Minh Phuong explains why every Hanoian student’s favourite winter snack is grilled nem chua (fermented pork)
Legend has it that on a Hanoi winter’s day, just like today, on Au Trieu street, a schoolboy saw an old woman selling grilled and dried cuttlefish on the sidewalk.
The boy had a few pork rolls which were too cold to eat so he begged the old lady to grill them for him, et voila, grilled nem chua had arrived.
The old lady tried one for herself and was impressed enough to add grilled or fried fermented pork roll (nem chua nuong/ ran) to her menu.
If you looked for the restaurant today, you wouldn’t find it. That’s the beauty of urban myths. But now grilled nem chua is found throughout the city.
At VND2,000 grilled nem chua is the quintessential winter snack for pupils. Far from home, Vietnamese students studying overseas pine for the taste of nem chua on Tam Thuong lane (Nem chua headquarters!) off Hang Gai street in the capital’s old quarter.
“I almost cried when I was told I couldn’t go home during Tet because of exams,” wrote a Vietnamese student in her blog. “I miss nem chua ran so much, I miss the times when me and my friends sat in Tam Thuong lane, chatting and eating beside the gas cooker.”
You can find two kinds of nem chua – sweet and sour. Today, sweet type is more favourable but it’s still called nem chua (sour pork).
At this time of year on Tam Thuong lane or Hang Bac street, two of the most famous spots for nem chua, you can always find a gang of kids huddled around the grill chomping on nem chua. The cheap price means no worries about the bill.
The pork which is processed, rolled and fermented in banana leaves prior to being unwrapped and tossed into the frying pan until it’s crispy is dipped in a fruity, spicy dipping sauce or chili salt with slices of cucumber and a glass of iced tea completing the set menu.
“I haven’t eaten nem chua ran since my graduation, I almost forgot the taste of it – but it’s definitely a specialty in every student’s life,” admits a graduate from Hanoi University of Technologies “You’re too busy when you are grown up, you know, but I’ll never forget those nights hanging out with my pals on Hang Bac street, drinking rice wine, eating nem chua nuong and singing into the night.”
That’s why on these cool winter nights on Hanoi’s Tam Thuong lane you can see people on motorbikes trying to jostle through the crowds while taking in the nostalgic smell of grilled nem chua.