For better or for worse, the human olfactory system has a whimsical knack for dredging up memories. We tend to associate smells and tastes with places and people, whether it’s the wholesomely nationalistic scent of an apple pie cooling on a windowsill somewhere in the American rust-belt or if it’s the joyous curried effluvium that greets you as you’re staggering helplessly down Brick Lane in the pouring rain of a British summer.
Your nose has a way of dragging you back to that time when you thought one more vodka shot was what your stomach was crying out for, even when all your body ever really wanted was a half-century of healthy, natural sleep. The point is, these wonderful whiffs are potent in bringing on the old faithful nostalgia – more often for a simpler time, one where the taxman was a bogeyman of the far-flung future and Velcro shoes were totally acceptable. In short, a lost time.
It was this bittersweet inspiration that gripped Xuan Dieu and steered her artful mixology skills in the direction of the past – more specifically, her own past, which she chose to celebrate with a night dedicated to the tastes of rural Vietnam.
“I’m a country girl and sometimes in the city, I miss my mum – I miss the smells that filled the kitchen when she cooked dinner.”
As the manager of The Unicorn Pub, Xuan has dedicated her craft to bringing the nuances of Vietnamese cuisine to the cocktail market and has attained incredible success as a result.
“Here in Hanoi, I think people are so busy and so I wanted to create a drink that takes them back to the simplicity of the countryside life – these are tastes you just can’t get in the city.”
There are currently two cocktails that were given life and form out of Xuan’s childhood in rural Vietnam. “Back to the Hometown” and the award-winning “Com Cocktail” – both of which were on special offer for the sake of the evening’s event.
It was in the midst of these heady days in the city, about seven months ago, that Xuan caught the scent of someone cooking Be Tai Chanh, which inspired her cocktail Back to the Hometown.
“It was the smell that reminded me of home and so it is the smell that I tried to create in the cocktail,” Xuan explains. There’s a certain light that spreads across her face as she elaborates on the matter and you can tell that this is something she’s deeply passionate about. Whilst not wanting to divulge too many details about her secret recipes, she told me that the crucial element is the rice paddy herb that makes the cocktail so reminiscent of her childhood in her hometown.
This Is How We Do Things in the Country
After my innards had been warmed up and well-oiled with a couple of Back to the Hometowns I set my sights on the award-winning Com Cocktail which our staff photographer claimed tasted like jellybeans, but that does a disservice to both the drink and to jellybeans.
It’s hard to say exactly where I’ve tasted it before and for all of my inquisitions, Xuan told me that I’d probably recognise if I’d been raised in the Vietnamese countryside instead of the arable wasteland of the East Midlands, England. Seemingly one of the myriad ingredients going into this concoction is Ngon Rom – a part of the rice that, once it’s been harvested, dried and fermented is transformed into a drinkable delight.
It was daytime when I arrived and the hayseeds of Hanoi hadn’t yet escaped the shackles of employment, so I sat with Xuan and she suggested I try the other special items on the menu. She’d painstakingly sourced some sticky rice wine from her hometown especially for the night and explained that it’s all home-grown, utterly unregulated and liable to get you nicely shit-faced – although she was far more elegant than that.
“How strong is this stuff?” I asked through wet eyes. After the first shot I felt a familiar knot forming in my stomach.
“No-one truly knows, but it’ll get you drunk very fast,” she said smiling sweetly.
This is the infamous Ruou Que or Ruou Nep – both of which roughly translate into countryside rice wine. In other words, moonshine. As the clear viscous liquids coursed down my throat, a lingering aftertaste of sticky rice lured its way to my palate.
After a few more drinks I decided I’d gone as far down this old country road my liver should take me for a Thursday night. Before I left, Xuan told me that I’d have to come back again next month as she is devising a new concoction. Her lips were sealed, naturally, but she gave a slight hint that it would also be inspired by the street food of Vietnam. Stay tuned.