Again, I find myself in Saigon sitting on a red plastic kid’s chair at a red plastic kids’ table, slurping steaming hot beef pho. The broth is laced with warm fragrant spices of star anise, coriander seeds, cinnamon and cloves with top notes of fresh herbs, spring onions and lemon. The noodles flick on my face and I wipe my brow off the beads of sweat that sprout on my face to cool me down. I am exhausted from the flight and jet lagged. My senses succumb to the sensation of heat and noise of sun and a hundred million hondas in view. But my excitement for the perfect balance of flavours leads me to a second bowl of perfection in the mouth.
I have been traveling to Saigon almost every year for the past 10. As soon as I arrive, my cousins are ready with a full supply of fresh coconuts; the softest and sweetest of mangoes; the crunchiest dragon fruits; the fleshy sweet and sour mangostines; the juiciest, most succulent rambutan and at least two noodle soups are force fed for a major indulgence. “Everything is in season,” they would say, “eat it while you can, you can’t get this back in London.” And then, for the entire trip, it is all about eating and more eating.
Restaurants, cafes, street food stalls are everywhere, one after another, and they continue to blossom in every nook and cranny of the cosmopolitan Saigon. The city is crammed with hungry people in helmets on hondas – buzzing around to the flashing neon lights of ‘the best’ soups or rice dishes such as com tam (broken rice & barbecued pork ribs with the trimmings) in town.
The best food you can eat comes from the street where you can buy banh mi (meat and herb filled baguettes), che (all kinds of desserts), banh (all sorts of sweet and savoury cakes/ buns) to fried bananas and soups- you can find almost anything you would want to eat on the street. If you can’t see it, you can hear it.
The atmosphere is dancing with a sonic landscape of spoons scrapping on glass or ladles hitting the sides of vats, the chopsticks gathering every grain of rice on porcelain bowls and chatter and natter among the hums and drums of the city.
There will always be a woman who bounces along with the traditional Vietnamese hat and baskets on wire balancing off a stick. She is like clockwork and passes through all the streets and alley-ways. She calls and chants out whatever she is selling, singing like an ice cream van, only stopping when stopped but sometimes she takes a rest in the shade, for the sun, the sun is strong and harsh.
Sometimes little girls and boys will walk along the same streets, beating a beat, making a tune, with a spoon on a metal stick. If stopped, he or she will deliver to you a bowl of noodles from their house.
Everybody is always eating or talking about eating. Even in when talking about other things rather than food, the term – an – to eat is always used. To eat and pray, eat and love, eat and work, eat and play, eat and steal, eat and obey, eat and run away etc.
After decades of war, poverty and malnourishment, the Vietnamese’ love affair with all things new and plastic continue to progress. Development means prosperity, jobs, better living conditions and a good way of life. In a city of more than 9 million people, a lot of people can get hungry and a lot of people make a living in feeding other people.
I was born, in Saigon, into a family who loves food, though who doesn’t. In the late 70s and early 80s after the war, the country fell under extreme poverty, and most people had their businesses, livelihoods, land and properties taken away from them by the communist. To top it off, there was an embargo.
My grandmother, the mother of my father, was a great entrepreneur nevertheless. In order to support her family, she opened up her front room which mainly leads onto the street, to sell bun bo hue – a noodle soup – the best I had ever eaten, from Hue, the city of temples, emperor’s palaces and dynasties in central Vietnam. It is a breakfast dish to arouse the senses, the stock is concocted with fragrant lemongrass, chilli and garlic; simmered with pig’s trotter and beef. The spicy and bold soup consists of thicker vermicelli noodles, slivers of meat and served with fresh herbs and banana blossom.
I have savoured my earliest childhood memory of this taste and the character of the soup. Being in love with it my whole life, I fly out to the beautiful Hue to try and chase the same tang I discovered from my grandmother but it wasn’t the same.
My cousin and I recreate it in the kitchen, after buying all the fresh ingredients in a busy, tight and narrow market. The soup, turned out to be very good, but it still wasn’t the same as my grandmother’s. As well as it being a guarded recipe, only she could ever have the wisdom, the experience and the love and tenderness to perfect the broth.
