Timeless Saigon snacks


 

A sticky rice stall and a sweet soup trolley that have survived famine, war and capitalism’s fast-food onslaught

If I could tell the history of Saigon through its street food – or even my own family’s gastronomic history in the city – I would start with my favorite xôi(glutinous “sticky” rice) hawker and my favorite chè (sweet bean soup/pudding) vendor. Both of them have seen it all.

60 years and a sticky rice basket

81-year-old Nguyen Thi Kiem with her sticky rice basket. She has been selling the dish here for six decades.

It is an early morning at the corner of Le Thanh Ton and Pasteur streets in District 1, but the road is already busy with motorbike-riders rushing to work. From time to time, a bike stops to buy sticky rice from an old woman at the curb.

Eighty-one-year-old Nguyen Thi Kiem from Hai Phong City has been selling sticky rice in Saigon since 1954.

Kiem was orphaned at a young age and moved to Saigon on her own when she was 23.

She had no job options. All she had was a home recipe for sticky rice in her back pocket.

Together with her husband, who is now 84, she has raised 11 children.

She feels “sorry” that she was so poor when they were young and she was unable to provide them with worry-free childhoods.

Now the 81-year-old great-grandma still sells xôi on the street with the help of her fifth daughter, who is unmarried and lives with her on Le Van Sy Street in District 3.

Kiem normally sells northern corn sticky rice and green bean sticky rice.

She makes extra square sticky rice cakes on Vietnamese New Year’s Eve, and sweet rice wine soup for the mid-year lunar celebration (5th day of the 5th month on the lunar calendar).

In order to make the fragrant soy bean and fried shallot sticky rice, she gets up at 2 a.m. to soak dried corn in water.

She cooks the corn three times until it is totally soft and not lumpy. She also soaks green lentil beans. They are then peeled, cooked and pressed in a grinder.

She refuses to use processed shallots and fries her own, but she’s recently had to change from olive oil to soy bean oil as business has been rough lately. To keep the natural smell of sticky rice, she wraps her dishes in green banana leaves brought in from the rural district of Hoc Mon.

Back when she was young, Kiem carried her rice basket and walked all the way from Truong Minh Giang Bridge (currently Le Van Sy Bridge) to this street corner. After sixty years, it is such a familiar journey that she doesn’t want to move to a spot closer to home, or anywhere else. Now she takes a bus to work every day.

Kiem has witnessed many important historical events like the campaign of popular unrest against Nguyen Van Thieu, the penultimate president of South Vietnam. She sold sticky rice to many anti-war activists who staged protests and demonstrations against Thieu’s regime near her rice basket.

She also served northern Vietnamese soldiers when they liberated the city. They camped right next to her because they loved her home-like corn.

For Kiem, the only thing that “modernization” has changed is that she now uses plastic spoons instead of the wild pandanus leaves of yesteryear.

She’s become somewhat famous and foreign journalists have written features about her. She’s known for inviting such journalists into her humble home.

“I’m so happy to see that they are interested in a street vendor like me,” she said.

Staying in one place all her life, but Kiem has customers from everywhere, as far as Hanoi, Hai Phong, and even overseas as many people who ate her sticky rice as students decades ago have grown up and moved abroad – they still come buy her food when they visit home.

Meeting old customers is when she’s happiest. She says she never ceases to be amazed that she gets so much affection from people for just serving them a simple snack.

A family even offered her their house when they went overseas after the war.

But Kiem preferred not to take anything from anyone and she still lives in her small house.

“I just feel peaceful that way,” she said with a smile.

Septuagenarian sweet soup

Ly Thanh Ha with her family’s sweet soup trolley, which offers almost every kind of chè

Folks in the neighborhood have nicknamed this sweet soup trolley Quán chè nhà đèn (electrical station sweet soup) in the 1930s, as the shop resides in front of an old electric station on Tran Hung Dao B Street near where it intersects with Chau Van Liem Street in District 5.

It’s just a sweet soup stall like hundreds of others in Saigon, but this place makes me remember joyous childhood bicycle trips to enjoy this tasty dessert near the Cho Lon Market.

There is nothing like a treat that has been enjoyed by four generations of a family. Forty years ago, my grandparents used to take my dad here on hot summer days. And now I find myself now taking my kids on the same route to the sweet soup delight.

Ly Thanh Ha, the current shop owner, inherited the business from her great grandma who started the place in the 1930s.

In 1936, a young girl named Phung Hanh Phan escaped from her hometown in China’s Shandong province, after losing all her family to war. She then adopted a baby girl only a few months old, named her Ly Ai Quynh and fled to Vietnam with the toddler.

Penniless and jobless, Phan walked from Hanoi to Hai Phong, surviving as a laborer and doer of odd jobs here and there. But the living was tough and eventually she boarded a ship to Saigon.

For a long time Phan could not afford a decent life in her new home.

She was homeless and struggled to survive a famine there. In 1938, despair brought her to turn to cooking green bean soup on the corner of Chau Van Liem and Nguyen Trai.

But she was good and the treat quickly became famous around the city.

With her initial profits, she rented a small room next to the electrical station and eventually got her own sweet soup trolley. As street vendors were often booted off the street by the colonial French government – much as they are now by the local Vietnamese government – Phan precariously took over the still-vacant front yard of the electrical station, hoping no authorities would notice.

They didn’t and that same trolley – the first and only one she ever bought – is still there seventy years later.

Four generations of chè

Phan’s shop offers almost every kind of chè. The most popular varieties are almond, green bean, red bean soup, egg custard, egg with sweet tea, lotus seed, peanut, black sesame, longan, Chinese walnut, and Gingko.

It is always open.

The only time it ever closed was during the 1968 Tet Offensive, when fighting in Cho Lon was simply too much.

But it resumed business shortly after that.

Phan passed away in 1980s, leaving the shop for her grandchild Ly To Ha, and great grandchild Ly Thanh Ha, who runs it now.

Thanh Ha said she remembers the hard times after 1975 when goods became scarce and her mom had to bike over 20 kilometers to buy black sugar to cook with.

“After four generations of work here, this tiny yard feels like our second home now,” she said. “It has sustained our family.”

Tasting the sweet smooth green bean soup, and remembering my childhood here, I know that hers is not the only family that’s been sustained by this little trolley in a tiny vacant yard in the middle of the city.

By Do Tuan, Thanh Nien News (The story can be found in the August 3rd issue of our print edition, Vietweek)

 

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