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From Kuy Teav to Hủ Tiếu: A Street Food History

Originally from Cambodia, made popular by Chinese vendors and enjoyed by local diners, hủ tiếu Nam Vang captures the essence of Vietnamese history in one hearty bowl of noodles.

Madame Vừng shouts my name — to my slight embarrassment and the other patrons’ shock — when she spots me around the corner. She mans a cart selling an assortment of delicious hủ tiếu dishes, including hủ tiếu Nam Vang, in the alley leading to my house. Is there a better way to fuel a writing session on hủ tiếu than by diving into a bowl of the mouthwatering subject itself?

I order my usual portion and sit on a plastic stool, watching her. A rotund woman in her late fifties with laugh lines around her eyes, Madame Vừng is người Hoa (Vietnamese of Chinese descent) and proud of it. While Saigon's modern-day version of hủ tiếu undoubtedly bears some Chinese influence, the origin story of hủ tiếu Nam Vang begins with our western neighbors.

Hủ tiếu Nam Vang is actually a Cambodian dish; Nam Vang means Phnom Penh in Vietnamese. With local cuisine a veritable feast of different culinary influences, it’s a tall order to pinpoint the exact breeding ground of any dish you might come across on the streets of Saigon. And even if you can, there’s no guarantee that the recipe has remained the same after decades of adaptation by chefs all over the country.

A local rendition of hủ tiếu in District 3. Photos by Lee Starnes.

The ultimate origin of hủ tiếu Nam Vang lies in the heart of Phnom Penh’s Old Market, where Cambodians from all walks of life sit down at open-air stalls and order for themselves a steaming bowl of kuy teav. In Khmer, kuy teav refers to both a variety of chewy rice noodles and a noodle dish made from pork broth and garnished with fried shallots, spring onions and bean sprouts.

The rustic version typically only features minced pork and fish balls, but chefs in Phnom Penh have their own twist, elevating the dish by adding liver, blood pudding and other innards. In the 1960s, the recipe for this rather fancy version of kuy teav followed Cambodian immigrants to southern Vietnam to become the hủ tiếu Nam Vang that’s widely enjoyed by Saigoneers today.

Besides sharing the Indochinese peninsula, Cambodia and Vietnam have more common cultural threads than meet the eye. Vietnam and Thailand are both home to sizable Cambodian diaspora; when they arrived, these immigrants brought along with them to southern Vietnam certain aspects of Khmer life, including parts of the language as well as culinary creations such as kuy teav Phnom Penh.

At a glance, hủ tiếu Nam Vang looks decidedly Chinese, with seveal of its ingredients pointing to Chinese influence: from the use of chewy hủ tiếu noodles to the name Nam Vang — which tends to be mistaken for "Nam Giang" when spoken with southern dialect. The reality is that if you pay a visit to any common hủ tiếu Nam Vang vendor in the city, you will likely come across a chef người Hoa, like Madame Vung, cooking up a storm.

Chinese-style hủ tiếu in District 1. Photos by Lee Starnes.

In fact, to seek out a bowl of hủ tiếu Nam Vang cooked and seasoned by a Cambodian in Saigon, you would have to make a trek to either Liến Húa on Võ Văn Tần or Ty Lum on Thành Thái. The former is run by a Cambodian woman with a 40-year history of selling the dish in Saigon, while the latter boasts the expertise of an ex-chef for the Khmer royal family.

Whether the chef is Chinese, Cambodian or Vietnamese, Saigon’s vendors seem to be in agreement on what constitutes a standard bowl of hủ tiếu Nam Vang: chewy rice noodles, topped with minced pork, shrimp or squid and embellished with a healthy sprinkle of spring onions, bean sprouts and tần ô (crown daisy).

It’s impossible to compare today’s version of hủ tiếu Nam Vang with what older Saigoneers might have enjoyed back in the 1960s. However, one thing we can be sure of is that the dish has taken a different form than its predecessor, kuy teav Phnom Penh, which tends to be prepared sans seafood due to the country’s limited coastline.

Hủ tiếu Mỹ Tho in District 1. Photos by Lee Starnes.

There’s no doubt that Vietnamese have a penchant for hủ tiếu of all kinds. Even though the Nam Vang version wins out in terms of popularity, you can pretty much discover a new adaptation with every locality as you cruise down the highway from Saigon to Cà Mau, Vietnam's southernmost province. There is hủ tiếu Gò Công, hủ tiếu Sa Đéc, hủ tiếu Châu Đốc, hủ tiếu Mỹ Tho and dozens of lesser known versions. But at the end of the day, the most important nuances lie in the broth, which differs depend on the province and the cook.

Tracing the history of a street food dish in Saigon is no easy feat; the city attracts people from so many different provinces and countries that it's nearly impossible to pinpoint the exact history of a meal. Even with a dish like hủ tiếu Nam Vang, whose distribution stays mainly in southern Vietnam, we could be here all day just working out the differences between kuy teav and hủ tiếu

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