I remember reading a post written by a foreign blogger about Ta Hien in Hanoi, deeming it the city’s backpacker area. To young Hanoians, this ancient street is also known as the capital’s ‘international crossroads’, since it is the best-known gathering spot for expats, travellers and locals alike. Although it’s known mainly for its cheap bia hoi, or fresh beer, the crossroad’s numerous street eateries with simple and delicious local food is another reason for its draw. For many, there can be no bia hoi without pairing it with one of Hanoi’s signature snacks — nem phung.
Distinct from traditional Vietnamese nem, that is eaten with noodles and fish sauce, nem phung is a dry snack made from pork skin and pork meat. Easy to spot in places where bia hoi is sold — it comes wrapped in a banana leaf, and when opened, it is brown and thread-shaped — nem phung is eaten by wrapping it in a fig leaf and dipping it into chilli sauce. Thanks to its buttery and sweet taste, for decades nem phung has gone hand in hand with the consumption of rice wine or beer.
A Family Affair
Nem phung is the signature dish of Phung Village, formerly in Ha Tay Province although now part of modern Hanoi. One of the village’s families, the Bui family, has been producing nem phung for generations, and now only one shop in Hanoi continues to sell the original Bui family nem phung — located at 63 Hang Bun, Ba Dinh.
“We’re the sixth generation of the Bui family,” says the shop owner, Ngoc, who is now in her fifties. “Our family opened this shop in Hanoi in 1958 when my mother-in-law was the main chef of the family. She passed away and now I am the one who continues our family tradition.
“The main ingredients of nem phung are pork meat and pork skin, which are easy to get, but not easy to select. First, you have to choose fresh pork meat. It can be either rump or half fat, half lean. Then, you must slice it carefully. After dipping the meat in boiling water, it should be cut into very small pieces and mixed with seasoning. Finally, it is [essential] that the pig skin is white and clean.”
She continues to explain the one decisive element that makes tasty nem phung: thinh, or powdered roasted rice. Thinh is processed from ordinary or sticky rice and mixed with ground beans. When standing at the shop on Hang Bun, the scent of thinh fills the room.
Although nem phung is traditionally consumed wrapped in a fig leaf, it can also be eaten on top of a crispy rice pancake. According to Ngoc’s family, adding a little coconut makes it perfect. It’s also popular to wrap the nem together with herbs and vegetables in rice paper, but for this, chilli sauce is essential.
“Nem phung tastes best when it’s fresh,” says Ngoc. “So we don’t make it overnight.”
The fresh sweetness and buttery taste of nem phung makes it one of the best street snacks you’ll find in Hanoi.
Nem phung at 63 Hang Bun, Ba Dinh is a takeaway shop only. It is sold by the cube or per gram, and if you prefer wrapping it yourself at home, you can take it away. If not, you can buy some cubes to eat raw with bia hoi at the shop across the street. Nem phung costs VND20,000 per tael or cube