Boil and steam

Boil and steam

By
Andreas Pohl, Tracey Lister
Contains
13 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
ISBN
9781742701424
Photographer
Michael Fountoulakis

Xoi stall

Dang Thi Sau is sprinkling the bottom of a well-worn wooden mould, dark and shiny with age, with sesame seeds before deftly squeezing red sticky rice into it. She then up-ends it onto a small plastic plate and pushes out a perfectly formed rice cake. It is the first day of the lunar month and business is brisk, with customers demanding a more festive presentation than the usual banana leaf and newspaper wrapping to place on their ancestors’ altars.

Red sticky rice, xoi gac, is particularly popular for special occasions such as weddings or Tet celebrations. Seeds of bitter gourd, momordica cochinchinensis, said to contain up to twenty times more carotene than carrots, are added during the cooking process, giving the rice its distinctive colour and a slightly nutty flavour.

However, xoi gac is only one of eight varieties of sticky rice that 57-year-old Sau is selling out of her open shopfront on Tran Phu Street, which she shares with a tofu vendor. Flavoured with a variety of sweet and savoury toppings, ranging from dried stringy pork and peanuts to mung bean or coconut shavings, and at only 8000 dong a serve, it is a cheap and tasty breakfast treat.

Sau learned the tricks of the trade from her now almost 100-year-old mother-in-law, who plied her trade as an itinerant sticky rice peddler for most of her life, walking the city streets, selling from bamboo baskets. It was a hard and uncertain life and not one Sau wanted to follow. Instead, she spent the first seventeen years of her working life as a construction worker. She is particularly proud of the fact that she was part of the crew that built the Ho Chi Minh Museum.

However, while working on an army housing project near Tran Phu Street, Sau had the opportunity to secure a simple shopfront in the area and decided to take the plunge into self-employment. Over the last two decades her shop has become a neighbourhood fixture. ‘Income as a sticky-rice seller is better than in construction,’ she says. ‘But there are more hours and more worries.’

The secret to her success, she maintains, is selecting the best-quality grains, which is a science in itself. Historically, the cultivation of glutinous or sticky rice, gao nep, preceded the growing of the much more common hard rice. Sau only uses the expensive nep cai hoa vang variety, mainly grown in the Ha Bac and Nam Ha provinces. ‘It is very important that the grains have a good perfume, are plump, not too long, not too short and evenly sized,’ she says.

Preparation starts in the afternoon when she soaks the next day’s sticky rice in cold water, and the workday starts at 1 am, with the rice steaming through the night before the shop opens at 6 am. Her oldest son, a university student, often helps her cope with the breakfast rush, and on most days she sells out well before noon.

Pho ga stall

Not the shy and retiring type, Nguyen Than Huyen has a raspy voice, an easy laugh and a big heart for the customers of her popular pho eatery near the Chau Long market. She has been running her business, together with her husband, for the last decade.

Huyen operates out of what can best be described as a garage: a corrugated-iron roof covering the narrow gap between two buildings. Along the right-hand wall is a coal-fired cooktop for her large stockpot and a smaller one to boil water. Facing the street, a cart serves as the preparation area. Most of the bench space is taken up with bowls of lean chicken, pho noodles, red Asian shallots and limes. Behind the cooking station is a straight row of laminated tables, each set up with a neat tray containing chilli sauce, napkins, cutlery and chopsticks.

Huyen has been making chicken noodle soup, pho ga, since she joined her mother’s business at the age of fifteen. Unemployed in the aftermath of the American War, her mother, Doan, decided to open up a soup stall. As with most good street food operations, the foundation of the business was a secret family recipe.

Setting up a food stall thirty years ago, in the days of food shortages and ration cards, was a gamble. However, Doan was a shrewd businesswoman, and located her stall in Lo Duc Street close to the now-defunct Nguyen Cao market. Not only were the ingredients easier to come by, market sellers and shoppers served as a ready-made customer base. Selling the soup at only 700 dong a bowl, the shop quickly became a success, even during those lean times. While prices have risen over the last three decades to a comparatively princely sum of 30,000 dong, customers continue to flock to Huyen’s stall to savour the taste of the Nguyen family’s pho ga.

Although the youngest of three children, Huyen was the first to take up her mother’s trade. Not only is Huyen running her own pho stall, but, like her mother, she has located her soup stall close to a market. Her older sister and brother have since followed suit, opening their own pho outlets.

The days of a soup stall proprietor are long. Huyen fires up the cooking station well before dawn. She has prepared the stock the previous afternoon so that it can sit overnight and its full flavour can unfold. Now it needs to simmer for another two hours before the breakfast crowd arrives. Most of the 250–300 bowls Huyen sells every day are eaten before mid-morning. When the stall closes in the afternoon, she prepares the stock for the next day.

Asked about the secrets of a good pho ga, Huyen is understandably coy. She doesn’t want to reveal too many details of her recipe, but says that the broth must simmer for at least five hours, and that it needs to be constantly checked: the heat needs to be adjusted, scum rising to the surface needs to be skimmed off immediately, and the seasoning needs to be fine tuned. At Pho Huyen, all that hard work pays off for the happy patrons who enjoy a clean, flavoursome broth – not too watery, not too strong, not too fatty and not too lean – with soft noodles, topped with moist and tender chicken pieces.

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