Then there are the yellow-painted buildings left over from the French colonial era. But autumn isn’t just in this faded yellow atmosphere — it’s also in the French-originated dishes which have become part of the Hanoi street food tradition.
Among these dishes, there’s one that is ideal for enjoying in the cool breeze of an early October morning, or at night, when the weather brings lovers closer. It is banh my sot vang — beef stew in red wine sauce, served with bread.
This dish is typical of French cuisine adapted to Vietnamese tastes. It’s based on beef au vin or beef bourguignon, a traditional French stew prepared with beef braised in red Burgundy wine. Sot vang also has a red wine base. However, it differs from the original in spice and seasoning. Instead of herbs like parsley, rosemary and thyme, warm spices like cinnamon, star anise and cardamom are used.
A Place of Memory
Whenever they want to eat local food, Hanoians think of specific traditional eateries. And only enjoying the dish at the eatery in question can satisfy their craving. When it comes to pho it could be Pho Thin on Lo Duc or bun cha on Hang Manh. In the case of this dish, the restaurant for me is Banh My Sot Vang Dinh Ngang.
Also known as Banh My Sot Vang Hang Bong or Banh My Sot Vang Cua Nam, the shop’s actual name is Qua Tang Thien Su (252 Hang Bong, Hoan Kiem). Its varied names can be explained by its location at the intersection between Hang Bong, Cua Nam and Dinh Ngang.
It’s next to a small bakery called Café Cake Kinh Do, which was one of the first shops bringing French-style patisseries to Hanoi. The tiny chairs of the street snackery, in the milder weather of autumn, remind many Hanoians of a part of their life during the early 21st century.
“During the late 20th and early 21st century, western-originated food used to be such a gift to kids of my age,” Cuong, son of the shop’s owner, says. “I was so proud when my grandma opened this shop. Then my mum and my aunt continued the work. And this shop is almost 20 years old now.”
Western Food, Vietnamese Tastes
The French version of the dish is enjoyed with a baguette or pasta, which became banh my in the Vietnamese version. Here it’s baked hot and crispy, but the secret is in the rich, soft and perfectly cooked beef stew.
“My mum always reminds us of adapting the ingredients to local tastes,” says Cuong. “For instance, it is quite traditional for French people to cook this dish with carrot. However, as we have to braise the beef hours in advance before serving the customers, the carrot would create too strong a smell, one not favoured by Hanoians. Instead of using carrot, she adds cinnamon and other warm spices.”
The beef is also challenging. “Even though it seems easy to make,” he adds, “the timing of the braising is very important. Also, the beef should be given a bit more time to season beforehand. My mum seasons the beef at least two hours before cooking. And it’s recommended that the beef should be braised for three hours.”
The eatery also offers homemade sausage, omelette and hot pate. These sides are served with a special sauce, which is known to be their secret.
“The sauce is nothing of a secret!” says Cuong. “Actually, it’s the condensed broth of the meat that we use. The reason why my mum came up with this idea is she likened it to beef steak, which is often served with sauce on top. Dipping the bread into this condensed sauce with a perfectly cooked fluffy omelet is quite an experience! Young people like the sauce a lot.”
The eatery has been around long enough to turn its young customers into older customers, who still crave that same taste. “Our offerings have been unchanged for a long time,” Cuong says, “and people think of us whenever they want to eat this French-originated local food.”
Qua Tang Thien Su is at 252 Hang Bong, selling banh my sot vang with omelette and pate from VND30,000 to VND60,000. In the afternoon and at night, the shop also serves at a second branch across the street, called Banh My Tram