This is Nguyen Thi Thanh AKA The Lunch Lady. She’s one of my favorite street vendors in Saigon because she whips up amazing noodles everyday of the week. I enjoy her cooking so much that I blogged about her twice prior (here and here). To share my enthusiasm for her dishes with the greater Saigon community, I penned a piece about her in this month’s AsiaLIFE. She deserves all the good press I can churn out!
Every morning before the sun rises, Nguyen Thi Thanh rolls out of bed, dons a comfy do bo (Vietnamese pyjamas), hops on her motorbike and heads to Thi Nghe Market. Thanh has been frequenting the same vendors for years, so everyone knows her by name and provides her with the freshest meats, noodles, herbs and vegetables.
Thanh arrives home at 8 am and begins preparing the day’s noodle dish. All of her broths are made from scratch, and she is blessed with a certain touch that somehow allows her soup seasonings to simultaneously suit everyone’s tastes. An hour before noon, the broth is finally perfect, and a crowd of customers gathered under a shady tree near her apartment is ready to dig into a hot bowl of noodles. This well-worn routine has been a part of Thanh’s life for the past decade, and she wouldn’t have it any other way.
Despite recent dramatic increases in the costs of raw ingredients, Thanh refuses to raise her prices above 13,000 VND. She does not want to burden her customers, who are mostly local residents and workers. Instead, she compensates by selling additional bowls of noodles. “I used to sell 15 kilograms of noodles,” she says, “But these days I sell 20 kilograms, which yields 80 to 100 bowls.”
The majority of hawkers pounding the city’s pavement master a single dish and prepare it daily. This type of specialisation usually results in a dependable product that customers can count on each and every time. Thanh, on the other hand, marches to the beat of an innovative tune. She manages to change her menu everyday without sacrificing an ounce of quality. “I’ve always sold multiple dishes,” she says. “If I prepared the same dish everyday, customers would get bored.”
On Mondays, Thanh makes bun Thai. The broth is inspired by Thailand’s classic tom yum goong soup and has a spicy kick that hits the back of one’s throat. Thick and rounded rice noodles, squid, fried fish cakes and a single shrimp round out the dish.
Tuesdays feature a double punch of banh canh and bun moc. Both dishes are comprised of a satisfying collection of meats, deep-fried shallots and a deeply flavourful and deftly salted pork-based broth, but they employ different noodles. The bun moc uses vermicelli rice noodles, while banh canh contains a thick udon-like noodle with a bite.
Wednesdays bring an element of surprise. Depending on what ingredients are available at the market, Thanh chooses to prepare either mi ga tiem or hu tieu Nam Vang. Though traditionally made with duck, Thanh opts for chicken in her mi ga tiem because it’s leaner. The best part of the dish is the sweet star anise broth that is poured over fresh egg noodles. The pickled green papaya served on the side isn’t too shabby either.
Hu tieu Nam Vang is a Cambodian-Chinese concoction that the Vietnamese borrowed and made their own; it consists of a sweet pork broth and a number of odds and ends like quail eggs, innards and liver. Nam Vang is the Vietnamese word for Phnom Penh. Customers can choose between two types of noodles with this dish—mi (egg noodles) or hu tieu (opaque rice noodles).
Thursday’s dish is consistently bun mam, which comes with pineapple, eggplant, barbecued pork (thit heo quay), shrimp, okra, chives and thick rice noodles. The fermented fish broth is amazingly aromatic and pairs well with the mix of fruits, vegetables and meats.
Thanh’s bun bo Hue on Fridays is a huge draw. The broth has a deep lemongrass flavour and just a hint of spiciness, and there’s always a generous amount of tender meat. Thanh avoids gristly meat by adding a whole pineapple to the broth, which tenderizes the meat and imparts a bit of sweetness to the broth.
Saturdays she prepares banh canh once more, but this time around it is a more classic rendition with a crab-based broth rather than a pork one. In addition to slippery udon-like noodles, this dish contains fish cakes, fried shallots and a quail egg.
Sundays feature a triple threat of bun thit nuong, bun nem nuong and bun cha gio, a series of broth-less rice vermicelli dishes topped with grilled meats, egg rolls, herbs, bean sprouts and a fish sauce vinaigrette. Thanh says that these dishes are especially labor intensive because she must skewer the meat onto individual bamboo skewers. Her hard work definitely pays off—she often sells out before 1 pm.
To supplement her noodles, Thanh has rounded up her relatives and neighbors to sell appetizers, beverages and desserts near her stall. Thus it is possible for lunch-goers to enjoy a three-course meal under one shady tree.
Her sister Mai Thi Hoa has small stall next to hers selling incredibly fresh spring rolls with shrimp, pork, bean sprouts and chives (goi cuon). The hoisin sauce, which can either make or break goi cuon, is solid. Her niece and nephew-in-law sell a variety of che, including ones with grass jelly, basil seeds and banana essence. Around 1 pm each day, a woman rolls her cart to the bustling shady tree and dishes up delicious bowls of warm silken tofu with a sweet ginger syrup and tapioca balls. Completing the cast of vendors is a neighbor who sells soft drinks and sinh to (fruit smoothies) to thirsty diners.
Thanh’s knack for noodles and keen business sense sets her apart from her hawker counterparts. A full-service restaurant experience in the form of street food is nothing short of brilliant.
See also: Lunch Lady, Her Noodles Bring All the Boys to the Yard, and Life After Bourdain: Reuniting with the Lunch Lady.
Published in AsiaLIFE Magazine August 2008