I investigates the irresistible dish that smells as bad as it tastes good. Photos by Francis Roux. The article was published on Word Hanoi Magazine Issue September 2013.
First, the fermented fish sauce is poured over boiling oil, mixed with a little sugar, vinegar and lemon or kumquat juice. Then it’s stirred until blended. That’s the way to enjoy fermented fish sauce, or mam tom.
Though mam tom is notorious for its strong smell and perennially listed among the worst-smelling foods in Asian cuisine, someone who gives it a chance will surely fall in love with it. If you’re looking for a comparison, think of durian. People who can’t stand its smell often think of it as both bad in smell and taste, whereas many others — really anyone who’s tried it once — can almost feel their mouths watering when just thinking of its aroma.
Mam tom is made of shrimps and salt. The process of fermentation takes from six months to one year. Once fermented, this purple-coloured sauce can be served with a lot of vegetables, seafood and meat; however, it is especially famous with dog meat (thit cho) and of course, tofu and noodle — bun dau. This simple but tasty combo is getting more and more appealing among young people across the country.
Bun dau mam tom is now one of the premiere Hanoi street food dishes. But years ago, it was considered a dish for blue-collar workers and street vendors.
“During Bao Cap [the post-war, ‘Subsidy Era’], this dish was called food for the poor,” Huong, owner of Bun Dau Ngo Phat Loc, says. Her shop is one of the most famous traditional bun dau eateries in Hanoi. “At that time, people preferred a bowl of rice to rice noodle and tofu. I started selling bun dau as a peddler on Hang Be in 1987, just after Doi Moi [the ‘Renovation Era’, when Vietnam opened up to the world]. Bun dau then used to be served with cheap and quickly-roasted tofu. The rice noodle was rounded into small white cakes, and put onto la dong [an edible leaf]. Everything was spread on a round rattan tray.”
Right from the start, Huong knew it had potential. “The ingredients then were simple and cheap, but the taste was amazing. What makes bun dau special [is] its main ingredients — mam tom, crispy tofu and herbs [rau thom], including Asian basil [rau hung] or cockscomb mint [kinh gioi] — have remained unchanged. Even now when people enjoy bun dau with a variety of meat, these main ingredients are still absolute musts.”
Huong’s been in the business for years, and business is good. “From [our initial setup as] a street vendor at Hang Be to [our current] shop at 49 Phat Loc, we have seen a peak in customers [in the most] recent few years, a majority of whom are young and white-collar. We even had many young customers from Saigon, who want to experience northern tastes.
“This trend has come along with additional kinds of meat, including fried minced pork with green rice flakes [cha com], thinly-sliced boiled pork trotter [thit luoc] and fried pork intestine [long ran]. Bun dau with cha com is a favourite among our young customers. It may be due to the sweet, soft and perfectly seasoned cha com. However, to me, it is best to have bun dau with thit luoc. Steaming is the best way for the pork to retain its freshness and richness in taste.”
But even through its new iterations, the dish stays consistent thanks to the taste of the mam tom. “We have to select the best mam tom from Tinh Gia in Thanh Hoa Province,” Huong explains. “The tofu must be also carefully chosen from Mo village, the homeland of tofu. Heating and timing are very important, though. The tofu must be fried in deep oil, and continually turned over to get its crispy cover — but firm and soft inside.”
With autumn on its way, a plate of bun dau mam tom is a great choice for lunch. Like any other bun dau eatery, Bun Dau Ngo Phat Loc will offer you bun dau with mam tom or normal fish sauce [nuoc mam]. Brave the smell and give it a try — you’re eating a piece of Hanoi when you do.
Bun Dau Ngo Phat Loc is located at 49 Phat Loc, Hoan Kiem. The eatery opens from 8.30am until 5.30pm. Bun dau prices range from VND20,000 without meat to VND60,000 with. The eatery also has another stand at Quan An Ngon, 26 Tran Hung Dao, Hoan Kiem