For those travelling to Vietnam, looking at guides and travel sites like Trip Advisor or CNN travel seems like common sense, as these sites advise on “not-to-miss” local dishes and eateries. Yet when it comes to sticky rice or xoi, one of Hanoi’s most unique dishes, Xoi Yen is recommended as the go-to place. Xoi Yen is the modern side of sticky rice thanks to its range of mix-ins like chicken breast, steamed pork and egg. But there’s also another side to xoi — the original and traditional version.
That version is the rustic, simple sticky rice with natural ingredients grown in the villages of Vietnam, like bean, peanut and corn. There is no added meat. This traditional xoi is often wrapped in lotus or banana leaf, and sold on street pavements. It is less of an accompaniment to a meal — more a breakfast. It is said that it was only in the late 1990s that people started selling xoi with meat. Since then, both xoi with meat and rustic xoi have become indispensable. But for Hanoians of all walks of life, a portion of rustic xoi for breakfast is part of the daily routine.
The Phu Thuong Factor
There are many types of rustic xoi: xoi xeo or Hanoi original sticky rice with mung bean; xoi lac or sticky rice with peanuts, red sticky rice or xoi gac, xoi ngo or sticky rice with corn, or sticky rice with beans, or sticky rice with coconut.
Hanoi’s rustic xoi is believed to have originated in Ke Ga Village in Phu Thuong, now part of Tay Ho District. As the old saying goes, Ke Ga Village boasts three things: “banyan trees, long rivers and the xoi cooking tradition”. Indeed, people say that Phu Thuong’s xoi has a distinguished fragrance and flavour thanks to the type of sticky rice grown in the paddy fields of Phu Thuong. It is hard to find elsewhere.
If you want to try a heart-warming, particularly tasty portion of Phu Thuong xoi for your breakfast, pass by Hang Hom in the Old Quarter. The two sticky rice ladies, Aunt Hien and Ha, sitting on the pavement in front of number 44, will offer you various versions of the dish for only VND5,000.
The xoi sold by these two ladies is a favourite of those living in the Old Quarter. “It is hard to believe, but these two ladies sell about 200 kilos of sticky rice every day,” says a neighbour. “The aroma and the taste are so special.”
“Delicious sticky rice must have a shiny yellow colour,” says Aunt Hien. “[When we make xoi xeo] we have to carefully select the mung beans. After being steamed, they are pummeled and rolled into small tight balls. The tighter the ball, the more appetizing the mung bean.” As she talks, Aunt Hien skillfully shapes the balls inside her palms, covering the base with thin yellow layers of bean.
“The taste of xoi xeo is incomplete if it lacks crunchy deep fried onion or shallot on top, together with liquid fat. Xoi should be wrapped in banana or lotus leaves. The leaves not only keep the heat and the aroma inside, but also add a light aroma to the xoi so that when you open up the package, you get an irresistible blend of fragrance and taste.”
Having sold xoi in the same location for 20 years, the ladies have become well-known. “We have become friends with families in this street. But we also sell cheap xoi for students and blue-collar workers coming to the city centre to work.”
Buying xoi from the two sticky rice ladies, you may notice a small sign reading: Park your bike at the corner. Mind your voice.
Even though every morning they are surrounded by a crowd of people, there is no chaos here and the crowd is never noisy. For the xoi prepared by Hien and Ha, people are prepared to wait their turn. Quietly.
The sticky rice ladies sell xoi at 44 Hang Hom, Hoan Kiem, Hanoi. Each pack of xoi costs VND5,000