The perfect dish for the Hanoi Autumn, mien tron or mixed glass noodles is more complex than you may think. Words by me. Edits by Nick Ross. Photos by David Harris.The article was published on Word Vietnam Magazine – Issue September 2014.
There’s a problem with the English word ‘noodles’ or ‘vermicelli’. It just doesn’t describe the number of noodle dishes out there, and in Vietnam there are a lot. Bun, mien, banh da, banh pho, banh canh, banh hoi, mi Quang, mi… The list goes on.
One of the more popular types of noodles is mien, often known as glass noodles in English. Made from cassava — mien is also sometimes called cassava vermicelli — as opposed to rice or wheat, after bun this form of dried noodle is probably the second most popular in Hanoi.
Mien often comes fried with crabmeat and vegetables, or as a replacement for pho noodles in a broth known as mien ga. However, my recommendation for the cooler weather of the Hanoi Autumn is mixed cassava vermicelli or mien tron.
Find your way to Ly Quoc Su in the Old Quarter and you will come across a small mien tron eatery near the junction with Chan Cam, Mien Tron Hanh. Like many other street food joints in Hanoi, this place is quite small, only fitting in one row of tables. As this eatery was originally part of an alley, at its end you will see stairs leading to the upstairs apartments of local Hanoians. Mien Tron Hanh also provides a nice little escape from the bustling activity of Ly Quoc Su, one of the busiest streets in the Old Quarter. Yet it still gives you a people-watching observation point onto the road beyond.
Order a mien tron, wait for two minutes and a bowl of this all-in-one dish with shining fried onions and roasted peanuts on top will be placed in front of you. Put on a bit of vinegar, a drop of kumquat juice, some chilli and mix everything up — the blended taste may come as a bit of a surprise. Mixed with crab eggs, fried tofu, fried onion, roasted peanut, soy sauce, fish sauce, vegetables and herbs, together with fish patty, soft-stirred beef and pork roll, the sweetness and richness of the taste comes from the crab egg, which comes from crabs living in the waters of paddy fields in northern Vietnam. Besides the mien, it is the essential ingredient of this dish.
“You have to select a good type of mien,” says Hanh, the eatery’s owner. “If it is not made from cassava, it gets too starchy and spoils the dish.”
She adds: “I’ve run this shop ever since my mother passed away, and the last 20 years we have been carefully picking the fish from Ha Long to make the patty. I make the patty myself and fry it early every morning.
“People say that mien tron is easy to make. They’re wrong. There are up to 11 ingredients in this dish. Each kind of sauce must be used to a specific quantity and all the vegetables and meat must be well-cooked. To get the rich and sweet taste, you have to prepare the crab right after you’ve bought it from the market. To get the appealing smell, your onions must be fried daily in advance. The beef must be soft and tender. We have to prepare all the ingredients so that they’re ready-to-eat. Then the customer mixes them together.”
According to Hanh she’s had a number of interesting experiences with foreign diners. The most common problem she encounters is communication.
“Many a time, foreigners come to my eatery,” she says. “They find it hard to say the name of things they like as we have so many ingredients on the plate.”
The day before I spoke to Hanh a foreign man came in. He tried to explain that he couldn’t eat all of the vegetables, but struggled to make himself understood.
“They have trouble [expressing themselves], but they still find the dish delicious. It makes their experience with my mien tron unforgettable.”
The eatery is located at 7B Ly Quoc Su, Hoan Kiem, Hanoi and is open from around 9am until 8.30pm. A serving of mien tron ranges from VND25,000 to VND40,000 depending on whether you order meat, fish patty, pork roll, beef or everything