If your thing happens to be snapping strategic photos of yourself munching on exotic street fare and posting it on your favourite social sites merely to incite jealousy in your loved ones back home, beware that professionally printed banner for pho mai que lurking in the background.
A rather literal Vietnamese translation for ‘cheese stick’, the uninitiated need not worry; pho mai que is mozzarella cheese shaped in the form of a stick, deep-fried. The batter used is a common flour and cornmeal combination, similar in appearance and taste to the kind found on your average fish stick (fish sticks = fish, shaped in the form of a stick, deep-fried). It’s typically served scorching hot, and upon being bitten into, its inner cheese oozes forth, trailed by dramatic clouds of steam like an on-stage fog machine. It’s impossible not to notice that teens, pre-teens on their bicycles, or at the oldest, post-collegiate graduates, are the ones frequenting the multiplying pho mai que stalls around Hanoi. If the question of why it has become Hanoi’s current street food obsession comes to mind, you might not be alone.
From Korea with Love?
Typical consumer, 10-year-old Hoang Minh’s analysis of the appeal is uncomplicated. “I used to eat it at Lotteria,” he says, “but now I like it on the street.”
How long has it been popular in Hanoi?
His shoulders, starting from their normal position, rise dramatically to the tips of his ears — How am I supposed to know, dude?
And what do you like about it?
“It tastes good.”
Prodding the young man for answers to this recent mystery seemed a bit unfair, so I decided to conduct some more in-depth research. It turns out the mighty cheese stick reveals a source far deeper than its fast-food veneer might suggest.
In Le Menagier de Paris, a cookbook/etiquette guide written for women of medieval France back in 1393, one can find its origins. Called pipefarces, the centuries-old recipe requires elaborate steps for its preparation, yet ask any citoyen of 2012 and they would likely be more than happy to relinquish custody of their brainchild. Indeed, most who share a history with the cheese stick pre-dating Lotteria will associate it with the likes of fluorescent bowling pins and Lipitor.
Once exclusively popular with American kids whose parents refused to cook, cheese sticks gained traction with this set specifically because of their foolproof preparation method. Open your freezer, crack open a box, put it in the microwave for two minutes and voila. Your instant dosage of every portly American’s Holy Trinity: dairy products, fried foods and convenience. It has since matured into being the de facto appetiser on menus in august dining establishments like Applebee’s, Friday’s, and Chili’s, consumed with a passion rivalled only for the French fry.
This only complicates the reasoning behind its current popularity here in Hanoi. Ami, a pho mai que merchant in her mid-20s down the street from St Joseph Cathedral, has only been selling it for about a month. She’s outsourced the prepping of the cheese sticks to her friend, who prepares it in her home kitchen before packing it in plastic-ware for Ami to freshly fry on the streets.
Where does the cheese come from?
“Any supermarket here in town that has western foods.”
What gave you the idea to start selling pho mai que?
“I first had it on Ta Hien in June, or July. I saw that it was very popular, so I —” “Actually,” interjects Linh, a customer of Ami’s straddling a baby-blue plastic chair, “they started selling it around March. ‘Suxu Shop’ was the first, at 15 Ta Hien.”
Unsurprisingly, Suxu is a stone’s throw away from what’s dubbed the International Bia Hoi Corner, befitting as a location for pho mai que Ground Zero. If Americans like to wash down a cheese stick with a Budweiser while watching their favourite sports, it’s only fitting that pho mai que is devoured along with every bia hoi denizen’s favourite recreation — people watching. With blue plastic chairs of their own, cheese sticks — compared to others sampled around town — Suxu’s were the best. The mozzarella was robust and the batter had a better flavour than elsewhere.
So what exactly was the inspiration for the vendor to bring this to Hanoi?
“It’s not my place, I’ve only worked here a month,” an employee tells me, not giving her name. “You’ll want to talk to chi Loc, the owner.”
But repeated calls to the apparent foster mom of pho mai que in Hanoi went unanswered. Well… enough. A tramp wandering the streets of the world having found no shortage of love here in Hanoi, the cheese stick remains an orphan. Nobody to claim it, nobody to own it and nobody to blame.