Artisan exerts efforts to preserve Hanoi typical culinary features

A rustic, simple dish but still imbued with the sophistication of Hanoi cuisine, it is “Bun oc nguoi” (cold snail noodle soup). Although the dish uses only a few ingredients, the necessity to eliminate the fishy taste, while maintaining a delicious palate, makes it a real challenge. One woman from Hanoi’s traditional Old Quarter still preserves and spreads this unique culinary feature.

Ms. Nguyen Thi Hien instructs children on how to make Hanoi’s traditional cold snail noodle soup. (Photo: NDO/Giang Nam)
Ms. Nguyen Thi Hien instructs children on how to make Hanoi’s traditional cold snail noodle soup. (Photo: NDO/Giang Nam)

Hanoi’s cuisine is delicate and unique. In terms of writing eloquently about the capital city’s cuisine, none are better than famous writer Vu Bang (1913-1984), who is still well-known for his writing about Hanoi’s culture. Among the many dishes of Hanoi, there is one dish that Vu Bang said: "is a gift, can be said to have achieved the highest level in the selective culinary art of Hanoians". Not pho, nor com (young sticky rice), the dish he chose is ... snail noodle soup, more precisely cold snail noodle soup with its true Hanoian style.

To enjoy snail dishes, the Vietnamese often serve hot noodles, as the heat drowns out the fishy taste of the snail. But if it's a cold vermicelli bowl, “de-fishifying” it is of course much more difficult. Therefore, hot snail noodles are available everywhere, but very few "dare" to make cold snail noodles. Hanoi has only a few local restaurants specialising in this dish. One of them is Bun oc ba ngoai (Grandma’s snail noodle) on To Ngoc Van street, Tay Ho district. A bit far from downtown Hanoi but this establishment attracts many artists and gourmets. The owner is Nguyen Thi Hien, a 70-year-old woman.

Hien was busy in the opening of her new free class guiding children on how to make cold snail noodles. Although she is busy both teaching and operating her restaurant, all can see clearly in her words and voice the elegance of a traditional Hanoian woman. Hien is originally from the Old Quarter, born in Phat Loc alley, Hoan Kiem district. Both her paternal and maternal sides are Hanoian. From a young age, she learned to cook in the traditional Hanoian style. Even as she matured during past wars and joined an art troop to serve the military across battlefields, the typical flavours of traditional Hanoi’s cuisine still existed within her and permeated the deepest parts of her soul.

Among many outstanding Hanoi dishes, Hien is most fond of cold noodle soup. "This dish is easy in ways but also very difficult to make. It is easy because it does not require sophisticated seasoning or herbs. But it is also very difficult as with that key little ingredient, we must remove the fishy smell and make a delicious snail soup," she said.

At first glance, it is difficult for anyone to love the cold snail noodle dish. It is not as colourful as the hot snail bowl. It’s just a bowl of snail soup, dotted with fat and chili paste, along with noodles only as big as two or three coins combined. In the bowl there are several snails. But once all these things enter the mouth, the taste dispels the original feeling.

"To have a delicious cold snail noodle dish, the snail must be processed fragrantly to make it fatty but also chewy and crunchy. The traditional Hanoians not only soak the snails with swill – the liquid left over from the rice swilling process before cooking the rice – so that the snails let out the fishiness, but also soak them with fermented distiller’s grains. Soaking snails enough in the fermented liquid not only eliminates the fishy taste but also increases the taste for snails as the fermented distiller’s grains absorb into them, adding an aroma both sour and sweet. The next step is to boil the snails, pouring just enough water and the fermented liquid into the snails to cover them all, then boiling over a fire until the snail soup boils. Next the cover should be opened while the fire is lowered, then the heat must be increased suddenly right after that. Just repeating the process three times and pouring out the snails, we will have snails that are chewy enough,” Hien added.

These seemingly small secrets, collecting during education on how to make the dish since childhood, are now being promoted by Hien. Her way of making chili paste is also unique. She fries the onions, takes that oil and fries the chilis to make chili paste. When the oil is very hot, she pours the chilli in, then lets it cool down again to allow the oil be absorbed into each chilli seed, then fries the mixture again. The finished chilli paste is spicy and has a natural aroma.

Coming to Hien's restaurant, if customers are not used to enjoying cold snail noodles, the female owner will offer advice. Each tiny vermicelli piece just enough for one bite. Dabbing the noodle in a bowl of chilli paste and bringing it to your mouth to "awaken the taste", then taking the broth. One must enjoy the noodle slowly to properly taste it. After that, one can switch to dipping the noodle into the bowl of cold noodle soup. The bowl mixes many tastes in just one fragrant, creamy, spicy and sour dish.

Hien said that at her age, she no longer places a heavy emphasis on business. In addition to her specialty of cold snail noodle, she has restored a number of other traditional dishes using snails such as ginger steamed snails, snail spring rolls and snail sausage. She just wants to preserve and spread Hanoi’s culinary beauty.

The beauty is not only in the food, but also in the way of enjoying it, which in turn, reflects the broader things – those of lifestyle and the culture. Dr. Le Thi Minh Ly, Vice President of the Cultural Heritage Association of Vietnam, who is also a regular guest of Hien’s restaurant, said: "It's been a long time since I found the familiar taste of cold snail noodle from Mrs. Hien's restaurant elsewhere. I am very happy to see Hien open a cooking class. This is a way to spread the culture, Hanoi’s many dishes, but it is important to pay attention to preserving the quintessence of these and avoid cross-contamination like with many current noodle dishes – even beef, sausage and tofu in, which are losing their traditional flavours."