A successful Vietnamese Angolan who used to live near Hanoi’s Old Quarter returned to the city recently after many years. He longed for a bowl of eels glass noodles soup. He remembered a restaurant on Hang Dong Street that he used to frequent for this dish. But after a few days, he gave up, because the city had changed so much.
So he asked me, a close friend from his childhood days, for a recommendation. Without a second’s hesitation, I said, “Ms. Nhung’s at number 9 Nguyen Che Nghia Street. The best.”
There are many food stalls in small alleys around Hanoi that are unnamed but very popular. This is true of Nhung’s stall as well. She’s a true Hanoian, born and raised on Nguyen Che Nghia Street. The food stall is not a family tradition but Nhung’s own creation, and has been running for more than ten years now.
She used to sell sticky rice with pork floss and pâté earlier, and this was also delicious. Like many other Vietnamese women, she worked many jobs to take care of her family.
Though Nhung’s sticky rice stall was popular, she did not sell enough in hot summers. After awhile, she decided to stop selling sticky rice and start making glass noodles soup with eels instead.
From 2007, she did her own research and studied many recipes for this dish. Her goal was to serve something that she herself would want to eat.
The fried eels and the broth are the “soul” of this dish. The broth, which is made with pork bones, crushed eels bones and peanut worms, has the perfect, smooth sweetness without needing any MSG.
Nhung said that it took her three months and many unsuccessful trials to get the broth right. She also experimented a lot with the fried eels before she was happy with the result.
At first, there were many customers. However, the numbers dropped in the following weeks, so she continued with her experiments, adjusting the ingredients, just as if she was cooking for her own family. Finally, she was able to achieve the taste that could please many people, even the most difficult ones.
We went there on a Saturday, and the place was very crowded. The front of the stall is at the entrance of the alley, and is only big enough for the glass cabinet displaying eels and seating for two people. Most of the customers either sit inside the house or along the side of the alley.
Nhung couldn’t pay attention to customers personally as she was busy chopping up eels and cooking the glass noodles…her assistant quickly asked: “For how many people? You will have to wait for a while. Please go outside and line up.”
My friend got quite impatient as the minutes ticked by, and asked in an irritated voice: “Is it really worth all this waiting?”
I said, “Well, since we’re already here, let’s just wait and you’ll see.” We had to wait for about 20 minutes to be seated.
I ordered two bowls, with both eels and eel eggs. The bowls were steaming hot, the glass noodle was golden and the eels were of a beautiful amber colour. On top was chopped Vietnamese coriander and fried shallots. My friend eagerly tasted the soup, and his face instantly lit up.
“It is really worth the wait,” he conceded.
It’s the same for everybody, if you come here between 7:00am and 9:00am, you have to be patient. You can walk around the place and look at the old French buildings opposite, or just wait patiently.
We couldn’t take our eyes from the steaming broth pot and the cabinet full of crunchy fried eels next to it. The cook dipped the glass noodles through a new bone broth.
The glass noodles were rolled to fit inside the bowl, and on top was the fried eel and Vietnamese coriander. When the broth was added, the eels almost spilled over the mouth of the bowl. With my patience reaching its limit after suppressing my hunger, the first slurp was outstanding.
After tasting the thick, flavourful broth, my friend and I were thrilled. With some chilies and fried breadsticks from best baker in town, the eels glass noodles soup became even more wonderful.
Sweat pouring down his forehead, my friend finished the bowl until the very last drop.
Watching him, I could understand the emotions that go through people who live far away from home when they return and taste dishes that take them back to their childhood.