From Chinese import to a Hanoi staple, wonton noodles or my van than are found all over the capital. Words by me. Edits by Nick Ross. Photos by Julie Vola. The article is originally published in Word Vietnam Issue March 2015.
Hanoi has its own unique food culture, one that has been affected by Chinese and French influences. Take Hanoi’s street side banh my. Different from the original French baguette, it has been adapted to local tastes, as has banh my sot vang (beef stew in red wine sauce) and bo bit tet (Vietnamese beef steak with bread). When it comes to Chinese-originated food, my van than or wonton noodles is a perfect example of how Hanoians have altered a Chinese dish to enjoy it in their own way.According to my grandmother, wonton noodles first appeared in Hanoi in the 1930s when merchants from Guangdong immigrated to Vietnam. With the presence of these Chinese settlers came their cuisine — Chinese street peddlers began selling wonton noodles. Wherever these peddlers went, the sound of their bamboo sticks beating against each other became a feature of the wonton noodles of the time.
“At first, traditional Hanoians found it ‘difficult to eat’,” says my grandmother. “So for a long time the dish was not so well known. The peddlers then changed the recipe, used local ingredients and made it a mix between Hanoi and Chinese cuisine.”
Nowadays, wonton noodle peddlers can no longer be found in Hanoi, but people can easily find my van than in eateries across the city, cooked up not only by chefs of Chinese origin, but also by Hanoians.
“My van than is now prepared by Hanoians with much less ingredients than its Chinese original version,” adds my grandmother.
To Hanoians, good my van than must have a clear, sweet and light broth, made from ingredients including fresh shrimp, pork bones, dried sturgeon, Chinese herbal medicine and salt. The noodles, made from flour and eggs, must be fresh, soft and pliable. The wonton dough, after being boiled, must be transparent. Its fillings — minced pork and minced shrimp — must be fresh and rich. Chinese-style barbecued pork, mushrooms, a quarter of boiled egg, a fresh shrimp and vegetables are added to the soup, and in some eateries, Hanoian chefs also add a piece of boiled liver.
Good my van than can be found all over the city, but if you want to discover the original taste made by the Chinese, then head to Hang Chieu.
Three my van than eateries line this bustling street —Phuong Beo (19 Hang Chieu, Hoan Kiem) and Binh Tay (54 Hang Chieu, Hoan Kiem) are said to be two of the best wanton noodle joints in town.
“My grandfather is Chinese and he was a merchant in Saigon,” says the owner of Phuong Beo. “Then he moved to Hanoi and started selling my van than.
“According to my grandfather, the secret to a delicious my van than lies in the broth, which is only achieved if you cook it with a lot of fresh shrimp. You cannot fake it. Besides the shrimp, the dried sturgeon is another secret. Another challenge is getting the amount of salt just right.”
Besides its broth, Phuong Beo is also well-known for its soft and delicious noodles.
“To make sure the noodles are tasty, soft but pliable, you must remember the formula ‘2 hot 1 cold’,” she says. “It means after soaking the dry noodles twice in boiling water, you need to put it into cold water once.
“The wontons are even more challenging. To make the clear skin of the wonton, you must wait for a specific period of time for the dough to rise, so that you can have a thin and transparent cover to wrap over the fillings.”
Now in its third generation, the owner admits that the way she cooks my van than has changed since the time of her grandfather. However, “generation after generation, the essence of the original recipe is still there.”
She adds: “We intend to give this eatery to my son. When he takes it over, over time people’s tastes will change. He will need to know how to adapt the soup to modern times.”