls, filling perhaps half the bowl. Make sure the stock is very hot. Arrange a few pieces of the meat, both raw and cooked, on the top of the noodles, and add half a handful of the chopped herbs.
Pour on the stock to cover all the ingredients. Serve immediately, with the pepper, chopped chilli and fresh lime on the side. Chopsticks and a spoon are used to eat the pho. Finish with a cup of green tea.
Alex Renton stayed at the Sofitel Metropole, Hanoi. www.accorhotels-asia.com/.
Didier Corlou and Nguyen Thi Kim Hai offer lessons in traditional Vietnamese cuisine to visitors. Vietnamese Home Cooking by Didier Corlu is available from Amazon.