Of Love and Shashlik

By Calvin Godfrey, Thanh Nien News

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 The grill master at Quan Chieu Nay on 30B Vo Van Tan Street adjacent to the War Remnants Museum The grill master at Quan Chieu Nay on 30B Vo Van Tan Street adjacent to the War Remnants Museum
Pham Thanh Giang says he's old now. The retired, 64 year-old economist has been married three times and has run the same Soviet-style barbeque joint at 30B Vo Van Tan Street for the past 16 years.
But there is something spritely in his manner when speaking about the essence of barbeque. His pointy eyebrows arch high on his head when he gets to talking.
As his face stretches into a taut grin, Giang seems to almost glow.
When he was 17, the government decided to send him to the Ukraine to study Economics. The year was 1967 and Giang was happy to leave the Hanoi suburbs at the height of the Vietnam War.
Kiev was like a dream to him, he says half-rising out of his seat. Old buildings, tree-lined streets and snow.
He mingled with Germans and Poles and Czechs. He went to public parks, where the Ukrainians sparked up long metal boxes full of charcoal and served meat in the open air. "Nobody sat," he said. "Everybody stood, ate, drank and talked. That's the way to eat barbeque."
He produces a few snapshots of a grinning young man with sweeping black hair posing before a statue of Lenin in Kiev. There he is, palling around with his classmates in front of a propaganda mural.
Then there are some photos which, he says, we cannot reprint. They feature a striking young blond and her plump mother standing with young Giang on a terrace in Uzbekistan.
In his 20th year, he met this girl, Anna while picking fruit in the Turkic Soviet republic during a summer work program.
"She was just 17," he says grinning. "And so, so beautiful."
They met at her parent's roadside shashlik stand and fell in love over grilled skewered meat.
Two weeks before he left, her mother told him she wanted to teach him how to prepare their traditional food.
She explained that the Uzbek nomads had defined barbeque as the roasting of a whole animal nose to tail. The choicest parts of the creature were reserved for the most senior members. The worst parts were carved up, skewered and grilled again.
This, she said, was the basis of shashlik.
Pham Thanh Giang, (3rd, R) pictured with a group of Vietnamese foreign exchange students in Kiev in 1971. During his seven years spent studying economics in the Soviet Union, Giang says he learned the secrets of shashlik (Turkic-style barbeque) from the Uzbek family of his first true love. Photo courtesy of Pham Thanh Giang.
"I want you to learn this dish and prepare it for your friends," Anna's mother told him. "I want you to remember the USSR."
In their kitchen, at home, Anna's mother taught him how to choose and prepare the meat. She also revealed the secret ratios of salt and spices none of which Giang will discuss.
In his final weeks, Giang worked with the family at their restaurant to ensure he got everything about the recipe right and to stay close to Anna.
"I had no money," he says. "So I made her no promises. The story ended there."
Giang returned home in 1974. After liberation, he was transferred to Ho Chi Minh City where he worked as a government economist.
He liked the southern girls and the tropical weather.
He got married, twice, and retired from public service after twenty years. In 1994, he decided he was bored. It was then that he remembered Anna's mother's recipe.
"I had nothing to do," he says.
"So I thought I'd open a little restaurant."
Some friends told him about a long-narrow space that had opened up next to the War Remnants Museum. He's been renting it ever since.
Five years ago, he got married again. He took up photography and says his favorite subjects are beautiful nude women. His wife, Ho Thi Kim Yen can often be seen managing the restaurant from a steel desk in the middle of the busy restaurant.
On a recent evening, he stood before the smoky entrance to Quan Chieu Nay (this afternoon) wearing a pink, fish-print shirt and a garish, brown crocodile-skin fanny pack.
Above him, a perplexing sign glows with a cartoon sheep head and Cyrillic lettering advertising shashlik.
On a busy night, diners pour out into the street. Long rows of tables sit covered in empty plates and cups. Stacks of chicken bones and towlette wrappers pile up faster than they can be swept into a dust pan.
Giang's restaurant features a number of unlikely imports.
His specialty, he says, is ostrich, which is grilled and served in tender brown slices with pickled root vegetables and a small bowl of mustard for VND80,000. For a time, he was the town's kangaroo king; a giant skin hanging on the wall attests to Giang's marsupial heyday. (A couple of years ago, he says, Ho Chi Minh City's only importer stopped bringing it in).
Australian plates aside, Quan Chieu Nay's menu features "Soviet style" pork, lamb and veal.
Like everything at the restaurant (with the exception of the limp salads) these sizeable hunks of meat are skewered onto twisted metal skewers and cooked through over the restaurant's charcoal grill. The Soviet-style meat platters are a steal at VND55,000: salty, sweet and marbled with just enough fat to butter each bite. The meat eats tender, with a flavor not unlike lean smoked brisket, and is accompanied nicely by the toasty rolls that run 3,000 a piece.
"This is a not a luxury restaurant," Giang said as he uncorked a sizeable bottle of iced Merlot and invited Thanh Nien Weekly to dinner. "In art as in cuisine, one need not be luxurious to succeed. It's the atmosphere. My place is cozy, not very expensive. That's what shashlik is all about."
In addition to the kangaroo skin, photos and paintings of Vietnam and Russia line the walls. Not far from the smoky entrance hangs a huge browned print of a birch forest taken in Kiev, by a friend.
He's never been back to the Ukraine, but he heard that Anna got married and her mother passed away.
"Like the poet says: "˜love is only beautiful when it lacks a happy ending."

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