“What impresses you most about Vietnamese cuisine?” I ask a foreign friend who’s been in Vietnam for three months, just long enough to grasp what it’s like to live as a local.
“Fish sauce,” he replies.
After a pause he explains his response.
“I don’t exactly mean raw fish sauce — it’s too salty and strong for me,” he says. “It’s the diverse way Vietnamese use fish sauce in their cooking, blending the raw fish sauce with other condiments to make up a light sauce. The sauces all look the same, but taste so different.”
He is correct. Large numbers of Vietnamese dishes contain light fish sauce, such as mixed noodle dishes like mien tron, pho ga tron or bun bo Nam Bo. Light fish sauce is also an essential ingredient when we eat spring rolls, banh tom Ho Tay and nom.
Keeping it Traditional
Nom, or papaya salad, is often served in restaurants as an appetiser. It is viewed by many as a salad and is compared to som tam in Thai cuisine. But for me, nom is not a salad — it’s not the kind of dish you eat at the start of a large, multi-course meal. It’s instead a snack for young people in Hanoi when they hang out in the afternoon. It also goes really well with beer. Very well!
There are a number of versions of nom, each made seasonally. It can be served up with jellyfish — nom sua — or barbequed bird — nom chim quay. But the most traditional version is nom bo kho, papaya salad with dried beef.
No-one knows when nom bo kho was introduced in Hanoi, but generation after generation of Hanoian remembers it as the taste and smell of leaving school in the afternoon. Together with the aroma of peanuts and sweet basil, there was always the funny sound of scissors cutting beef as nom pedlars gathered around school gates.
Thought to have originated in the road between the Vietnam Puppet Theatre on Hoan Kiem Lake and Cau Go, people say the first eatery was run by descendants of Chinese settlers. Served up in big baskets called thung or met, and with diners sitting on tiny schools, nom bo kho is still served in this traditional fashion at Nom Lim on Pham Hong Thai.
Located under a huge banyan tree out on the sidewalk, all the ingredients are on display in big rattan baskets. When diners arrive, the pedlar puts papaya, dried beef, herbs and peanuts on a plate, covering the ingredients with a light sauce. Sitting on tiny chairs and chatting away, the diners slowly make their way through the dish, dipping almost every piece of papaya and dried beef in a separate sauce on the side.
“I make the light sauce by using little drops of raw fish sauce,” says the pedlar. “Mixed with other condiments I make it as light as possible. It is very important that the broth is light and earthy, but still has that Hanoian combination of tastes — sour, sweet, salty and bitter. If the sauce is not light, it makes diners thirsty.”
Instead of using tiny shredded beef, the lady makes the dried beef at home and cuts it into big portions. The curing process takes two to three days.
“Once the beef is cut, we dry it over charcoal,” she explains. “When it is dry, it is a shiny brown and looks a bit like lim, a precious type of wood you find in Vietnam. That’s why we decided to call our shop Nom Lim.”
The ingredients for nom bo kho are simple. But the appeal of the dish comes from the spicy taste of the dried beef, the bitterness of the chilli and pepper, the sourness of the lemon juice and the crispness of the shredded papaya mixed with mint and fresh herbs.
Nom Lim is on Pham Hong Thai, near the junction with Hang Bun and opposite Xe Co cafe. The eatery serves from 4.30pm to 8.30pm. A plate of nom bo kho is VND30,000. The eatery also offers other snacks to eat with dried beef and beer