‘Every night in my dreams, I see you, I feel you’. The song ‘My heart will go on’ from the movie Titanic precisely reflected my thinking after I returned to my hometown of Barcelona from a trip to Vietnam. I missed the rice noodles, the soft and greasy slice of chicken and savoury broth of phở so badly that I immediately sought out a Vietnamese restaurant. This dish captured me just like Jack couldn’t help but fall in love with the beautiful Rose at first glance.
I chose Bun Bo Raval, which is quite a popular Vietnamese restaurant in the centre of Barcelona. It’s hard to put into words how happy I was to see the broth full of vegetables, as found in many Vietnamese dishes. There were the basic ingredients, including slices of chicken, bean sprouts, coriander and green onion covered in broth and served with a dish of chili, lemon and garlic in vinegar. My heart then sank as deep as the Titanic when I took my first bite. Why is Vietnamese food so different in Europe?
The first difference is in the method of cooking. Though the waiter told me the broth is water from boiling chicken, its taste was insipid. ‘It’s because they boil the meat of the chicken, not the bones,’ an Asian girl at the next table told me. ‘The best broth is from boiled chicken breast, which is left overnight for the water to absorb the sweetness of the bones before being eaten the next day.’
Many Vietnamese restaurants in Barcelona clearly don’t know this as most owners are Westerners. After taking a trip to Vietnam they opened a restaurant because of their love of Vietnamese food and they make every effort to bring good Vietnamese food to foreigners, but something is lacking.
I didn’t enjoy my meal, though customers sitting nearby continually complimented the food. Maybe it didn’t suit my taste because I had experienced better phở in Vietnam. I had no regrets about coming to Bun Bo Raval, though, as I met the beautiful Asian girl. She is Vietnamese, her name is Thao, and she became my ‘beautiful Rose’, taking me to the gorgeous world of Vietnamese food.
I found another difference in the ingredients between ‘real Vietnamese food’ and ‘Barcelona Vietnamese food’ the first time she cooked phở for me. In fact, real phở and other kinds of Vietnamese broths like bún bò (beef rice noodles) and bún Thang (another type of noodle broth with meat) must have sweet fennel and the seeds of coriander, but unfortunately Barcelona doesn’t have such vegetables. The absence of some ingredients was why the owner of Bun Bo Raval told me that the Vietnamese food he serves is different. Another reason was because he has changed the recipe slightly to fit foreign palates.
Thao’s broth, however, was more delicious because she added ginger and glutamate. When boiling the chicken she put a bit of salt and some slices of ginger in to make the chicken warmer. Thin-top mushrooms (nấm hương), cinnamon, and pepper are also used to enrich the taste. ‘Vietnamese food is tasty because each dish can have around ten different ingredients,’ she explained.
The glutamate is the most important spice in creating the tasty flavours of Vietnamese food. It derives from Japan, where Dr Kikunae from the University of Tokyo successfully extracted large amounts of glutamate from dried seaweed. Glutamate preserves the natural flavours of the ingredients and harmonises the taste of the dish. It tastes a little salty but makes the food sweeter. I saw that, in Vietnam, people put it on most of their food, as it helps them recognise the flavours of fresh vegetable in the middle of fatty chicken and the phở broth. This is why bún bò, the most famous dish at Bun Bo Raval, is not as good as Thao’s bún bò, as they use many delicious sauces like soya sauce and sesame oil instead.
The most unique thing about real phở, which I have never seen in ‘Paris phở’, ‘Berlin phở’ or anywhere else, are the add-ins. A rare egg on top is a specialty. I saw that Thao took only the yolk and boiled it for around 15 seconds before putting it on the top of the bowl. The rule is that I must eat all of the yolk first without breaking it, because the broth will be not be tasty anymore if it mixes in. It takes time to get the yolk into a spoon and put it my mouth, but it’s worth it as the savoury taste of the yolk spreads on my tongue. I often ask for two eggs every time she cooks for me.
It is sad that quẩy, or Chinese cruller, a supplement to many Vietnamese broths, seem to be only available in Vietnam. It’s made from frying a mix of wheat flour and baking powder. Quẩy is crispy but I like to drop it in the broth until it becomes soft and then enjoy the taste of the broth and the wheat flour. It’s a pity no restaurants in Barcelona serve it and Thao can’t make it either.
Real is cheaper
Since I met Thao I’ve eaten a lot of real Vietnamese food in Barcelona at really cheap prices. It costs only a couple of euros for her to prepare and cook a bowl of phở or bún and I’ve been lucky to be able to eat it every week.
The difference in living costs make a bowl of phở in Vietnam much cheaper than in Europe. While a bowl in a normal restaurant in Vietnam costs just a euro it can cost eight to ten euros in Spain, France or Germany. I know there are some high class phở restaurants opening in Vietnam nowadays, with prices at around ten euros, but it’s so much better to try a small eatery as it’s not only cheap but also made from a traditional phở recipe often handed down through generations.
Other typical Vietnamese food is also quite expensive in Europe. I took Thao to try bún chả in another Vietnamese restaurant in Barcelona, called Vietnamita. We were so disappointed. It cost eight euros for two small meat balls and no broth, compared to just one euro each for a bowl of broth full of meat balls and noodles in Vietnam. The same story happened to one of my friends, as she travelled to Madrid and tried nem rán (fried spring rolls). She still felt hungry after eating, as there were only two small pieces of nem that costs ten euros, whereas she enjoyed five nem for two euros in Vietnam.
Diversity of eateries
I have no choice but to sit in a nice restaurant if I want to eat Vietnamese food in Europe. But Vietnamese food should be enjoyed in its typical way, and in Vietnam this involves sitting in a small room, on a footpath, or in a narrow alleyway. It might be a bit untidy and crowded at times but it is a typical Vietnamese experience. Some restaurants only have small plastic chairs that can double as a table if needs be. You have to be careful when sitting down, as I broke at least three chairs because of my large frame, and my back and legs felt a bit tired after sitting for a while.
It’s true that Vietnam is a friendly country, as everyone sits beside strangers on the same long bench at the same table to eat. The first time it felt so uncomfortable but after few times I began to love it, as I could talk to a lot of people and make friends, hear stories about their country, and learn some things for my trip.
‘In Vietnam I could never die from hunger in the street but here I could,’ Thao told me, in recalling her first week in Spain. She couldn’t find any street food, like back home. In Murcia, a small town she lived in before moving to Barcelona, there were not many restaurants or supermarkets close to her house. When I was in Vietnam, though, my stomach was always full, as delicious phở is everywhere. On my bike trip I went to a small village in the north surrounded by forest on a rainy day. There were no restaurants or markets but there were phở eateries. It was amazing to buy an extra bowl to take into the forest and enjoy it there.
I can’t enjoy phở in such places now I’m back in Spain, but at least I can eat real phở whenever I’m with Thao.