There’s always the “one” dish or meal that people would travel further than normal for any other dish. For me, it’s Pho Bo (beef noodle soup). After arriving as refugees in 1978, my parents decided not to settle in the Sydney suburb of Cabramatta like most Vietnamese migrants. Instead, we moved to Newcastle about a three hour drive away. There were relatively few asian groceries so we’d find ourselves doing a three hour trip to the Sydney suburb of Cabramatta about once a month.
Leaving home at the crack of dawn meant that by the time we arrived in Cabramatta, we’d all be starving, so the first order of the day would be to find a feed. I can distinctly remember two things that I would religiously order. Either deep fried quails and the other one being Pho Bo. There would be different restaurants that would specialise in particular types of noodle soups so we’d pretty much go the same ones every time.
Having arrived early, the only shops open at this time of the day are restaurants and they’re busy with customers, slurping away at their noodle soups. Unlike restaurants here in Vietnam, the menu is quite varied to please everybody including the non Vietnamese. Most of the time the menu was written up on the walls to save the wait staff the hassle of retrieving them for each customer. Some even had the menu printed out and displayed under the glass sheet on top of the table. I would always go for the Pho Tai (rare beef) without fail.
After breakfast we’d all do the grocery shopping. Mainly of the food variety: Vegetables, herbs and dry goods. It’s where I discovered dried beef which I still love to this day. We’d get a few packets of that and there would always be boxes of dehydrated noodles. None of the Maggi noodles that you’d get in a western supermarket. Here you’d get the proper Asian stuff for half the price with the sachets of spices flavoured oils that would make it taste like Asia.
The main shopping areas and stores around Cabramatta wraps itself around the central car park. To get from one end to the other quickly you’d probably use one of the many arcade spaces. Here there would be an array of establishments ranging from more restaurants, butcher shops, fishmongers, bakeries and fruit and vege shops. On the way through we’d pick up a Banh Mi Thit (pork roll) – one for now and another for later when we arrived back home after another long drive.
My mother would be explicit in her instructions to leave the sauce off because you would end up with a soggy pork roll. It just never tasted the same though as they’re meant to be scoffed down immediately and the sauce mix is an important component. One thing that never changes over time and the hundreds of pork rolls consumed is the heat from the chillies. Without fail it would always burn my face off like it had been carpet bombed.
To this day still, I find there’s something sadistic and addictive about nodding your head when the pork roll lady asks “with chilli?” knowing that you’ll soon be induced into a temporarily state of euphoria from a strategically placed chunk of chilli. It’s what keeps you coming back for more.
Over the years, the frequency of visits to Cabramatta diminished as more Asian grocery stores opened up in Newcastle and we also become more self sufficient through my mothers labour of love which was her garden. Even when I moved to Sydney for work, I probably had a five year period where I didn’t visit Cabramatta. My mind was distracted making friends, being a social butterfly. It wasn’t until a few months before I left for Latin America going on a an Asian food binge that I was bringing my friends for mini tours of the area. It was just as beneficial to myself as it was for them as we walked down the old familiar streets and reciting what went on in the good old days.
The central part of Cabramatta had changed significantly over time. Now there were wider footpaths, less crime and now an increase in visitors and foodies from outside towns coming to the area for the food as Vietnamese food had become a popular cuisine. Most of the restaurants and shops we used to visit still remained and were just as busy – something that is hard to come by these days where consumer trends dictate the life expectancy for restaurants closer to the popular areas of the city. Other establishments have opened, with a gentrified look and feel and only time will tell if the people will fall for it. For me, you can’t compete with old fashioned establishments that just focus on the end product.
After my parents divorced, they both moved to Sydney which made it easier for me to visit them so I’d see them separately on the same day. It turns out that on these visit we would end up going out for noodle soups more frequently again. Only this time, I would start trying new soups. Soups with tripe, soups with blood jelly, beef balls and tendons. It’s those kinds of dishes that I always saw other people ordering when I was younger but never had the courage to order, so I would go back to my old favourite, the rare beef. It may have been a sign of maturity but more so I think it’s just my conscious telling me be more open minded take a few food risks and to try new things in life.
So as I find myself in Hanoi, sitting streetside happily devouring every bowls of Pho I come across, I can’t help but dig up those old memories of eating out. There are no parents and sisters here to share it with but I’ve enjoyed the experiences chatting to streetside vendors, watching them assemble the dish in front of me and sitting low to the ground on the plastic stools with the other few customers. I’ve had quite a few friends from Australia drop in for a visit during their vacation and I’ve enjoyed being the tour guide and telling my story and relationship growing up with the cuisine. Now, as I dig up memories from the past along the way, I tend not to worry about what lays ahead to much. I don’t meditate at all but I can take a little bit from it and focusing on what I find interesting at this present moment and dedicate myself to pursuing it. I’m looking forward to spending my time here in Vietnam.
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