The mystery of meatball mountain

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Few in Da Lat seem willing to consider the Chinese origins of their delicious meatballs
  Bánh mì xíu mại (meatballs and baguette) on the corner of Tran Nhat Duat and Hoang Dieu streets in Da Lat

Every morning, scores of Dalatters flock to the corner of Tran Nhat Duat and Hoang Dieu for perhaps the best breakfast in the country.

Packed in coats, scarves and ear flap hats, they start their day by breaking spicy bread into steaming bowls of pork meatballs served in a rich onion broth.

The meatballs are so thoroughly tender, they seem to collapse into hot pate with a slight prod from the crisp loaves which appear to be dusted in Cayenne pepper. For an extra kick, patrons called for a scoop of sa-tế (chili and lemongrass paste) or ask for nưá»›c cay (a bright red chili-infused broth).

Most of the patrons took less than ten minutes to inhale their breakfast. Others ordered it to go. Nevertheless, few of the sidewalk restaurant's two-dozen seats ever stayed opened, lending the place a frenzied atmosphere.

When a 10,000 dong accidentally fell into the spicy broth, I had to suppress the urge to lick it clean and I quickly became jealous of the man sitting across from me, who had somehow gotten buttery squares of boiled pig skin and crushed pork rinds with his meatballs.

So I ordered a bowl.

Three loaves of bread, four meatballs and a square foot of pigskin came out to VND18,000"”less than a dollar.

The sandwiches are available on the street carts all over town. Bloggers have described them as bánh mì xá xíu and bánh mì xíu mại. Both names called to mind to Cantonese dishes ("cha-siu" roast pork or "shumai" steamed pork and shrimp dumplings).

But the family that runs the place insists that it is one hundred percent Vietnamese.

"Oh my God no," answered Be, the youngest member of the family plying the delicious pork. "We don't use any Chinese pork here!"

Be categorically denied any Chinese influence on the dish. Her family was 100 percent Vietnamese and had sold the same food for the past 25 years.

For the past two centuries, however, Chinese merchants have been denied credit for introducing a range of delicious things to ports all over Vietnam.

Food historians argue that Chinese traders brought everything from mangosteens to steamed pork buns into port towns and commercial hubs all over the country.

Their culinary contributions have been forgotten and they are sometimes disparagingly referred to as người ba tàu (three boat people).

In the remote mountain town of Da Lat, few of the city's many xíu mại sandwich makers seemed willing to consider that the food originated anywhere but Da Lat.

"It's just Vietnamese," fussed Nhu as she pressed a trio of meatballs into a toasted baguette with some julienned papaya, celery greens and a fiery spoonful of sa-tế.

The Northwest corner of Tran Nhat Duat and Hoang Dieu streets, Ward 5, Da Lat
Price: VND9,000 for bread and a bowl of meatballs
Hours: 6 a.m.-9 a.m.

Address: The cart opposite 18 Nguyen Chi Thanh Street, Ward 1, Da Lat
Price: VND10,000 for a sandwich
Hours: 4 p.m.-10 p.m.

Nhu insisted she should know. She has been selling the same sandwich, every night, for the past 13 years from her cart on Nguyen Chi Thanh.

Though Nhu was short on answers, her greasy broth quickly bled into the Filo-flaky baguette. The end result was a warm, spicy meat pastry balanced by tart greens.

Directly across the street, Grandma Bui sat in a chaise lounge and watched her oldest daughter prepare the same sandwich she had sold for the past 40 years.

She began by pushing a cart up and down the steep streets. Then she occupied a stall at the busy night market. Today, the family does a nice business out of their house at 16 Nguyen Chi Thanh, surrounded by tourist hotels and pricey coffee shops.

Her 16 year-old grandson, Bui Duy Anh (or Eric Bui) remembered eating bánh mì xíu mại every day before he and his mother emigrated to San Antonio when he was four years old.

He insisted, in his thick Texas accent, that his grandmother had probably invented the sandwich.

When I pressed him to ask, however, he was shocked by her answer.

 "The recipe comes from the Nguoi Tau," she said. "It's a mix, like us. We're half-Chinese."

A heavy pause filled the air.

"I'm Chinese?" Eric asked.

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