A new donut shop in Ho Chi Minh City uses a not-so-secret ingredient to provide a traditional American taste
It started with a dream and a deep fryer.
For months, Doan Nguyen Tam stayed up all night in his tiny 6th floor walk-up in the center of Saigon churning out batch after batch of homemade donuts, looking to perfect the recipe. It was a labor or love born from the idea that one day he might start his own business.
This was years ago, when Tam and his sweet tooth had tired of che (sweet soup) and wanted something different for dessert.
"There weren't many options for something light, sweet and fresh. Being from the States, one thing I missed a lot was donuts," said the 33-year-old native of Kansas city, Missouri.
Hence, Spudnuts, Tam's new donut shop in HCMC's District 3, specializes in the unique potato donut.
The idea to make and market potato donuts was purely practical. After trying dozes of different recipes and all kinds of local ingredients, imported mixes, and a wide variety of both expensive and cheap flours, it was difficult to replicate the taste of the small mom and pop donut shops back home.
But Tam eventually found that adding potato to the mix somehow gave the dough the lightness, fluffiness and soft texture that finally reminded him of home.
The majority of donut shops in Vietnam, and also in the US, use either a premix powder or frozen donuts from distributors that contain synthetic additives and preservatives. Spudnuts donuts are unique in that they are 100 percent made from scratch.
"Real donut making is a dying art," says Tam. "We know exactly what goes into our donuts and we pick the best balance of ingredients. Potato is just one of the special ingredients we add.
Doan Nguyen Tam prepares to fry up a fresh batch of potato donuts at Spudnuts, his District 3 shop in Ho Chi Minh City. (Photo by Jason Stone)
It appears to be working, according to several Americans interviewed for this article who said Spudnuts replicates the real American tastes and flavors unlike any other donuts in Vietnam.
And Tam stands by the claim.
"We've worked hard in keeping a true authentic American flavor whereas other shops sell donuts that have been developed for the Asian market. They seem smaller and with flavors geared toward Asian taste buds."
Spudnuts challenges you to try for yourself:
"It's best to try several other donut shops and then try ours to taste the difference," Tam says.
Dough is rising
One would have to be blind not to notice the quick influx of downtown donut shops that appear to have mushroomed out of nowhere over the last year or so.
"There seems to be a new shop opening every month," Tam says, undaunted.
"It will probably be another couple of years until we can say whether it's good or bad. But competition is good. It makes me strive to become the best."
Keeping the flavor American is one thing, but Tam is also conscious of keeping donut culture casual, unlike other western imports that are inexpensive overseas but unaffordable to many Vietnamese once they make it to Saigon. Donuts in the US are considered a cheap food and Spudnuts is no different.
Tam poses a simple question: "Why should a donut in Vietnam cost more than in the US?"
Spudnuts is still not quite as atmospheric as the corner donut shops dotting small-town America. It lacks the old-fashioned donuts and some of the crispier glazes Americans are used to. But Tam's not done. He just added Long Johns to the menu and he says he'd eventually like to add other American favorites such as Bear Claws, twists, and turnovers. For now, he's open to suggestions.
"Tell us what kind of donut you miss and we'll make it."
Spudnuts is located at 500 Nguyen Thi Minh Khai St., Dist. 3.