Grabbing a sheet of dried squid, the petite woman yanks the tentacles free and tosses the flesh onto the charcoal burner on the curb. Perched on a tiny plastic stool, she turns it quickly with her bare fingers, using her other hand to fan the flames.
“We don’t put anything on the squid. It gets all its flavour from how it dries in the sun,” says Nguyen Thi Phuong, 41, who runs the street-side eatery out of the front room of her house. From a folding chair beside the rack of dried muc, she watches the squid char to a papery white. When it emerges from the flames, it is pounded with a wooden mallet and torn into strips.
Tasting the papery shreds of warm squid, it’s hard to believe they haven’t been exposed to a single pinch of seasoning. Chewy and tender, edges charred from the flames, muc nuong strikes an unusual – and addictive – balance between salty and sweet.
It’s all in the timing, Phuong explains. When the fishermen hang the squid from their boats to dry, they have to make sure they don’t spend too long in the sun, which would make the texture too leathery and destroy their subtle sweetness. These squid dried for two or three days, she says – just enough time to dry them out while preserving their flavour.
There’s no menu at Phuong Muc. Just indicate how many people are eating, and the server will decide how much squid to grill. Served alongside crisp slices of jicama, guava and cucumber, the dish falls midway between a hearty snack and a small meal.
Hang Bo is covered in stalls and restaurants selling this traditional Hanoian food, but what sets Phuong Muc apart is the incendiary chilli sauce, which Phuong makes herself. Try to ask her what the ingredients are, and she develops a sudden coyness.
“It’s a secret,” she says, her giggle revealing crooked teeth.
Pressed, she reveals that the sauce contains “more than 10 different ingredients.”
Although she won’t specify exactly what goes into the secret recipe, a careful stir turns up hunks of garlic and flecks of bright chilli.
When Phuong decided to turn her front room into a restaurant, muc nuong was the logical food to offer. Growing up in Hanoi, she loved eating the grilled dried squid, which her mother often made as a snack for the whole family.
“I could eat it every day!” she says.
Although the squid is prepared outside, diners eat in the wide, airy front room, where a broad carpet provides sitting room for dozens of people.
“I’ve been here about 10 times,” says one customer, who identifies himself as a businessman, as his children nosh happily on strips of squid. “It has a nicer atmosphere than other places on the street. In the winter, you can sit here and it’s warm. Plus, 36 is a lucky number!”
Most Hanoians know how to make muc nuong at home. But the restaurant offers a heated, convivial hangout. On winter nights, the carpet sprawls with boisterous groups, who wash down platters of the grilled squid with cold beer. Open until 2am, this snack might be the ideal way to start or end a night out on the town.
Phuong Muc is located at 36 Hang Bo, Hoan Kiem, and is plainly visible from the tables of dried squid outside. The restaurant is open from 3pm to 2am. Muc nuong prices range from VND150,000 to VND300,000.