I'm sitting indoors with a cardigan on, in old fart mode, moaning. The cold is persisting in Hanoi and the disco-version Boney-M Christmas carols have commenced. On the weekend, I helped to wind a few lengths of tinsel about the wrought iron window bars at the front of the house and I hung a bell and a few baubles. I'm certain the look on my face was more funereal than festive.
It's here, there's no denying it, the double punch to the guts called winter and Christmas. Reminiscing about hotter times is also pointless. The sun is only coming out momentarily and I can't feel the warmth. So I've taken a happy pill, dragged on my beanie, stocked up the grog cabinet and started spading in some cold weather grub.
A bowl of Hanoi stew, sốt vang, is where I began this past Saturday. The influence of the French on this dish is clearly in evidence in the use of wine and beef, though it still has characteristic Vietnamese notes, the strongest being the inclusion of fish sauce. The marriage of red wine and fish sauce doesn't inspire confidence but in typically ingenious vina-style, and with the addition of spices including cinnamon and star anise, the union is a harmonious one. Variations sometimes include tomatoes and carrots. Thickened with tapioca flour and garnished with spring onions and herbs before the bowl comes to table, sốt vang is normally served in two distinct ways; a ladle full, as an alternative to other cuts of meat on top of phở, or in a bowl accompanied with a plain bánh mì. I don't like the idea of dispersing the richness of the stew in a thin soup so my preference is for the latter.
My surrounds, as I waited for the stew to cool at the table, were coincidentally colonial. Ochre-painted two-storey villas were opposite, shuttered windows firmly closed against the cold, iron lattice balconies uninhabited but for dankly hanging clothes. I shivered, warming my hands over the steam rising from the stew. The old-timer ladies serving tea on the pavement went one better; they had a fire going in the gutter.
I had one more trump up my sleeve, however, to combat this cold. A condiment on the table that, added to a beef and wine stew, would surely provoke a Gallic shrug from any passing colonist spirit; but, upon taking effect in my mouth and throat, raises my body temperature nicely.
Hot chilli sauce (tương ớt), at least in Hanoi, is permitted in a stew of French origins.
Bánh Mì Sốt Vang
11a Phạm Hồng Thái
Ba Đình District