Almost every Hue person can cook and cook well beef noodle soup. Photo: Linh Dan
Cooking Hue beef noodle soup in a foreign land
In 1965, the schoolgirl Thai Kim Lan left Hue to study abroad. The cold and icy winter in Germany made her miss home and, especially, Hue dishes. "I wished I had a bowl of my mom’s hot and spicy beef noodle soup, with the mildly fragrant aroma of shrimp paste and lemongrass, so that I could satisfy my craving and lessen my homesickness.”
In 1984, Mrs. Thai Kim Lan opened the "Vietnamese Restaurant - Hue Dishes" in Munich and became the first Hue person to introduce Hue beef noodle soup to Germans. At that time, the beef noodle dish at her restaurant was "beef noodle soup but not the standard Hue beef noodle soup" as it lacked two main spices that made up the "soul" of Hue beef noodle soup: shrimp paste and lemongrass, besides chili sauce... She had to go to Paris to buy Thai shrimp paste.
Only when Vietnam opened for trade in the 1990s could Mrs. Thai Kim Lan buy Vietnamese shrimp paste and lemongrass to cook beef noodle soup. Despite having all the necessary ingredients, she still could not produce a standard Hue beef noodle soup like her mother's cooking. So, she travelled back and forth from Munich to Hue several times to learn the secrets. Every time she came back to Hue, she would eat beef noodle soup from fancy noodle shops to popular sidewalk shops, learning little by little. Once she came back to Hue just to learn how to make chili sauce.
When I asked about the Germans’ opinion on the taste of Hue beef noodle soup, Mrs. Thai Kim Lan smiled and said that they wanted to see with their own eyes what plants produced the attractive aroma of the broth. Germans do not usually eat spicy food, but with beef noodle soup, they learn to get used to the spicy taste as they understand it is the characteristic taste of the dish.
A dish must retain its authentic taste and standard. This is the spirit of cuisine and also the desire of those who enjoy the food. Hue housewives and Mrs. Thai Kim Lan have to overcome many challenges to keep the standard of beef noodle soup. They do it because of their honest heart and true love for the dish.
A 60,000 VND bowl of beef noodle soup
According to culinary artist Mai Thi Vang and the researcher Nguyen Xuan Hoa, the origin of beef noodle is from beef stew eaten with sticky rice at the village feasts or death ceremonies in Hue. As sticky rice can be quite dry, people gradually switched to fresh rice noodles. From there, beef noodle soup was born. Initially, beef noodle soup only had beef ingredients (which is different from now with added pork legs, crab balls, pork balls, tendons, blood cakes...).
Wanting to show off to my friends, I learned and tried to cook the original beef noodle soup, which has only beef. When my friends come to Hue, I would be able to treat them this dish. I bought beef bones and simmer them to sweeten the broth. I bought beef shank and beef tenderloin to cook a pot of beef noodle soup in the old Hue style.
I had all the necessary ingredients: lemongrass, shrimp paste, chili, banana buds, herbs, large rice noodles from Van Cu village, and the cooking techniques learnt from Hue culinary artisans. The result was the authentic taste of Hue beef noodle soup: delicious, aromatic, and spicy.
I calculated the total cost and worked out that a bowl costed 50,000 VND. I asked my sister if she would buy that bowl of beef noodle soup for 50,000 VND. Her eyes widened as she exclaimed, "At that expensive price? Surely nobody would buy it.”
I remember the viral story on social media of the 60,000VND bowl of beef noodle soup and how the owner was fined for selling without listing the price on the menu. At the time, I also agreed that it was too expensive. Now that I have actually made beef noodle soup, not taking into account the amount of labor I had put in, I feel that I was too hasty in judging the price without actually seeing what the bowl included.
The researcher Nguyen Xuan Hoa said that, two years ago, he ate a bowl of Hue beef noodle soup in Da Lat, the normal price was 60,000 VND/bowl and was delicious according to Hue standards. He also agreed, "If you want to keep the quality of Hue beef noodle soup, you need to improve people's income. It is not possible to have cheap but delicious noodle soup ".
I think everyone would agree that if we expect noodle shops to sell cheaply and to make a profit just from their labor, no one can follow the profession. This is the same with any job, not just with selling beef noodles.
Delicious beef noodle soup needs love
It is too easy to find information about Hue beef noodle soup on websites as well as in magazines and culinary books. It is so popular that not only Hue people but also people in other regions who are addicted to beef noodle soup can learn how to cook it. How delicious the beef noodle soup is, however, depends on many factors. But in general, it is possible to make a pot of homemade beef noodle soup.
With that said, does it mean that anyone can cook Hue beef noodle soup? There would be no need for the cook to be a Hue person and certainly no need for the cook to possess a love for the dish, right? But believe it or not, cuisine has a soul.
Mrs. Bưởi, who has been selling beef noodle soup for 50 years at An Cuu market, told me: "Can you believe me when I say that whenever I'm happy, my pot of noodles would always taste delicious? And when I’m sad, no matter how much I adjust the seasoning, I still cannot make it taste right." Cuisine also demands to be loved and to be understood until the very end. Only then would the cook be rewarded with a delicious and aromatic dish.
No Hue woman has ever criticized the smell of shrimp paste. My mother often uses the phrase "fragrant shrimp paste". One must "understand" shrimp paste to bring out its "fragrance" when seasoning. One must understand the types of meat: pork, beef and even duck, in order to prepare a pot of broth.
The evolution of Hue beef noodle soup to its current state is a journey that sums up the experiences of many generations of Hue women. They were all guided to cooking by love. Whether cooking for their family or for selling to others, the dish must be delicious, healthy, and clean.
And it is also because of love that the sellers of Hue beef noodle soup, from the old days of carrying heavy pots of noodle soup on their shoulders to nowadays, still keep the practice of doing honest business. From three to four o'clock in the morning, they go to the butchery to buy meat to have fresh, delicious ingredients to sweeten the pot of broth. No harmful or toxic substances are ever added.
No matter how old the story of Hue beef noodle soup is, there seems to always be something to say about it. The dish with its long history is now recognized as one of a hundred delicious Asian dishes; a Vietnamese dish that is praised by the world's leading culinary experts as "the best soup ever".
By Xuan An