The sister machine in full swing, slinging bowls of pig foot tapioca noodles and tasty broth to a steady stream of loyal customers. They would not provide their names or any details of their lives. But they serve a mean noodle soup.
Look at betrothal vows or marriage rites—
Could they occur without a feast of pork? . . .
All hatreds melt in sight of my plump snout . . .
Bring me in, make me the centerpiece:
all tangled webs will come unsnarled at once.
- The Quarrel of Six Beasts,
a famed anonymous 19th century poem.
Despite the pig’s fabled promise to bring Vietnam together, for generations, he set it apart.
In feudal Vietnam, only the wealthiest families ate pork every day. Most men only enjoyed a choice cut of pig in their old age at major feasts.
(The most respected man in the village got the head).
During the seventh month of the lunar calendar, generous selections of pork were set out in a feast for the wandering dead. When the ghosts had eaten their fill, the meat was fought over by all the young men who had no hope of enjoying a shot at a pig through either wealth or status.
The following day, the weakest among them got a chance at the scraps, if there were any.
Today, the pig continues to serve as a clear class marker. Big-shots open new businesses with whole suckling pigs while poor kids and old ladies stuff change into the bottoms of ceramic piglets hoping that the creature will somehow make it more.
In another sense, however, all of today’s cheap pork seems to draw Vietnam together in a way that it never did before. Sidewalk vendors sell innards, eyeballs and ears to customers of all stripes. The pig’s promise, to bring everyone together so long as he’s given proper prominence, may finally have come true.
Nowhere is this clearer than at the little shop at 12C Nguyen Phi Khanh, where a secret coven of sisters emerge from a little alley in District 1 pushing a cart loaded with buckets of blood red stock, tapioca noodles and perfect pig feet.
I wish I could tell you more about them—but the sisters closed ranks after I made the mistake of trying to interview their landlord.
The following day, when I returned to ask questions, they all politely declined to provide even the most basic answers.
How long have they been making banh canh gio heo?
|A bowl of banh canh gio heo (tapioca noodle and pig foot soup) at 12C Nguyen Phi Khanh Street
“I forgot,” said the sister who typically mans the stockpot and magically maintains a tight white afro. “I just do it.”
Resigned to not knowing, I sat down to eat. By 2:50 p.m. customers had filled the double row of red stools (which also serve as tables) that lined the spotless white tile floor of the rented living room.
Pretty young women fingered smart phones, while beefy dudes in tennis jerseys daydreamed into the bright orange bowls they would soon fill with spent bones.
When the sisters’ thin parking attendant hung a paper sign reading banh canh from the awning, the women sat down to their pots like a jazz quartet.
Hands appeared out of nowhere shuffling freshly washed bowls down the line to be filled with bright noodles, chopped green onion and a puff of white pepper.
The most loudly dressed among them delivered each bowl with a lovingly mixed saucer of fish sauce, chili, salt and lime.
Seasoned customers took the hock up in their free hand like a pork fat donut— dunking the buttery skin into the nuoc cham and nibbling away. It is amazing what a little fish sauce can do, but the sisters’ tart, spicy, salty blend manages to transform a foot into something divine.
The thoroughly stewed tapioca noodles meld into the rich chewy foot flesh leave the diner wondering where noodle ends and foot begins. Indeed the broth is so thick with marrow and manioc that even a drop seems to stick to the hand; no one tried to save their VND2,000 on their khan uot (moistened towelette).
Instead, the hungrier among them called for mong (the very tippy toe) which tastes something like a stewed stick of butter, if that were even possible. The rest slurp the marrow out of their hock and make way for the customers who are waiting patiently for a stool.
Before sunset, the sisters have sold every foot and are wheeling their restaurant back into the hidden corner of their alley, where they make sure the pig keeps his promise.
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By Calvin Godfrey, Thanh Nien News (The story can be found in the September 21st issue of our print edition, Vietweek)