But is it Vietnamese? Traditional Dishes with Controversial Twists

Bun cha - a traditional Hanoi dish has been given a controversial twist at Chopsticks restaurant in Hanoi.

Bun cha – a traditional Hanoi dish has been given a controversial twist at Chopsticks restaurant in Hanoi. Photo by Mi Nguyen/HOT TABLE.

The Vietnamese are proud of their cuisine – and rightly so, it’s steadily conquering the globe, has survived more conflict than anything else and is firmly rooted in a long-standing sense of culture and tradition. Even though there are minor variations from one restaurant to another – the same basic concept applies and it’s part of what makes eating in Vietnam so simple. You can stumble across any far-flung corner of the city and know roughly what to expect from a delectable dish, but there are those brave culinary pioneers who’re seeking to add their own distinct takes on the traditional Vietnamese classics.

From minor tweaks to big twists, Hanoi is home to plenty of experimental souls. While some consider these culinary experiments to be bold and visionary, there are others who find tampering with traditional Vietnamese food to be offensive. Irrespective of where you stand on the matter, the online hive mind of dominant Facebook groups has been unable to spew out a coherent message over what counts as real Vietnamese food when it’s faced with the winds of change.

Traditional Vietnamese food is a huge draw for a globe crawling with tourists eager to devour it all, but for some, these Vietnamese classics are a blank canvas from which to work.

Chopsticks‘ bun cha. Photo by Mi Nguyen.

When it comes to bun cha, one can purchase the classic dish anywhere in Hanoi for around VND30,000. At Chopsticks, however, their bun cha costs VND140,000, but why? “A lot has been made of our bun cha and despite some variations in presentation, we actually used traditional recipes – certainly for all of the seasoning and meat preparation. Actually I think we played around more with our version of pho than we did with our bun cha,” muses the owner of Hanoi’s Chopsticks (who requested not to be named). The restaurateur added that Chopsticks’ pho is prepared with higher quality ingredients than most – with grass-fed Australian fillet beef, organic chicken and no MSG.

The Hanoi restaurant often gets coined with the term ‘fusion food‘ – a notion he disagrees with. “I actually dislike the word ‘fusion’. I think that implies we are trying to change the food more than we actually are. The recipes we use are all traditional Vietnamese recipes – we may add a little to them, but we never change the basics.”

While Chopsticks‘ bun cha seemed to act as some sort of lightning rod for rage with which to poke to the proverbial eye of the internet, the owner (who requested not to be named) claims it was never his intention to rile up the masses. He simply wanted to add his own touch to one of Hanoi’s most iconic dishes. “I am happy that we have given people something to talk about. We have never said that our bun cha is better than anyone else’s – we just tried to create a unique dish for which we know the source of all the ingredients. We don’t expect everyone to get what we are doing but our intention has only ever been to offer a different interpretation of bun cha.”

Mad Society - Phoritto traditional

MAD Society’s ‘Phoritto’ – made with traditional pho ingredients served as a burrito. Photo by Will Dameron/HOT TABLE.

Meanwhile, by Hanoi’s second most popular lake, So Yeon Kim has been toying with traditions in the aptly named MAD Society. With MAD an acronymic statement of intent, it should really come as no surprise that under Kim’s rule, you’re in for some Modern Asian Dining – and that means taking traditional Vietnamese dishes to strange places. “So far I think we’ve tried pho, bun cha and cha ca, we haven’t deconstructed them into pieces as such, we just wanted to find new ways of eating them.” Kim’s gamble entertains the notion that across the globe, our culinary habits are not so different – even when the ingredients are.

“All cuisine everywhere shares at least an element of character – take wraps for example, in Vietnam they have rice paper, in my country (South Korea) we use vegetables, Mexico has their tortillas, and east parts of Africa have their chapatti. We all have a shared way of eating.” This may have been the notion that drove her to create MAD Society’s now iconic ‘Phoritto’, a bizarre blend of beauty and beef. It was simply a case of taking the ingredients for pho and creating something new with them.

Mad Society - tacos

MAD Society’s cha ca tacos. Photo by Will Dameron/HOT TABLE.

“I love cha ca, it’s so good, but I noticed it has the same style of sizzling as a fajita. At the beginning we were just putting it into a taco format, these days we’re doing it a new way, we serve it in a sizzling grill with the fish, the onions and dill, then we serve up the fajitas on the side so you can wrap it yourself.” For Kim, it’s about changing the presentation and the procedures, but keeping the essential soul of Vietnam bound within the flavours and the ingredients.

“We had some Vietnamese customers who were like ‘That’s not how you eat it, that’s not the right way’ but to me, the whole point of this modern culinary scene is that there is no right answer, you make your own rules, you can create what you want, however you want.” But is it still pho or cha ca? “I think yes and no, food is always evolving, but at the same time, there’s always a root to a dish, so I think it’s up to the people enjoying it – it’s hard to define what’s right and wrong in this case.”

Pizza 4Ps - Cha Ca

Pizza 4P’s – Pizza Cha Ca. Photo by Will Dameron/HOT TABLE.

Pizza 4P’s have forever altered the pizza game in Hanoi, by not so much raising the bar as completely disregarding it in a frantic wild-eyed pursuit. Their creative energy had led them to produce some of the most unique and flavour-blending pizzas in the city. While they may not have reinvented the wheel – they still sell pizzas, after all – they have transformed the popular Italian dish with the avant-garde perfectionism of Japanese cuisine, the results speak for themselves, but that doesn’t make for good reading, so a representative of the restaurant spoke too, but wished to remain anonymous.

“At present, Pizza Cha Ca is a version that presents the most obvious spirit of Vietnamese cuisine – cha ca. In addition, we also have many dishes that are inspired by the uniqueness of Vietnamese ingredients, such as our Four Flower Pizza, using local edible flowers that are familiar with Vietnamese meals.” The Pizza Cha Ca takes a Hanoian classic and essentially introduces it to the timeless joy of pizza, but in doing so creates one of the few successful iterations of a seafood pizza –which is normally the Achilles’ heel of pizza menus worldwide.

Pizza Cha Ca. Photo by Will Dameron/HOT TABLE. traditional vietnamese food

Pizza Cha Ca. Photo by Will Dameron/HOT TABLE.

Pizza 4P’s spokesperson went on to explain how their aim is more focused on toying with the notion of balance that’s at the heart of Vietnamese cuisine. “As you know, Vietnamese culinary culture is recognised and embraced by many enthusiasts in the world. It is obviously respected seriously by the people here. With any traditional dishes, we always try to respect the spirit of the dish.”
That being said, Pizza 4P’s is a home to culinary creatives of Hanoi and they value the authenticity of their work over staying true to the origins of the dishes they’re inspired by. “However, the connection and the balance – which is also an essential part of Vietnamese recipes – would also be emphasised. In Pizza Cha Ca, we add our house-made Camembert to the toppings. This ingredient might sound irrelevant to a Vietnamese dish, yet in fact it creates a good twist in the flavour.”

No matter how you feel about these modern twists on traditional dishes, the blossoming success of Pizza 4P’s speaks volumes, as they’ve recently opened their third branch in Ba Dinh. The good people of Pizza 4P’s haven’t let this go to their heads though and quality remains vital to their operations. “Respecting the cuisine is important, but creating a dish that could maintain the traditional elements while have a stunning point that could surprise the guests, and suit the palates of diners – that are what we aim to do.”

Pizza 4Ps - Cha Ca pizza in the oven

Photo by Will Dameron/HOT TABLE.

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