A northern slow-cooked stew
82 Thai Phien St, Hoi An
T: (84) 9739 18918
For every country that has tried their hand at occupying Vietnam, for all the incredible architecture left behind, the real remaining influence is of the culinary kind (save for the Americans, who left only Coca Cola). For Hoi An with its cao lau, white rose, mi quang and com ga, the predominant influence is of the Chinese. The big cities of Hanoi and Saigon meanwhile went a bit French – Hanoi’s pho is influenced by the famous beef casserole pot-au-feu and Saigon’s bahn mi has obvious Gallic roots thanks to its crunchy baguette and pate filling.
As the north/south divide has lessened, more and more of these dishes have entered the market place in Hoi An. The best time to try them is in the early hours, the best places for real authenticity are the street stalls and the best judge of a good one is a big crowd of unusually peaceful Vietnamese bent over a bowl and slurping away, appreciating the sensory assault of a balanced blend of sweet, sour, bitter, umami and salty. One of our favourites is bo sot vang, a northern slow-cooked stew of beef, wine, carrots, potatoes and celery, from a recipe similar to beef bourguignon.
Bo sot vang — it means beef, sauce, wine, or yellow fever if pronounced in the wrong tone — is the ultimate comfort food, a warming breakfast dish based around a beef stock using the spine or shin bones for the best flavour, red or rice wine, star anise, cumin, clove and chilli. The beef is normally on the bone and slow cooked overnight in the stock, which softens it to melt-in-the-mouth consistency, and the finished stew is served with a baguette, perfect for mopping up the sauce, fresh herbs and a squeeze of lime. It is a must-try dish in Vietnam, and at around 30,000 VND a bowl ($1.50) it’s a more than affordable breakfast option.
The tastiest version available is served up in the tiny kitchen of the once-famous VTV celebrity chef, Nguyen Thai Hung, with the help of his wife and a little bit of meddling by his two toddlers. Hung has created a more healthy, MSG-free soup based around the classic bo sot vang, leaving out the wine and blending the potato, carrot and celery to craft a naturally thick stock. He uses the most flavourful beef sliced from the rib and replaces the bread with glassy, fat sago noodles. The soup is world class and, let’s face it, there aren’t very many street stalls where your chef has worked and trained in some of the finest five-star kitchens with the likes of Bobby Chin.
Hung’s stall is open for breakfast most days, serving up steaming bowls to a local clientele from the early hours through till 09:00. It’s located outside his home on Thai Phien Street, which lies between Ly Thong Kiet and Tran Hung Dao, a 15-minute walk from the town centre. He’s set up a few seats in his front room for customers to sit and savour their food and to chat; Hung likes to chat, a lot, and his knowledge and passion for Vietnamese cooking is immense. He’s also just set up a cookery school, so you can learn to cook your very own bo sot vang… by the time you’ve had your first mouthful you will absolutely want to.
By Caroline Mills
Last updated on 24th July, 2014.