Living in Vietnam now in the late 2010s, you would find it hard to imagine this Southeast Asian nation, whose grocery retail sales passed $172 billion last year, once had its people queued up for days for their meagre food rations. Under strict state control over food distribution, men and women waited patiently only to come back with mouldy noodles as a substitute when rice ran out. It wasn’t uncommon for households to live off two kilograms of meat per month.
I’m lucky enough to be born just one year after the very end of Vietnam’s subsidy period, which lasted from 1976 to 1986 and completely terminated in 1989. At the dawn of the acclaimed economic reform Đổi Mới, average families like mine couldn’t immediately replace kitchen and household items they’ve used throughout that tough time, while others chose to keep them as poignant reminders of their struggles. Thanks to that, one recent day I found myself in State-Run Food Shop 37, in front of similar objects to those I grew up with but haven’t touched again in two decades.
(Pictured above) Dang Thanh Thuy, State-Run Food Shop 37 owner, proudly told me people from across Vietnam had donated their own home items to her restaurant, turning it into a mini museum. Lunch boxes, bikes and rubber sandals are hung on the walls like artworks. Desk fans, radios and TV sets are showcased in front of the drink counter. Tables legs are made of the iron legs from Singer sewing machines. Collections of ration coupons and rice books that once were more precious to Vietnamese families than money now sit in glass cases, and the restaurant menu is built on old time dishes.
“It started from flashbacks of my artist and journalist friends, and my own memories as a 10-year-old girl who lived in the subsidy period. We talked about the past and bonded over shots of wine, and they encouraged me to build the restaurant,” Thuy, herself a designer, jogged down her memory lane.
She opened the restaurant in 2012 and named it after actual state-run food shops in the 70s and 80s. It was at first, according to Thuy, a humble display of items her group managed to collect from several trips around the country, alongside her family’s possession. After just one month, diners came back with more and more memorabilia.
Tastes of the Past
You might freak out if any other restaurant in the world serves you in aluminium plates and bowls with rusty edges, but here they completed the culinary experience. A generation of Vietnamese grew up eating their cassava-mixed rice and fatback meat on such aluminium crockery. Breadwinners of subsidy period families who are now old and grey have come to Food Shop 37 and cried over their rusty food plates as they showed their children and grandchildren how hard it was to not starve in the 80s.
Food Shop 37 menu was built on Thuy’s memory of the 80s when, as a 10-year-old girl, she cooked to feed a family of seven. With great food scarcity comes great creativity; she turned riverside vegetables into delicious dishes and hunted for fish or shrimps in the Red River when meat was rare.
“At 10 years old I was already in charge of all my family’s meals. We lived by the Red River where farmers would leave potatoes behind when flooding hit. I picked those potato leaves and simmered them in fermented rice to feed my four brothers.”
The simmered potato leaves, rau lang om mẻ in Vietnamese, is now the heart of her nostalgic menu while another hardship creation, tomato noodle soup or mì nấu cà chua in Vietnamese, isn’t written in it. Thuy would occasionally serve the soup as a gift to her diners. She nodded when I joked that this was her own version of a secret Starbucks menu.
“It was such a difficult time that even rice was rare. Food shops gave us fusty and mouldy noodles when they ran out of rice. I remembered the food shop lady looking down from behind her counter – because I was too small – telling me there was no rice left and asking if I wanted to take the noodle. What the heck would we eat if I didn’t take the noodle?”
You can rest assured that the tomato noodle soup Thuy now serves at Food Shop 37 are made fresh and are as scrumptious as its world-famous sister dishes phở or bún chả, but in the past it took the young Thuy some kitchen skills and creativity to transform the mouldy noodles into something deliciously edible.
Thuy doesn’t want Food Shop 37 to only be a reflection of the past where her customers eat some poor portions of food like Vietnamese people did when they had no other choice. “We were too poor back then and it isn’t something to be proud of.” To Thuy, her food should be as simple as they were in the subsidy period, cooked with the limited range of ingredients like old times but so powerful they could create culinary art. Thuy sets herself a mission to introduce Hanoi’s cuisine in her menu and to give people the cosy family meals they might have missed in a busy city life.
Asked which moment she remembers the most in six years running Food Shop 37, Thuy told me about a man in his 80s who brought four generations of his family to the restaurant.
“It was such a touching meal that day at the restaurant. People said they couldn’t imagine a food shop that can bring four generations together and they all love it.”
I wondered how Thuy kept her dedication running in a team of young chefs who didn’t share her hardship memories. “It isn’t easy, of course, but I had a way,” said Thuy. She insisted that her chefs put aside their trainings that target 5-star restaurants and cook for their customers the same as they would do for their beloved family.
And it worked.