1 am: I’m sitting at my study corner, looking frustratingly at the pile of textbooks, being too full to concentrate. Well, not too full, but too well-fed after two huge servings of an irregular late night supper.
Two hours ago, my little brother and I headed out into the street to look for things that could ease my sudden pang of hunger. It’s pretty convenient living here in the proximity of the old quarter of Hanoi where mouth-watering street food is 24/7. But it does get you to a constant aching conundrum of having to decide what among those savoury to eat. Tonight, the chilling winter monsoon somehow helped us out with the ache. We landed down at a “pho” food stall more or less 30 steps away from our gateway after quickly figuring out that we wanted something salty and heavy and not too far so that we could stop this annoying trembling ache.
In its most basic denotation, “pho” should mean white rice noodles with either beef or chicken and a bunch of herbs in boiling broth, served hot. “Pho” in that sense is a signature dish of Vietnam, and Hanoi is probably where it’s deemed most original. Recently, people came up with other versions of “pho”, thus gave birth to rolled “pho” and fried “pho”. By accident, those two successors of the hundreds-year-old “pho” first appeared in my neighborhood, and it’s now where most street food stalls selling those two are found. (By the way, being surrounded by those “pho” things did a girl with no sense of direction like myself a great favor. When I have to show people way to my house – people might not get my jumbled directions, but they do know how to get to the rolled “pho” and fried “pho” area.)
This is rolled “pho”:
And this is the fried one. I will take my own photos next time.
Basically, the same sheets of rice pancake to make the long thin strands of noodles in traditional “pho” will be cut differently in these dishes. In rolled “pho”, large thin sheets are cut into smaller rectangular ones to make the wraps, and the content includes stir-fried beef with lettuces and corianders (the beef is flavored with oyster sauce, salt or fish sauce, ginger, onion, pepper and some other spices). The dish is served with sauce made from fish sauce, vinegar, sugar and water to ease its strong taste. Its ingredients are universally known, its making is no complex, but one special thing about rolled “pho”and almost all Vietnamese dishes is that each household or restaurant gets its own taste variation. There is not a fixed formula for the mixture of spices to add to the dish. The one that I consume tonight has its sauce sweeter than the normal standard that my taste buds would favor, and probably that’s why I feel so full now.
That other dish of “pho” is my little bro’s favourite. 3-4 “pho” sheets are cut in batch into small square pieces and deep fried in sizzling oil until they swell round. Then they are put onto a deep-bottom dish, covered over by a mixture of stir-fried beef and mustard green, and sometimes onions. The one we got tonight is just right in taste and smell. The fried pho was crunchy but soft. The stir-fried portion was not too salty nor too sweet, with warm aroma of ginger and gentle pungency of pepper lingering. The beef was soft, smooth and bite-sized. And it’s burning HOT! When the street was windswept and people were walking to and fro shivering outside, what could be a better treat?! I might pride myself on my better homemade version of rolled “pho”, but fried “pho” is another story.
So that’s it for today! I’ll come back another time when either I make those two kinds of “pho” by myself and report on the process or I go eat traditional “pho” and remember to bring along my camera. For now, I must need some exercises to ease my stomach a little bit. An old Vietnamese adage says: “After your mouth savors, your body suffers.” True! Except that it’s pleasant suffering!