In search of ancient flavours

No 3, Vol.5, April - May 2015

Bún thang (Vietnamese rice vermicelli noodle soup with chicken, eggs, and pork). Photo: Vu Thuy

pork); Chè long nhãn hạt sen (Longan and lotus seeds sweet soup). Photo: Vu Thuy

Bún chả (rice noodles with grilled meat)

Chef Nguyen Phuong Hai

Manh cong cakes (bánh mảnh cộng), shaking fried cakes (bánh rán lúc lắc), van am ground beef cakes (mọc vân am), and tomato cakes (bánh cà chua) are delicious Hanoi pastries. However, today they only exist in the memories of folks in their seventies. They’re familiar street dishes, but now the old methods of cooking them have been lost.
Enter Nguyen Phuong Hai, the director of the Vietway Cooking Centre in Hanoi. He laboriously searched for the ancient flavours of these foods - for to him, these delectable dishes are products of heritage.
Hai relates that his path towards food and drink was quite coincidental. He flunked his university law exams because he was short half a point, so he learned how to be a chef as a means of taking care of himself for five years before retaking the exams. However, ‘the craft chose him,’ and the more he studied, the more captivated he became. Ever since he became attached to the kitchen, Hai has recalled the times of his youth, when he got to eat tasty dishes cooked by his maternal grandmother.
Hai’s maternal grandmother is over 90 years old this year. She was a female student in the first class of Dong Khanh Academy, where she got to study homemaking from talented teachers and the best female workers of that time. She invested so much just to teach her grandchild all that she knew. She moreover gifted him a cook book that Hai has held on to for decades.
The book has already faded. It was penned by Van Dai, who wrote prose rather than lists of recipes. Owing to that, Hai learned of many odd, sophisticated dishes that he’d never heard of before. Sometimes a dish existed only vaguely in his grandmother’s memory, but she managed to guide her grandchild so that he could go seek it out. For many dishes, Hai had to fumble about and ask many aged Hanoians before he was able to make them.
Every time Hai is able to prepare a dish, he invites his grandmother to try the dishes and then makes them over and over again until his grandmother tastes them and says that they’re properly done. The numerous aged folks who still recall the old ways of cooking in Hanoi are his exacting critics. He invites them to watch how he prepares the dishes and then to eat his cooking. Only after receiving affirmative nods from them does he preserve the recipes.
Throughout their over thousand year history of interaction with many cuisines such as Western and Chinese cuisines, refined Hanoians knew how to filter out the best, most appealing things about the cuisines of each country and modify them to create dishes that are unique to the people of Hanoi.
Hai passionately talked about wonton soup (mì vằn thắn), a dish that originates in China. If cooked the Chinese way by putting in a bit of Chinese medicinal herbs, then it wouldn’t suit the Vietnamese. So the Vietnamese modified it by simply simmering bone broth until very sweet and then putting in dried prawns, dried pork skin, and a touch of fresh mushrooms so that it creates a broth that is refreshing, sweet and light, rather than rich in the flavours of Chinese medicinal herbs.
Or take braised pork and eggs (thịt kho trứng); when properly done the Chinese way, it is braised with soy sauce, whereas the Vietnamese braise it with fish sauce (nước mắm) and mainly Vietnamese spices. The flavour of fish sauce is totally distinct from soy sauce and makes the dish richer and more appealing.
Take French Bordelaise beef. The Vietnamese put cinnamon, anise, cardamom, and spices quite suitable for beef that only the Vietnamese possess. Then they substitute white wine for red wine to change it into a ‘Bordelaise’ beef dish that is very delicious to eat with bread.
Hai said that Hanoi, too, has its own unique, characteristic dishes like bún thang (Vietnamese rice vermicelli noodle soup with chicken, eggs, and pork), bún chả (rice noodles with grilled meat), chả cá Lã Vọng (La Vong’s fried fish and rice noodles in a charcoal brazier), nem rán (fried meat rolls), and nộm đu đu bò kho (papaya salad with braised pork, nuts and spices). However, almost all of them seem to have been modified, so they no longer retain their ancient flavours.
Cooking is never easy, especially when having to look for the ingredients while getting a feel for the recipe. Many dishes made by Nguyen Phuong Hai required a period of time to learn that must be reckoned in years before finally achieving success.
As for banh ran luc lac, which has a mung bean filling that ‘runs’ in the centre, when Hai made them following the instructions in his grandmother’s book, sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t. Of 100 of them, 20-30 were ‘deaf.’ Then, by coincidence, an acquaintance pointed out to Hai that he should put ripe bananas into the flour. However, Hai wasn’t clear about the proportion to put in. He measured out the amount and, when he put in a lot, it turned out sour, while, when he put in a little, it didn’t ‘shake.’ He spent an entire year of making fried cakes, giving them to students and school teachers, and constantly eating them before succeeding at the authentic recipe.
Some dishes were difficult like ‘dragon beard’ (long tu), for which Hai searched for forever on end without coming up with anything. That’s one of the dishes among the ‘eight treasures’ (bát trân) on the banquet platter of the Hanoians in the olden days that comes from the bowels of braised fish. The fish bowels are soaked in rice water so that they are tender and white. They are purified in alcohol so as to rid them of the rancid odour and cut into five pieces. Once scissors are taken to cut the bowels so that they are bristly at the two ends and deep fried in aged fat, the resulting bristliness is called ‘dragon beard.’
Not stopping with hunting for precious Hanoian dishes, Phuong Hai created a manual ‘Traditional Hanoi Dishes’ (Mon an Ha Noi co truyen) with recipes for 36 Hanoi dishes.
Aside from that, Hai successfully recreated approximately 100 dishes. The talented chief stated that he still has 200 more dishes to go and that he wants to find out how the Hanoians of old prepared them.
With the delicious dishes that he has amassed, Hai wrote a book and teaches the dishes to numerous young students at the Vietway Cooking Centre as a means to retain the refined flavours of the people of Hanoi.
Hai’s classes are filled with the elderly, youthful, big and small as well as Western men and women. From Hai’s small classes, some dishes that had been lost once again show off their colours and flavours on the dinner table of many Hanoians.n

Vietway Cooking Centre
No 2, Lane 233, Xuan Thuy St, Cau Giay Dist., Hanoi; Tel: 0904 093 777


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