The tastes of life

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Septuagenarian has been hawking a gourmet dish for more than 30 years

70-year-old Luu Van Hao and his bike which pulls a big glass case that is full of sauces, herbs, papayas and beef, ingredients to prepare a popular snack named nom bo kho (green papaya salad with lightly spiced marinated beef and mild mint)

They call him ong Nom (Mr. Papaya).

Every day, at around 5 p.m., many residents of Hanoi's Old Quarter wait for the white-haired man to push his old, cranky bicycle past their houses.

The bike pulls a big glass case that is full of sauces, herbs, papayas and beef, ingredients to prepare a popular snack named nom bo kho (green papaya salad with lightly spiced marinated beef and mild mint) in the north or goi du du in the south.

He does not announce his presence. From a distance, they can hear the clatter of his scissors as he stops every few minutes and prepares the dish for his customers.

Fifty-year-old Tong Cong Thang of Dao Duy Tu Street said, "At dusk, when I hear the sound from the scissors, no matter what I am doing, I will leave it behind or ask my grandchildren to buy the nom bo kho for me. It is so delicious."

"However, although I have bought the dish so many times from him, I have yet to ask his real name. I just call him ong Nom."

Ong Nom's real name is Luu Van Hao. He is 70. He has been selling the dish for more than 30 years and he earns around VND30 million (US$1,500) a month.

"The case earns enough to provide for my wife and two children and their studies," said Hao, who quit his job at the National Tuberculosis Hospital in Hanoi in 1972 because of the low income.

"The dish, along with Nam Dinh Beef Noodles, have been handed down through several generations in my family, though many say that the dish originates from China," said Hao, who wakes up at 4 a.m. every day, no matter what the weather, to travel 10 km from his house in Vu Huu Loi Street in Dong Da District to the Long Bien Market to buy ingredients.

"The salad is a plain food, but it is not easy to make it tasty and savory," said the papaya man.

Hao said that juliennes of the green papaya become soft after it is dressed with vinegar and chili. The beef is dried and marinated with hung liu (a kind of seasoning which consists of five ingredients - cinnamon, aniseed, and the seed of sweet basil).

The papaya, beef jerky, a sweet and sour sauce and roasted peanuts are mixed and the salad is ready to serve.

"It is said that the dish packs all tastes of life sweet, sour and bitter," said Hoa, "however, not any gourmets can tell how much I labor to prepare the beef."

The man said that his tasty jerky beef is made only from tenderloin and rump. The meat is then soaked and cleaned to remove the bad smell, before being ground and marinated. The ground meat is flattened and dried to be fried in fat.

Around 20 years ago, nom bo kho was food for the poor, when beef was prepared from the cheapest part of meat. After you picked it up two of three times with your chopsticks, the small plate was empty. Unlike in the past, the dish has become a favorite snack for high-income people; therefore, the meat must be the best of its kind. A plate of nom bo kho is now priced from VND30,000 to 100,000, Hao said.

Hoan Kiem District is home to some of the best nom bo kho sold in the capital, and local gourmets often visit it between 5 p.m. to 12 p.m. everyday.

Hao keeps all ingredients, including five bottles of sauces, in separate containers. He prepares the dish only after an order is made.

"The salad will get soggy if it is mixed early. In addition, different people have different tastes, I prepare the dish according to their order," said Hao.

Although he is popular, some customers, especially young ones, try to cheat him by not paying after they eat.

Nguyen Thi Loan, one of Hao's customers on Nguyen Huu Huan Street in Hoan Kiem District, recalled that last year, a group of young people tried to avoid paying Hao after eating. "While I and others held their bikes, requesting them to pay, Hao just smiled."

He said it was just a group of high school students.

Hao also recalled that recently he had one young customer, who, after finishing a plate of nom bo kho, paid double. His name was Tuan, the customer told Hao. A few years ago, he had evaded paying Hao, so now "I apologize and pay for the past."

"I think at such a young age, they don't purposely commit a mistake, but just want to make fun of others," said Hao.

Hao now has to contend with other ong Nom.

"Recently, I have new colleagues who expect to earn a lot of profit, but all quit after a short time after failing to find enough customers," said Hao.

"I am a senior in the field with many regular customers, allowing me to decrease the price but still get the same profit, it is difficult to compete with me as their nom bo kho is more expensive," Hao said.

Hao's son now works for a foreign company, but he plans to help his father promote the dish as a traditional snack in the capital.

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