Pho might be the darling of Vietnamese cuisine, and perhaps, bun cha is the people’s favourite ‘underdog’, but there’s another dish which is closer to the heart of less carnivorous Hanoians.

Bun dau mam tom is basically chunks of tofu served in a hot soup on a bed of rice noodles with a dollop of shrimp paste. It’s an extremely popular meal that’s often overlooked by guidebooks and seldom-tried by tourists or even long term residents of Hanoi.
A number of street side restaurants down Phat Loc alley in the Old Quarter serve up extremely tasty renditions of this dish, which seems simple, nourishing and healthy.

My friends and I like to argue over which vendor’s broth is the best, but first-time culinary adventurers shouldn’t worry so much. Each stall is consistent and of a high standard.

The seating is rudimentary – small plastic stools and chairs. But you don’t come here to enjoy plush surroundings! As soon as you sit down one of the cooks starts to fry up some tofu while cutting the long rice noodle strings up. The tofu is added before the broth is poured into the bowl. The ‘mam tom’ – not everyone’s cup of tea! – is tweaked with some lime juice and pepper. A few chunks of cha com (grilled chopped meat mashed up with green rice flakes) are also added. Lastly, you get served a plate of assorted greens to add to the mix.

It seems easy to make, but inevitably homemade attempts never satisfy the craving like the restaurants along Phat Loc do. All the restaurant owners claim the secret is carefully selected materials rather than age-old techniques. According to Tran Thi Huong, the owner of the arguably the most famous restaurant at 49 Phat Loc, no one ingredient is more important than another. The end product is the perfect symphony of deliciousness. 
First of all, the rice noodles must come from Phu Do in Hanoi’s Tu Liem district, where rice noodle production is the village’s traditional trade. These rice noodles are much thinner than normal strands of bun you might sample around town. The cha com is made with green rice flakes (com) from Vong village and the mam tom comes from Thanh Hoa province.

People often just eat bun dau for lunch, so the restaurants are only open from 11am till 2pm. A bowl normally costs VND10,000 to VND15,000 so bun dau is universally adored. You can see well-heeled young professional women side by side with vendors in conical hats. You can find bun dau sold on the road side of a number of streets around Hanoi, but ask anyone and they’ll surely agree, bun dau mam tom on Phat Loc alley is the bees-knees.
By Dieu Linh