Ms Quý fries tofu and spring rolls on the street. Sharp-witted, even a little crude, she has established a large customer following as much for her bawdy banter as for her fried treats; her eighteen successful years of purple language, quips about prostitutes and crisp golden-brown food are likely to continue for many more. It took her a while to get her street food mojo on, though. False starts selling nộm bò khô (dried beef salad) and cháo đậu xanh (mung bean porridge) followed a stint as a street-side tailor, before she finally got the confluence of dish and location right.
I've been eating on her plot of pavement since 2002, for the first few years largely ignorant of the discourse flowing around me but fully cognizant of what I've been putting in my mouth. That language, I understand. Bún đậu is arguably the cheapest snack available on Hanoi's streets. Pillows of bean curd, these ones a squarer, flatter variant than the usual, sourced from Chem village out beyond the Thành Long Bridge, go into oil for double frying, the second time to achieve ultra-crispy mouthfeel.
While Ms Quý's right-hand girl manages the tofu cooking, she is assembling the spring rolls (nem rán). On a steel tray in front of her, she places a round of rice paper, brushes it with oil, consolidates the centre of the round with another smaller diamond of rice paper, before portioning on the filling. A mince of pork, wood ear fungus, bean sprouts and glass noodles get rolled up in an efficient series of manoeuvres Quý's enacted countless times. In between rolls, she's taking customer orders, calculating bills (all in her head!), ladling two dipping sauces (mắm tôm for tofu, nước chấm for spring rolls) as well as cutting bite-size wads of fresh noodle cake, which get served alongside the fried fare.
Both women multi-task well. While tending to the tofu, Quý's offsider is also clipping chili, chopping garlic, doling out fistfulls of herbs and managing the drink station, where soy milk and iced green tea are available. She directs patrons to various parking spaces nearby, too. It's go, go, go from 10am - 2pm, this place; the fruity exchanges, the dextrous manipulation of cooking chopsticks, tongs and scissors, the rowdy feeding frenzy that is lunch time in Hanoi.
With nothing to contribute to the coarse dialogue and a pile of gold on a little blue plate before me, I eat, tuning out to the one-liners, with only the sound of my own mastication in my ear.
Quý Bún Đậu & Nem
44 Yên Phụ St