Food Culture (1)
In Ha Noi, I don't limit myself to eating pho and rice. But after navigating through France's notorious railway strikes for days, exhausted from walking, all I wanted was a hot bowl of noodle soup.
We began our European travels with sandwiches, churros and paella, followed by quiche and salad, crepes and galletes. When we got to Paris, however, we started to crave Vietnamese food.
At the Opera Metro station in the heart of Paris, we spotted a white chalkboard advertising a Vietnamese restaurant. It was a strange location, as most Vietnamese dining places are located in the 13th arrondisement.
Pho (Bowl of noodle soup)
Inside, the dimly lit eatery was unremarkable. There was a small altar and signs in Chinese characters. As in Viet Nam, where green plastic pine leaf decorations and ABBA's "Happy New Year" song pop up all year round, Christmas decorations adorned the ceiling. The server spoke only French and English but managed to pronounce the dishes correctly in Vietnamese.
We ordered one bowl of pho and another of bun bo Hue, which is made with rice vermicelli rather than pho noodles, although the difference between these soups is far more nuanced. While pho is subtly flavoured, bun bo Hue has the strong flavour of shrimp paste and lemongrass due to its origins in the former royal capital city of Hue. In Viet Nam, these two dishes are never served in the same eatery, because the stocks used to make them are so different. But in Paris, I was sure that the stock for these two distinctive dishes came from a single pot!
Bun bo Hue
A Vietnamese friend who lived in Berlin for more than 20 years once took me around the Dong Xuan market there, trying to make the case that the pho soup's quality was far superior to the Vietnamese version. "Look at the bones! The beef bones here are very clean and when people make the stock for pho, they use lots of good bones with marrow, so the stock tastes very good, even better than the stock you have in Viet Nam."
Similarly, when my Vietnamese friends living abroad come home to Ha Noi, I take them out to have pho or bun thang, a Ha Noi-style rice vermicelli soup with shredded chicken and pork sausage. But sometimes they tell me that the pho here does not taste as good as the soup they ate abroad.
Sure, the bones may be cleaner and better overseas, but the stock must also be made with authentic ingredients. Pungent shrimp paste baked in a banana leaf over charcoal fire may not sound very appetising to some western readers, but it's an integral ingredient for bun bo Hue. Pho gia truyen, which translates to "traditional family pho," comes from Nam Dinh province in the north, where families have their own secret recipes that are passed down by mothers to daughters-in-law.
However, maybe I was being too picky. In Paris, could I really expect authentic flavour like the soup in Ha Noi's Old Quarter?
A Vietnamese saying goes, "One bite when one's hungry equals a package when one's full." The meal by the Paris Opera might not have been the most delicious, but it was at least a satisfying taste of home.
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