Most focus on famous sites around the street like Saint Joseph’s Cathedral on Nha Chung or the bustling Ngo Huyen, but if you look carefully at the corner of the intersection with Hang Bong Street, you will find a beautiful small detail.
The woman selling cháo sườn (porridge with pork ribs) on the pavement has been selling it for more than 20 years and has become an irreplaceable part of Ly Quoc Su. Her name is Bui Thi La, 60 years old, and she serves one of the best cháo sườn in Hanoi.
How can a bowl with simple ingredients like porridge, pork ribs and salted shredded meat be that good?
There’s no answer, because cooking is an art, there’s only place for feeling. Feeling can come from the past. For Vietnamese people born in war and poverty, a bowl of porridge is a symbol of care, love and happiness, so no matter how the country changes, porridge will always be a dish of choice.
It’s the small details that make this dish, as though rice, pork ribs and salted shredded meat are simple ingredients, a meticulous chef can create something great with them.
“First is the rice selection, I choose rice named Khang Dan, it might not become a very delicious steamed rice but when it comes to making porridge, it’s perfect. To make it soft and easier to grind into rice powder, I have to soak it inside fresh water a night before, then I wake up at 4am in the next morning, take it out, grind it and stir it with the bone broth which is steamed with the pork bone. The whole cooking process takes me three hours every morning,” said La about her technique.
While the actual cooking may be simple, the preparation takes a long time
As the rice is soaked in water a night before, it’s easy to grind it into powder and together with the sweet flavour of the bone broth it is delicious, greasy and healthy.
By adding salted shredded meat, the bowl becomes saltier to make the taste last longer and with hot cruller (fried Chinese bread sticks or locally known as quay) which is crunchy and greasy, we finally have the last piece of the cháo sườn.
If cooking is art, diners are the audience. Each artist needs audience’s support.
“I’ve been eating La’s cháo sườn for more than 10 years, her porridge is the best in the Old Quarter for me. I still remember her cháo sườn at 43 Ngo Huyen Lane, then she stopped selling it for nine months. We were really worried about what was wrong with her and we missed her porridge so much. It’s so good that she has started selling it again,” said Hanoian Ngo Van Hau.
“It’s such a pity that not many foreigners try this awesome food, especially it is served right in the middle of the Old Quarter, nearby Ngo Huyen Street where me and many other of my foreigner friends are living. It is greasy, sweet, warm, salty and crunchy at the same time, brilliant,” said Australian John Peterson, an English teacher who has been working and living in the capital for three years.
For an artist, to create art, you need talent, but to maintain it, you need passion, and so do cooks.
“I always wake up at 4am every day in the last 20 years. Many people think it’s very simple simple, they think that the rice powder only need to be stirred with bone broth and that’s it. But everything has to be done meticulous, you need to pay close attention to each process, or else everything is done. You can’t have a delicious bowl of porridge only by boiling it and then leaving it there,” La said.
“I used to serve customers at 43 Ngo Huyen, after witnessing my success, many families nearby followed and then took my spot. I was depressed as my job to feed the whole family was threatened and my husband was very sick. I stopped selling the porridge for nine months and planned to find another job but then I realised that there is no better job for myself than this one that I love. I stood up and started again with this little corner. For younger generations, they don’t really know about me but for loyal customers, I’m the first person to serve cháo sườn at Ngo Huyen,” she added.
Lucky for La, her loyal customers are there for her.
“No matter how many shops there are, I’ll always enjoy La’s chao suon,” said Nguyen Thanh Huyen, a long time customer.
And she has her family behind her as well.
“To help my mom sell more porridge, I created a fan page ‘Chao Suon Co La’ on Facebook for selling and marketing online. I’m also a shipper for my mother. I’m trying my best every day to help her because we are family and I understand how difficult her life is,”said La daughter’s Lan Anh.
La’s story is not just about her delicious food. It’s about family love and the feeling of long-held values, things that cháo sườn helps remind us to cherish.