When a particular type of spring roll exploded on the Hanoi streetfood scene, many people claimed or were claimed to be its inventor. Billy Gray goes in search of the source of pho cuon. Photos by Trung Del
Wander amongst the narrow streets of Ngu Xa Village and you'll soon discover the warm smell of sizzling beef being wrapped into bite-size rolls with vegetables, accompanied bya notoriously tasty dip made of fish sauce, garlic, chilli and herbs — a dish synonymous to the area surrounding Truc Bach Lake; pho cuon.
According to urban legend, the spring-roll like pho cuon was invented one summer night 10 years ago, in a pho restaurant in Ngu Xa village. Around a table littered with empty beer bottles, some customers were drinking late into the night watching a football match on TV and asked the owner for some food. When the owner realised she’d run out of broth, she decided to see what she could put together with the remaining ingredients — and using uncut pho noodles as rice paper, just like that that, pho cuon was born.
We spent the afternoon in Ngu Xa village talking to some restaurant owners, and chowing down on the tasty pho rolls.
Wrapping up the Myths
We began our search at Chinh Thang Restaurant, home of 61-year-old Vu Thi Chinh. Mrs Chinh is widely considered to be the inventor of pho cuon and we were eager to hear her side of the story.
“I had a lot of regular customers who would complain that it was too hot for a steaming bowl of noodle soup. I would try this recipe or that, get some feedback and eventually people turned all the way to pho cuon — that was in 2000.”
We ask her about late night revellers and running out of broth. She smiles: “That story is not true. Maybe some restaurants when they ran out of broth tried to copy pho cuon.”
As we set off to leave, Mrs Chinh motions to a picture hanging from the wall in her store front. It’s of her holding an award in front of her shop. She proudly explains that she’s been on national television three times to talk about pho cuon: “The people in other cities heard about it back then and they were interested. ‘What is pho cuon?’ they would ask?”
Since then she has built a loyal following around the world. Mrs Chinh lights up as she recalls: “I have customers from Australia, Japan, Thailand, and they come by whenever they visit Hanoi — one of them drew me this picture,” she says, revealing a sketch of her cooking the meal in the back of her restaurant. “He was from the US.”
Not So Special After All
Hearing the supposed inventor’s humble side of the story, we then set further into our investigation and spoke with some of the other restaurant owners in the area.
Hung Ben, whose restaurant is around the corner from Chinh Thang explains that: “Before, there was a lady in this area who showed me the same thing.” Hung goes on to explain the very same version of the pho cuon yarn that we’d heard about before. It seems that this dish was around in one form or another before its incarnation on the TV screen.
However long pho cuon has been around, it appears we will never really know for sure. It could be said that a dish as simple as this one must have been made in some form or another for many years — as Mrs Chinh decided back in 2000, it’s just not logical to be eating a steaming bowl of noodles in the height of summer.
How many times have you put something together with those obscure leftover ingredients and later discovered there’s a name for it? Pho cuon is just another logical step in the evolution of Vietnamese cuisine.