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Thursday, April 5, 2007

Hue Noodle Soup

A couple of days ago I found myself with a lot of hours to kill inside Hồ Chí Minh City Airport, and to pass the time I bought a little book on sale there called The Cuisine Of Viet Nam (Nourishing a Culture). A nourishing little book it turned out to be, indeed -- it got me through the layover at Tân Sơn Nhất, and provided me ample food for thought, regarding the rich world of Vietnamese cuisine. One essay in the collection, written by Nguyệt Biều, concerned the spicy relative of phở -- Bún bò Huế (otherwise known as Huế noodle soup.) I did not know this until I read this book, but Huế is the food capital of Vietnam, and represents the culinary perfection of the nation. It is to Vietnam, perhaps, what Kyoto is to Japan, or Yogyakarta is to Indonesia. It is the soul of the nation. Nguyệt writes:
If one had to pick a single food which is reminiscent of Huế, it would be rice noodle soup with beef and pork. Huế residents prefer to buy their bún bò from street vendors, rather than in restaurants. Street vendors carry soft, thin white noodles (bún) and slices of beef (bò) and pork with them in two bamboo baskets hanging from a pole balanced across their shoulders. 
Consumers eat this noodle dish on the sidewalk, squatting on small stools right next to a pot of boiling broth. The intense fragrance rising from the pot is the greatest advertisement for this dish.
Most street vendors in Huế come from villages outside the city such as Thủy An, Phát Lát, and Vạn Vạn. In these villages, each household has one or two street vendors. Selling rice noodles is both a way of earning a living and of carrying on a family or village culinary tradition. In the morning vendors sell to regular customers, usually in small side streets or alleys. When lunchtime is almost over, they stop selling and shop for the ingredients for the next day. 
Street vendors carry one pot of broth that they can put on a portable charcoal stove, to be heated immediately. Another pot contains additional ingredients such as stewed pig trotters, grilled ground pork, beef and pork tendon, grilled crab, pig and duck blood, and thin slices of beef. On the other side of the bamboo pole is a container of fresh rice noodles and seasonings like onions, scallions, chili peppers, fish sauce, bean sprouts, banana flowers and diced lettuce. Finally, the baskets contain bowls, spoons, chopsticks, a basin for washing, napkins, toothpicks, a tank of green ginger tea, and a few stools: truly a moveable feast. 
Bún bò Huế is completely unpretentious. Its charm lies solely in its fragrance. According to the women who sell rice noodles at Bến Ngự Market, the broth must be delicious above all else: clear in colour with a balance between the salty and sweet flavours of stewed beef bones, pork bones, and chicken.
Vendors tailor each bowl to the customers' desires. In the winter, customers sit next to the red-hot stove and the boiling broth, covering their bowls with their hands, slurping the broth, skewering the noodles with their chopsticks, and biting into pieces of meat. Even food connoisseurs in Hà Nội and Hồ Chí Minh City admit to a love of bún bò Huế, especially when it is served in Huế.

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