Enter Nepal, one of the poorest countries in Asia. Its capital Kathmandu, nestled in the foothills of the Himalayan mountains, has slowly emerged as a growing metropolis, and now offers every kind of cuisine under the sun. Every kind, that is, save for one. Either because of distance or obscurity, Nepal hasn’t quite attracted a Vietnamese presence — the city is home to a Vietnamese population of seven. That has now changed.
A Match Made in Phnom Penh
Xiebao Uy (Bao) was born in Vietnam, relocating to Cambodia as a young girl. Coming from a family of restaurant owners — her mother and sister both run successful Vietnamese food spots in Phnom Penh — she was surrounded by cooking from an early age. At the same time, Naveen Saru, a young boy from rural Nepal, was starting his career waiting tables at restaurants in Thamel in the backpacker district of Kathmandu. After graduating university and working for an American non-profit based in Nepal, he was transferred to Cambodia. How the two came to meet, as it happens, was all thanks to a faulty television.
Naveen had only been living in Phnom Penh for a few months. “One day my TV stopped working, so I called into the [customer service] centre.” And who should pick up but a young Bao, who had taken a job operating the phone line at the centre. “Workers never show up, just like in Nepal, so I had to call several times complaining,” Naveen recalls.
“Each time I would reach Bao. She would be arguing with me, and I would be complaining about the service. Eventually we just started talking, and that’s how our relationship grew.”
Four years later they married and moved to Hawaii, where they lived together until 2010. At first, they had no intentions of settling in Nepal.
“We came back to visit my family, without any real plan,” says Naveen. But after spending a few months in the city, a thought slowly occurred to them.
“We didn’t see any Vietnamese food here, so there was this opportunity,” he adds. “It was kind of risky, and we had no idea if it would be successful. But we both had backgrounds in [the food industry], so we said why not? Let’s try it.”
And with that, Saigon Pho was born.
Easier Said than Done
To call their endeavour a challenge would be an understatement. The pair quickly discovered a significant problem; most of the things that make Vietnamese food so, well, Vietnamese, are actually quite hard to find in Nepal. Bao and Naveen had to start completely from scratch. When they couldn’t find the right varieties of vegetables such as Asian basil, bean sprouts and lemongrass, they started growing their own using seeds from Vietnam. In order to make the right sauces and broths, Bao asked her visiting friends and relatives to bring over pho, barbecue and sauce spices.
Eventually they found their stride.
“Today we make all our hoisin sauce and chilli sauce ourselves,” says Bao. “You can hardly find them here.” They’ve also managed to create their own pate and mayonnaise for banh mi. “Right now we’re trying to make our own soy sauce.” And although you can easily find Chinese brands like Kikkamon around Kathmandu, it’s simply not up to Bao’s standards. “It’s too expensive, for one. And filled with chemicals. We make ours with soybeans. Vietnamese food is meant to be healthy and fresh, it’s very important.”
Not that there aren’t still challenges now and then. At one point last year, due to the floods in Thailand, their supply of rice paper for goi cuon (summer rolls) was completely cut off. And on certain (apparently very productive) days, people consume so much of the imported Trung Nguyen coffee that the restaurant barely has enough to cover the following morning. “We refuse to make our coffee with local grounds,” says Naveen. “People know the difference.”
A Local Hit
Today, Saigon Pho boasts an impressive selection of menu items that extend far beyond the eponymous noodle soup. Meals include everything from banh xeo, to steamed basa fish (shipped direct from Vietnam), to one of the restaurant’s signature dishes — bun tom heo nuong, a variation on the favourite that includes spring rolls and shrimp along with the standard barbecued pork. With the variety of dishes to try, all featuring garden vegetables, homemade sauce, fresh meat and seafood, the food here couldn’t be more different than other neighbourhood offerings.
Positioned directly across from the ritzy Shangri La hotel in the embassy district of town, you might expect Saigon Pho to be flush full of international travellers looking to escape from Nepali food for a night. But surprisingly, it’s local Nepalis that make up about 70 percent of their customers.
“It was a bit difficult at first,” Naveen recalls. “Things like fish sauce, glass noodles with vegetables, we don’t usually eat these things.” But word began to spread, especially through Nepalis who had lived abroad, and eventually Saigon Pho gained a steady fan-base. Naveen counts himself among the converted.
“Look, I love dal bhat [an iconic dish made of lentil soup, spinach, chilli and rice],” he says. “It’s in my blood. But I cannot deny it. In the morning, I go for Vietnamese food. It’s just so fresh, healthy and good.”
Saigon Pho was opened in Kathmandu in February 2012. For more information do a search on Google.