A Vietnamese Kingdom of food

In Hanoi, Phan Boi Chau street has a fork which is very famous for many people. It is the crossroads between Phan Boi Chau and Nam Ngu street. It is famous for popular such as: Kiem pho and Nam Ngu chicken pho. Today there resides the restaurant “Quan An Ngon” at 18, Phan Boi Chau street.

Perhaps the older beef noodle addicts (age of 50!) cannot forget the famous “Kiem pho” which was around in the 80s. “Kiem Pho” is only sold in the evening and consist of mildly cooked beef. It is a completely original Hanoi dish of beef noodle soup. Previously, there was a rumour before that the originator, Mr Khiem would leave Vietnam to emigrate abroad and that “Kiem Pho” addicts feared that they would not have chances eating Kiem pho anymore. And then suddenly it did happen and “Kiem pho” disappeared. No one knows why. Upon reaching that street, many can still imagine the smell the “Kiem pho” beef noodle.

Apart from “Kiem pho”, there was another famous kiosk servinf chicken pho named “Nam Ngu”. At that time, being invited to Nam Ngu chicken was a privilege. Worldwide broadcaster CBS news once honored Nam Ngu chicken noodle as a mega brand of Vietnamese cuisine. Whilst I never encountered the specific news on CBS , the articles on Nam Ngu chicken noodle soup were published in many foreign major newspapers. Nam Ngu chicken pho was run by an elderly woman. But after she died, it gradually lost the typical flavor which can not be found anywhere else and became mediocre like a lot of other chicken pho shops in Hanoi.

After the “decline” of the two famous shops – beef and chicken noodle shops, people thought that modern teas & cafes would take over for “the new generation”. But one day, a restaurant suddenly apppeared. It is Quan An Ngon at 18 Phan Boi Chau. I went there only after the restaurant was open for a half of year on the invitation of overseas friends and no local friends.

John Dean, a poet of Ireland who visited Hanoi told me that there was a Vietnamese Kingdom of food and he wanted to go there. After hearing about that, I was very ashamed because I did not know where it was. Some Irish and American friends of John Dean told him about this Vietnamese Kingdom of food.

When he showed me the address of the Kingdom, I remembered the name “Quan an Ngon” which I had missed. Reaching “Quan an Ngon”, I was actually completely captivated. I got to taste authentic traditional cuisines which are delicious which have gradually disappeared from the modern life which is full of fastfood and other convenient cuisines.

In the Singapore newspapers, Reuters released an article on August 10, 2010, on Quan An Ngon after this restaurant was voted to amongst the best dozen restaurants in Asia for 2010. It was also voted as one of the five best restaurants in Vietnam in the same year by an organization specialized in monitoring restaurants system in Asia.

This result is voted by is the visitors all over the world who have come to Vietnam and entered the kingdom of food – 18 Phan Boi Chau and by culinary experts, journalists, writers who often write about food.

One thing that totally amazes me is the people who have opened Quan An Ngon in Phan Boi Chau street. They are the young people of Hanoi, and the soul of the team is Ms. Pham Thi Bich Hanh. I often think that at that age, they belong to the era of the bars, pasta, cocktails, Dilmah Tea, Buffet… and completely ignored Steamed Rice Rolls Stuffed, Rice Flour Cake, Fresh Water Crab Noodle Soup, Fresh Crab Noodle Soup with Steamed Snail – Soup or Dipping Sauce, Steamed Sticky Rice with Shredded Chicken, Cured Sour Pork Sausage Rolled with Green Papaya, Shredded Pork Skin… and hundreds of traditional dishes of three regions that are mostly from the north.

And the owners of this food kingdom have chosen a prime location in the heart of Hanoi to create this diverse integration we have today.

18 Phan Boi Chau is in a prime location that only the “big boys” could deal or rent. But the house’s owners have long rejected them. However this all changed when Ms. Hanh, a young woman then spoke with the owners of the house about a unique restaurant which is not like others: Where it contains the spirit of profound culinary culture. The idea behind the people who opened Quan An Ngon at 18 Phan Boi Chau has revived the wonderful flavors and cultural beauty that lie in the traditional foods.

When the owners of the house at 18 Phan Boi Chau allowed Quan An Ngon to operate at their house, the doors of “United Nations food” began to open. The taste of traditional Vietnamese dishes are complimented when people enjoy eating in a harmonious space.
Every year I still work with many professors, social and cultural experts from around the world who come to Hanoi. And my choice to introduce Vietnamese culinary culture is Quan An Ngon – the Kingdom of Vietnamese cuisine. Not only foreigners but also Vietnamese people enter the Kingdom want to sit and enjoy the culinary atmosphere here.

A strange world of colors, tastes and sound, strongly attracts us all. They all lead the foreign guests to a glamorous world and leads the Vietnamese back to a passionate world of love through the foods that their ancestors, grandparents, parents have created and made.

This reminds me of a Disney cartoon movie about a talented “Mouse chef”!. When a client who is a notorious critic in Paris goes to the restaurant to watch how the chef cook that many people have rumored about the restaurant. Those who serve in the restaurant are really terrified by the famous and extremely fastidious food critic and they do not know what to cook for him. The mouse chef decides to cook vegetable stew recipe for him.

When the waiter brings the vegetable stew recipe to the critic, all of the restaurant’s servers hold their breath indefinetly. If he dislikes it then their restaurant will probably be closed. But when he puts the first piece of vegetable stew into his mouth, his eyes suddenly open wide and the pen begins to write furiously and take notes until his hand falls to the floor. Memories of his childhood feulled by the vegetable stew his mother used to cook him suddenly rush back. As the taste of the vegetable stew recipe spreads throughout his body, his mother’s voice and warmth of her hug for him during the childhood come flooding back.

One of the secrets of this cuisine is simply this. That is the reason why a lot of customers who come to Quan An Ngon at 18 Phan Boi Chau rerturn. It is as simple as the proverb: “The best food is cooked by mother.” And all of the delicious foods in the Kingdom are cooked by mothers and fathers for their children from generation to generation.

There are also one or two restaurants which have the same name but customers do not want to revisit it again. Because they do not have all the elements and conditions of color, taste and even sound of daily life like the food Kingdom’s space at Phan Boi Chau street. And the first and important key point is the young woman who created the idea of Quan An Ngon and laid the first foundations for the food Kingdom – she loves the foods made by her ancestors, grandparents and parents very much.

Who are the chefs of this food Kingdom? The owners of the culinary Kingdom at 18 Phan Boi Chau street are not famous chefs in Ha Noi who are paid thousands of dollars each month. They are just good cooks from some popular noodle soup, crab noodle, Fresh Water Crab Noodle Soup, Steamed Sticky Rice Coated Mung Bean Eel Vermicelli – Soup or Mixed, Noodle & Fried Tofu Dipped in Shrimp Paste Sauce in Hanoi, from the famous dining area known as Thanh Tri Steamed Rice Rolls Stuffed, La Vong Fried Fish With Dill & Green Onion… The most delicious traditional food and good cooks who work at this food Kingdom have built up its fame.

I’m writing about food but in many ways, I’m writing about what makes Vietnamese culture. But people who make up culture cannot be immortal to keep and protect it. And older people who are living today can also not live forever to preserve the culture that our forefathers made up. Therefore, whatever may happen, the youth has to become the guardinas of our culture. And the existence of the culture depends on them.

Hạnh Nguyên

Posted in: News event