Friday, July 10, 2009

Late Night Noodles

It's night time, and I'm in the classic posture: head low over my food, slurping up a long noodle like a robin pulling up a fat worm, when a hand appears from just behind my right ear. It passes close to my cheek and over my shoulder, follows the stretch of my arm, and continues past me to the table, where it picks up a pepper shaker. Pepper in hand, it follows the same trajectory back; the shaker lightly grazing my shoulder before it disappears behind me. I continue eating, not even bothering to look behind. After all, this is Hanoi street dining, and close encounters with other diners are part of the experience. 

Tonight's repast is a very nice phở xào, or to put it less exotically, fried noodles. It's impossible to travel around Asia without sampling some version of this dish: pad thai, mee grob, or pad see ew in Thailand; chapchae in Korea; yakisoba in Japan; pancit bihon in the Phillipines; chow mein or chow fun in China - and the list goes on. It's basically noodles and yummies tossed around in a hot wok and slapped unceremoniously onto a plate - often by a person who's been making the same dish for so long, he can do it with his eyes closed. 

While pad thai may be more popular in the US, Vietnam's version of fried noodles takes a back seat to no one. A basic rice vermicelli (medium-width, slightly rounder than the Thai version) serves as the foundation, wokked together with some shallots or onions and a mound of mustard or cabbage greens, and coated in a light, savory, brown gravy. My usual fare is the phở xào  - which adds thin-sliced strips of beef to the party (possibly rump meat, though I'm not sure), and...what more do you need? You want something fancy? Go watch the Food Network and leave me alone!

Like the cơm bình dân I wrote about earlier, this is not haute cuisine. It's basic, hearty, filling stuff, and it requires little doctoring at table - a dash of hot sauce and a squeeze of lime are all I usually add. Alongside the dish comes either a nice little broth, a few cucumber slices, or nothing at all, depending on the establishment. At roughly one US dollar per serving, there's no reason to complain. 
Part of the dining ritual in Vietnam is the post-meal toothpick. These are often housed in a clever little box attached to the side of a large metal chopsticks-holder (it's a good idea to give the chopsticks a quick wipe with a napkin, by the way, before using them). Sitting and cleaning out the teeth, while staring vacantly into space, is an enormously satisfying way to end a meal. I can only imagine my old dentist, Dr. Zimmerman, smiling serenely from wherever he is on the planet (this is a man who once, when told by my mother that I was in India, had only one question to ask: "Is he flossing?"). 

Toothpicking done, I rise up from my stool, and step over the man whose arm had earlier grazed me on the way to the pepper shaker. He takes no notice of me, and I have no reason to say anything to him. We have an unspoken agreement with each other and all the other diners around us: encroach on my personal space all you want, so long as you don't get between my plate and my mouth.


  1. In Khmei 'cha gui dteou'.
    (boom boom)

  2. It is an interesting custom the Vietnamese have when they use a toothpick at the table in public. Other diners may not be finished with their meal and someone may begin using a tootpick in front of them with one hand covering the other to hide the open mouth from view. Strange though, the dropped food, napkins and cigarette butts on the floor don't seem to bother customers very much at all.