@stickyinhanoi @EatingAsia Longer piece I did for a local magazine on pho cuon not online, but follow the link if you're interested to know more (about the theories...)
Roll up, roll up for pho cuon
Is the dish pho cuon a modern innovation or just a retro-trend that has simply resurfaced over the last 10 years? Connla Stokes quizzed the restaurants in Hanoi’s Ngu Xa villge and asked other food experts for their thoughts
The leafy streets of Ngu Xa village by Truc Bach lake in Hanoi were once synonymous with brass casting – nowadays, the village’s traditional craft has virtually disappeared, and its known for another lustrous but more edible product: pho cuon.
Most foreigners are familiar with pho cuon – silky white sheets of ‘pho’ (uncut noodles) wrapped around fried beef, lettuce, coriander and dunked in nuoc cham (fish sauce with green papaya slices, rice vinegar, garlic and chilli), a mixture deemed as important as the actual rolls. On food blogs and in travel articles, pho cuon is often referred to as a traditional Vietnamese dish. However, it may be just 10 years old.
There is now possibly as many as 60 restaurants specialising in pho cuon around the Truc Bach lake area. Most have appeared in the last six years (the success of the first few clearly inspired a spate of copycat businesses). The popularity of pho cuon appears to lie in two market segments: foreigners and young Vietnamese. Older Hanoians appear less than interested; one middle-aged Vietnamese woman we spoke to from the nearby Lang Yen Phu described pho cuon as “du hoi” (ludicrous)!
But most of the restaurants around Truc Bach lake clearly have plenty of custom. Light and fresh, soft and yet crunchy, a plate of 10 rolls costs just VND35,000. There are a number of names, which are mentioned when you ask for a tip. Many people recommend Duc Ben restaurant at 35 Nguyen Khac Hieu in the heart of Ngu Xa village. Why? Here, the all important fish sauce based–dip is considered to be the tastiest. Pho Cuon is a simple dish. So what sets it apart from one establishment to another is good nuoc cham, fresh greens and tender beef.
“Easy to eat, easy to make,” says one local customer when asked why it’s so popular. “Normally we eat pho cuon at home. My 14-year old daughter likes to make the rolls…”
But if the dish is a “modern innovation” which restaurant came first? According to Mrs Chinh from Chinh Thang restaurant at 7 Mac Dinh Chi, around the corner from Duc Ben, she is the inventor. She used to sell plain old pho, but one night 10 years ago, a group of late night revellers arrived at her restaurant and she realised she had run out of broth. The men didn’t want to move on so she suggested she would use the square slices of uncut pho and make some rolls with the leftovers.
She served them some sweet-and-sour fish sauce with sliced chilli and garlic; the men wolfed down the rolls and she realised she was onto something. The dish was tweaked – she started to flash fry the beef, which made the rolls sweeter and softer. The rest is history.
Chinh has appeared on national television three times, each time making the dish more famous and encouraging more restaurants to follow her lead. Now, the dish is widespread and found in restaurants across Hanoi and even Ho Chi Minh City. However, on a New York-based food blog we stumbled on, a former Hanoi expat lamented that Vietnamese restaurants in the Big Apple don’t serve pho cuon. If we are to believe the dish didn’t exist before 2001, well, that means your average Vietnamese émigré has never heard of pho cuon.
But then the author, teacher and Vietnamese food enthusiast, Andrea Nguyen, who runs the website Viet World Kitchen, claims the dish might hark back into the heart of the 20th century.
“My mother, who was born and raised in Hai Duong recalls something similar to pho cuon when she was young,” wrote Andrea by email. “She was born in the 30s and lived in northern Vietnam till 1954...”
But, there is no mention of pho cuon mentioned in the almanac written and compiled by a writer Vu Bang in the 1930s. A sweet-and-sour dip is also more of a Southern touch. So perhaps Andrea’s mother was eating something from closer to the Mekong Delta.
Tracey Lister, the director of Hanoi Cooking Centre – a cooking school, restaurant and café in Truc Bach area – said one Vietnamese chef she knows claims pho cuon is a response to the long, blazing hot summer days of Hanoi. Who could eat a hot bowl of soup in 40 degrees Celsius with 90 per cent humidity? A plate of fresh rolls makes more sense.
Another theory offered by an associate of ours was that either the recent re-emergence or creation of pho cuon had been inspired by the French chef Didier Corlou. Before you cry, “sacre blue!” we don’t mean to say he invented pho cuon, but perhaps he nudged a dormant recipe back into the limelight….
Intrigued by the theory? Well, before Mrs Chinh claims she invented pho cuon, the ever inventive and playful Corlou conjured up a menu of Vietnamese and European amalgams including Pho Cannelloni filled with crab and coriander as well as rolls of pho and banh cuon (rice flour crepes) with a variety of lavish fillings: oysters, prawns, avocado, herbs and fillet of beef. If the theory doesn’t ring true, well, it certainly rhymes.
When contacted by Timeout, Didier neither refuted nor accepted the possibility that he inspired Vietnamese chefs. And we will never be able to prove it either. Perhaps, we will have to just embrace the mystery. Just like how people argue over how Vietnamese people came to invent pho, the origins of pho cuon will remain murky, even though it’s possibly only 10 years old. And if it is indeed a retro-trend, well, what can we say… what rolls around, comes around?
Where to try pho cuon in Ngu Xa villae or Truc Bach area: Duc Ben Restaurant, 35 Nguyen Khac Hieu; Bao Minh Restaurant, 114 Tran Vu; Huong Mai Restaurant, 25 Ngu Xa and Chinh Thang, 7 Mac Dinh Chi.