Nobody knows where the peanut broth came from or how long it will stick around. I hope forever.
My first bowl of phở sa tế, at 54 Ngo Duc Ke Street, completely blew my mind. Though the origins of the spicy peanut soup remain as murky as the broth, it proves the perfect noodle ambassador to Saigon – a rich, slightly spicy combination of flavors and textures that are neither distinctly French, Chinese, Thai, Indian or Malay, but a wonderful balance of them all.
In 2010, I followed Richard Sterling into Quoc Ky, a yellow-walled shop house set in a row of old noodle restaurants below the newly opened Bitexco Tower. Sterling ordered us something called phở sa tế.
It tasted like nothing else in Vietnam.
A smooth, peppery peanut sauce stuck to the chewy Chinese rice noodles, snagged slices of cucumber and bits of bò tái (raw beef cooked in the broth) as I pulled them into my mouth.
Sterling, an authority on food in Saigon, put down his spoon after a few bites. “I’ve never finished one,” he said while I mopped up the last of the broth with a piece of Chinese cruller. “It’s like eating a bowl of peanut butter.”
Indeed. Spicy peanut butter.
We wondered aloud where such a thing could have come from. Was it Thai? Was it somehow Indian?
“Chinese,” the owner’s sister later said while washing dishes on the sidewalk. “From Teochew”—an eastern portion of modern day Guangdong Province.
She wore dark pyjamas and kept her hair in a tight bun. She didn’t want to talk. But she smiled.
A few years back their place was featured on VTV. As a result, cops showed up to hassle them about having stools on the sidewalk.
Nowadays, sticky-handed officials were the least of their worries. Their competition has all been replaced by sleek bars, cafés and restaurants with names like “La Nicoise.”
Quoc Ky has made only a few minor improvements.
“We used to serve out of an old wooden noodle cart,” she said one hot night last Fall. “Several years ago, a foreigner offered us a lot of money for it, but we refused. We ended up putting the cart in storage. Two years ago we sold it for scrap.”
Nowadays the noodles sit in a glass window of a spotless steel cart. A pot of peanut paste (the secret essence of the “sa tế” broth) sits on the opposite counter, awaiting customers. The price of a bowl has jumped to VND70,000.
And that seemed to be about as much as anyone was willing to tell me about the odd soup they have served for the last 30 years.
More than a few experts doubt it came directly from China.
“I would think [sa tế broth] is more Malay style which was brought in by the Straits Babas (offspring of Malay-Chinese marriages and rich and powerful in Malacca and Singapore) in the 19th century, or maybe in the 18th century," wrote Professor Tana Li, a researcher at Australia National University who has written extensively about Chinese trade and Vietnamese society.
Professor Erica Peters guessed the dish might have been brought to Saigon by Teochew settlers living in Cambodia.
Michael Arnold, a local Kiwi food writer who explored the dish for The Word cited a local news story that claimed the sa tế was a mellowed variation on an Indian curry introduced by Chinese traders.
Arnold frequents the oldest known sa tế shop in town, To Ky Sa Te.
Though there are three locations, Arnold prefers the original spot, a little house on Gia Phu in a quiet neighborhood known as “the embankment” due to its proximity to the canal.
In many ways, the dish could well serve as the official meal of Cho Lon.
A handicapped Teocew scrap dealer named Quach Dam made a small fortune here at the end of the 18th century and famously financed the construction of the original Cho Lon—“big market” from which the Chinese enclave drew its name.
After a series of fires, the market was relocated to District 6.
Today, sa tế shops dot the neighborhood. Some serve their mysterious peanut noodles with slivers of “deer meat.” Others rely heavily on offal and suspicious beef balls. But all seem to follow the same idea.
That idea, according to Arnold and numerous Vietnamese press accounts, originated three generations ago in the house on Gia Phu Street.
Every day at 4 p.m. Phuong rolls her grandfather’s old wooden noodle cart to the front of her home and commences selling hủ tiếu sa tế.
Her two uncles (her fathers’ younger brothers) run similar shops of the same name at the end of the street. Her mother usually sits at her side on one of the restaurant’s simple wooden stools.
As the oldest of her parents’ three daughters, Phuong remains the de facto protector and keeper of the recipe. She doesn’t know much about her grandfather, an immigrant from Teochew whom she believes invented the sweet and peanutty blend of twenty different spices.
Her recollection is all in the food, a recipe which she says hasn’t changed since he devised it some 60 years ago in the spotless house she currently occupies.
Phuong’s sa tế is a coarse mix of peanuts and chilies that lend the broth a rich kick. Sparse ribbons of tripe infuse the meal with a sort of Old World meatiness that’s cut nicely by the saucer of rice vinegar and chili paste she places by its side.
Last November her husband Woung Hon sat by her side in slacks and a golf shirt, exhausted by both his infant son and the late afternoon heat.
The couple were considering moving to Queens in New York where he had sold jewelry for the last few years. Phuong seemed to brighten at the suggestion that the soup would prove a hit in Queens.
“We were the first,” she said proudly. “I’ve heard about the place on Ngo Duc Ke. I’ve never been there but I heard their meatballs are good.”
Hon grinned judiciously.
* TO KY SA TE
156 Gia Phu Street, District 6, HCMC
Hours: Daily, 4 p.m. to 11 p.m.
Price: VND45,000 a bowl
* QUOC KY
54 Ngo Duc Ke Street, District 1, HCMC
Hours: 7:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Price: VND70,000 a bowl
“Different tastes…” he said.
By the time the sun had set, their neat dining room had filled with mothers and their children. An old man with long hair settled in with his young girlfriend. A handful of lone regulars pulled up stools to empty tables and set in for a meal that seemed to provide company enough. No one knew where it came from or where itwas going. Only that they were in the right place at the right time.
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By Calvin Godfrey, Thanh Nien News (The story can be found in the March 15th issue of our printed edition Vietweek)