When I eat this soup, I am happily transported back to being four years old again and sitting on my grandmother’s lap. I left Vietnam for London at the age of five and missing my grandmother, I go to visit our old family home in Saigon. As soon as I enter, floods of emotions engulf me as I identify and verify my memories with every step I take. I walk through the house as an adult entering from another world but with the same eyes of a child I used to be.
Everything remained the same. I walk bare feet on the same tiles of the floor where I used to run and play. The light that pours through the windows with a decorative grill and green curtains in brings flashes of memory forward into the present. The same tree have grown higher and wider in my absence, witnessing all the secrets I missed.
I imagine what it would have been like to live a parallel life where I would stand there and never have left. What would it have been like to be able to stay? My family are no longer there in that house, we have all dispersed around the world like birds but just by being it in, in the place where I was born, I immediately figure out that I flew home.
From Saigon, I travel 5 hours to Phan Thiet by road on a 12 seater mini bus – with 23 people crammed into it. Phan Thiet – is the town where fish sauce is made and it pretty much smells like rotting fish there. There is only one main highway in Vietnam and most parts consists of only one lane and every driver is overtaking other vehicles from the left, right and centre and even from the other side of the road. They drive with a stopping distance of about 30cm even at 60 miles per hour. There are no seat belts, head rests or rules about safety.
Buying a bus ticket in Vietnam is like buying a ticket to your grave. It was proven not to be a myth when my grandfather, the father of my mother tragically died in a mini bus accident. He was a great entrepreneur and also a pioneer of fish sauce, which he was one of the first to start selling commercially. Fish sauce discovered when it was accidentally left to ferment and turned into nuoc man as we know it today.
Among a spring of businesses including being one of the founders of Vinh Hao mineral water (in the 70s, no one was impressed by something sparkling and tasteless – he sold it on) and a salt farm, my grandfather, bought many giant wooden barrels, filled it with his own concoction of fish, salt, anchovies, sugar and water, left it for months/ years to ferment and turned it into his own brand of fish sauce, named, Song Huong.
Back then, people would come to his place with their own bottles and bought from the tap of the barrel. When he passed away, no one wanted to carry on the fish sauce business and nowadays, more premium fish sauces are made from wooden barrels but cheaper fish sauce is normally fermented in clay or terracotta vats.
Living in one of my grandfather’s many properties is my aunt. This is also where his shrine is placed, because all people worship and pray for their passed ancestors so that they are prosperous, happy and healthy in the afterlife. The house is inside the depths of a market by the river where the fishing boats come in to give him fish for the sauce. She taught me how to make banh cuon which is a thin steamed rice pancake, folded into rolls. The perfectly white mixture is a very fine blend of water, rice and salt, poured onto a stretched canvas over a pot, over a fire. You can add any filling you like, the favourite being with just deep fried shallots or pork, prawns and wood ear mushrooms.
Her wonderful husband gets up at 330am (usually not so many men help their wives businesses as well as their own) to make the coal or wood fire for the steamer and she starts to sell them from 430am to local fishermen, school children and market vendors, in a day making about £3 profit.
They are the most utterly delicious silky things on earth, and what makes the difference is having a very good nuoc cham – fish sauce with water, lime, sugar, chilli and garlic – mixed to the supreme balance of sweet, sour, salty and hot.
Coming back to civilisation in the town centre where all the kids are cool, I get requests for my famous, ‘Mi Y’, spaghetti bolognese. “You make the real thing,” says a cousin of mine, “everyone here tries to imitate it! Its fake! Even when you sent us the recipe, we couldn’t make it taste like yours.” “Did you out soy sauce in it?” “Yeah..”
I love my Italian food and so do the Vietnamese. As my cousins eat my spaghetti with chopsticks in silence as if in solitude, sometimes throwing in a bit of chilli sauce or soy sauce instead of parmesan, I see the realness of pleasure with food. This is why I love to cook so as to have these moments of food euphoria.
To eat is to live, to live is to eat, to eat in union but to also eat in absolute indulgence, when food is made with love and care from someone you love, it always tastes amazing.
I leave my homeland every time with more layers of roots, opening and closing chapters of life over noodle soups and rice buns. When I was little, I tried so hard to deny my origins just so that I can fit in at school. But nowadays, my deep passion for my heritage and it’s cuisine will see me on that red plastic stool over and over again slurpling pho.