In winter, in the depths of the Old Quarter, a small stall opens. To the outsider, it could be mistaken as a secret members' only club, where passwords or coded signals are required for entry. If you come at the wrong time of year or day, what you have come seeking will not be there, almost as if it never existed. You will be left feeling bewildered, slightly left out...clearly not a member.
I am a 'member' of this seasonal food stall, located in what appears to be an ancient gateway to an Old Quarter family commune. This dark sheltered lane houses a smooth stone stelae of a horse, slightly military in style, perhaps acting as a protector of those living there. On a recent visit, while seated at the rear, I noticed that the alley opens out onto a communal courtyard enclosed by several of Hanoi's famous tube houses. Clothes were being hand-dunked in suds, an old woman washed her stringy grey strands of hair, a papaya was grated in a doorway. Eating in this 'club' is part culinary episode, part anthropology field trip.
But one doesn't get to stay long prying into these private moments, for the snack is small and the proprietor has a knack for moving people along.
Three exotic treats are issued in standard china rice bowls. Containing a staple of some of the sexiest ingredients in Asian cuisines, namely ginger, coconut and sesame, these 'desserts' have their origins in China.
The first one is banh troi tau, pounded rice flour covers encasing two different sets of fillings: black sesame paste and shredded coconut with ginger, each dumpling boiled before being served in a hot ginger infused syrup.The second bowl, called luc tau xa, consists of a sweetened puree of the common ingredient dau xanh (green bean) made interesting by the addition of orange zest, lotus seeds and fine slices of a fruit known as ma thay, which bites a bit like a water chestnut. What this final element translates as remains a mystery! The final offering is a smooth sugary black sesame soup known as chi ma phu.
To avoid being shunted out by the owner, who is famous comedian and actor Pham Bang, I had dragged a film crew from VTV along with me and ordered multiple bowls for all. We could sit, savour and enjoy. The film crew from the program "Talk Vietnam" were filming some footage to accompany an interview with me taped earlier for a program on Vietnamese food to be screened some time soon. I'll keep you posted on developments there - I think it could even be shown on their overseas channel.
Anyway, if venturing to Hanoi in the winter, join the throngs at this clandestine little sweet shop.
10,000VND (USD54c, AUD59c) a serve
Banh Troi Tau Pham Bang
30 Hang Giay
(3.30 - 10.30pm, November - April)