You are so hungry after a long day of work in breezing October? You wanna an afternoon soup before dinner? My answer for you is Chao Trai. This article was published on Word Hanoi magazine – Issue October 2013. Photo by Francis Roux.
November is when Hanoi says goodbye to autumn and welcomes winter. The pleasant mild and cool weather is said to tempt people to eat — just thinking of hot rice porridge or steaming rice dumplings warms you up while riding back from work. Not surprisingly, at this time of year, mid-afternoon snacks are popular with Hanoians.
This has been an intrinsic feature of the capital since the 1980s. These hot foods were once sold by street vendors with shoulder poles along street pavements, or by ladies sitting at street corners with tiny chairs. They have now been largely replaced by eateries. Some Hanoians are skeptical — when these snacks are sold in large amounts, they say, they don’t taste nearly as good as they do on the small food stands. However, there are some eateries where the taste of the food remains unchanged. One place selling clam rice porridge or chao trai on Tran Xuan Soan is an example.
So how good is this eatery? How did their chao trai taste in the past?
Made with clam meat, a tasty bowl of chao trai requires the rice porridge to be light, and sweet smelling, while the clam meat should be fresh, rich in taste, but not too tough nor floury. A normal bowl gets watery after eating a few spoonfuls. However, the perfect chao trai is blended and not watery until the final drop. For taste, the dish comes with additional ingredients: laksa leaf (rau ram), onion, dried red chilli and crispy quay (fried bread stick). According to the traditions of Hanoi gastronomy, the rau ram must come from Lang village — the type grown there gives chao trai the best aroma. All of these above qualities, you can find at the eatery on Tran Xuan Soan.
“My mother used to sell rice for blue-collar workers on this street corner every lunchtime,” says Hang, a daughter of the original owner. “She started her trade in colonial times and then, during the 1980s, she began cooking chao trai for her neighbours. They insisted that she open a small stand and sell it every afternoon. So she decided to sell chao trai on shoulder poles as additional income for our family. Now she is old and us three siblings have taken over. We continue to follow the discipline of her cooking that made her chao trai so popular.”
She adds: “We raise the clams in our own dam. That way, we have fresh and clean clams for serving every day. There are two types of clam: the floury clam and the tough clam. It’s not easy to differentiate. The floury one is not delicious and can give diners a stomach ache. Therefore, the cook has to be smart and only choose the tough ones. While boiling them, it’s necessary to keep the fire high. Only when the clams are fully open do we pick them out.
“The broth to cook rice porridge is the soul of the dish. To get sweet and light rice porridge, the tip is to not use 100 percent boiled clam broth. So instead, we combine pork stock with clam stock. The best rice is both starchy and sweet smelling, but mustn’t be too dense. The fire while cooking the porridge should be mild and the cook should constantly mix it to avoid crumbling.”
In a cool breeze and the gentle cold winter air penetrating every alley, a bowl of hot chao trai is warming and makes people feel closer. The dish may have originated in the countryside, but it has been an intrinsic feature of Hanoian culinary habits whenever the ambience of winter embraces the city’s streets.
The eatery is located at 20B Tran Xuan Soan, Hai Ba Trung and is open from 10.30am every weekday and from 3pm at weekends. The price is VND25,000 per bowl inclus