My grandmother passed away this summer. One of the last things I whispered into her ear as she laid unconscious was, come home bà nội, please feed me bún bò Huế like you used to. She gently grasped my hands with the little strength that she had left in her and a tear slowly rolled down her smooth shiny cheeks. I remember my grandmother with great fondness, having to leave her side, my favourite place to be, at the age of five, I was devastated and still yearn at a young heart that tore apart. She made bún bò Huế (a beef noodle soup with lemongrass) every morning and sold it out of our living room. The tables and chairs poured out onto the hot and sweltering pavement of Saigon. I can still remember the citrus perfume of cockscomb mint, lemongrass and lime vapourising the air with its tart pungency. She would sing. Her shrilling voice was high pitched yet eloquent, gentle and kind. She would always dip a good piece of meat into my little mouth. From the moment I could eat solid foods, and from what I remember eating first and foremost was bún bò Huế, every day, for breakfast.
This soup means the world to me. It holds all the fondness I have for my grandmother and my childhood in Saigon. I dream only to have my grandmother serve me this soup now. For her and for so many women of Vietnam, feeding someone (your family) is how you show them your love. It is always therefore made with so much love and affection with the quest to make the perfect broth, the perfect balance with tales of delicate textures and flavours to quench every taste bud.
As a Vietnamese cook, the ultimate goal is to achieve a good broth. It could be a lifetime’s work to chase after the flavours of childhood. The memory of it is distinct yet far and beyond. You can only go by what you can remember the taste being once it hits your mouth or just try and try over and over, giving the broth as much of your time, patience and love as possible. There are always ways to improve the broth with different techniques. The quest is to find the way, grandma’s way…
I was asked by BBC1 to make this soup, something I got from my grandmother, tell my story of it and host a supper club. The uncanny thing was that my grandmother cooked and served this from her home in the late seventies/ early eighties and now I am doing much the same thing. The short documentary will be aired in the Spring time.
Here are some photos from the shoot.
I spent a whole day shooting the making of bún bò Huế; shopping at the local shops and interviewing with these guys, Tom & Michael.
Some of my friends came for dinner at the supper club. We also had Bánh chưng – a traditional Vietnamese rice cake with yellow bean, pork belly, Vietnamese ham and pickled shallots; make your own summer rolls with crispy pork belly; fried dab with green mango; prawn lolly pops with sugar cane then bún bò Huế. Thanks to Jenny Brown, we also had passion friut, mango and lime layer cake which was stunning!