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Hẻm Gems: The Unbearable Lightness of Eating Bò Lá Lốt Alone

There are certain activities that are best not undertaken alone: karaoke, barbeque, watching football and feasting on ốc. The consensus, however, is still out on bò nướng lá lốt mỡ chài, so I decided to take one for the team and venture into Saigon’s thriving bò lá lốt scene as a lone wolf.

Vietnam has an unwritten rule about grilled dishes: these smoky dishes are wonderful nhậu snacks and no drinking session is fun without a friend or two. The rising popularity of grill-it-yourself joints further drives home this association between grilled food and group hangouts, as few bonds are stronger than those made while putting morsels of meat on a bed of charcoal together. As deliciously charred meat sausages, bò nướng lá lốt falls under this purview. While most grilled beef places spare you the ordeal of grilling them yourself, the interactive art of making bò lá lốt rolls still serves as wonderful ice-breaker for all participants; which begs the question: eating bò lá lốt alone, genius or sad?

As a proud introvert, I’ve long made peace with my propensity for solitary enjoyment. The introversion movement has made great strides in recent years in making going to the cinema alone socially acceptable. In fact, in my personal experience, this is even preferable. The theater is not designed for casual banter or dishing out witticisms; films should be a personal journey to allow ample room for undisturbed reflection. Elsewhere in the culinary world, solo-dining ramen eateries are popping up everywhere from Tokyo to New York, featuring “dining cubicles” that curtail human interactions. Yum. Vietnam is not immune to the movement either: a simple Google search for “lẩu một người” — one-person hotpot — yields a staggering 14.8 million hits, though I resent headlines that juxtapose this revolutionary invention with the derogatory term FA, short for “forever alone,” as if there’s anything shameful about slurping on hot broth without company.

The cutlery and crockery at Bo La Lot Phuong have seen better times.

Empowered by the trend, I make a beeline for Bo La Lot Phuong Co Giang, regarded by many as the best spot in town, to wolf down some grilled beef sausages by myself. As the name suggests, Bo La Lot Phuong used to stand on Co Giang Street in District 1, but resettled in District 4 not long ago, right in a neighborhood teeming with street food places. Xom Chieu lives up to its name as the district’s food enclave, but calling it a street is a rather generous statement. The narrow and cluttered thoroughfare has no pavement whatsoever and can barely fit two small cars on a good day. It doesn’t help that an army of stores selling everything from grilled seafood, noodles, phá lấu to bánh tráng nướng line its sides with stalls, tables and other crazy cooking contraptions.

My nose recognizes the presence of bò lá lốt even before my eyes could locate the restaurant, which features a cart and a grill in the shopfront. The dining area is modest, fitting three rows of plastic tables and stools. It’s clear that Bo La Lot Phuong is a family business, with members of the household staying right above the dining space. The grill is small, manned by a young staff who falls into a nimble rhythm of brushing, flipping, fanning and collecting the skewers of beef sausages. Despite the exhaust hood directly above, the wonderful fragrance of freshly cooked bò lá lốt still fills me with a palpable sense of anticipation.

Grilling bò lá lốt is an art.

It’s 4:30pm in the afternoon and drizzling, so I am the only customer at Bo La Lot Phuong, though every now and then, a deliveryman shows up to ferry away orders. My bò lá lốt and bò mỡ chài arrive quickly, neatly arranged on a tray complete with all the accouterments one needs for a fulfilling solo session of feasting. The set of bò lá lốt is extremely cheap at VND25,000 and includes a handful of bò lá lốt sausages, a plate of bánh hỏi (a form of rice noodle sheet), a stack of bánh tráng, a small bowl of water for dabbing on rice paper and heaps of herbs. Rolling your own bò lá lốt is an art that few get right, but luckily, it’s a skill one can get the hang of in one sitting — the secret lies in moderation: not too much water and not too much filling.

To start, put a bánh tráng in your palm. It’s also important to choose one that’s intact so it will not tear during rolling. Add one piece of lettuce, then a piece of bánh hỏi while making sure that they lie flatly on the rice paper sheet. A single roll of bò lá lốt or bò mỡ chài rests on the bánh hỏi, surrounded by other herbs and sliced vegetables, such as bean sprouts, cucumber, green banana, starfruit, húng quế and diếp cá. Wet the tips of your fingers in the provided bowl and dab the further end of the sheet. Finally, slowly roll the bundle away from you on the palm, ending with the wet edge, which should be sticky enough by now to seal the filling into a neat roll.

A tray of bò lá lốt comes with a wide array of fresh herbs and vegetables.

You now cradle in your hand one of the most magical tools to soak up as much dipping sauce as possible. It may hold itself together with grace and uniform weight. It may be slightly clumsy, bursting at the seams from the generous sprinkling of bean sprouts inside. It might be perfect, or not. But the point is: it is your creation, and because you made the decision to plunge into this new endeavor alone, there’s no one around to critique your work. Now, proudly dip that baby into the bowl of mắm nêm, and take the first bite into a world of umami, spiciness and herbaceous freshness.

Inside the puny sausages, each no longer than a child’s thumb, is a mixture of minced beef, tendon, lemongrass and spices. Of course, there’s a reason behind the two types of wrappings: bò lá lốt is covered by lá lốt, a type of betel leaf; bò mỡ chài is instead enveloped in a decadent layer of caul fat. Both are there by design to help the meat inside retain its juiciness. I’ve always believed that this ingenuity was yet another proof of Vietnamese’s resourcefulness, but the more I delve into the history behind the dish, the more evidence emerges to suggest that bò nướng lá lốt was instead our ancestors’ way to adapt foreign techniques to local taste and ingredient availability.

Mỡ chài refers to a thin layer of caul fat lining the guts of cows, pigs and sheep. Its elasticity makes it desirable as the wrapping for sausages, roulades and other meat dishes. The technique is popular in many European dishes, such as French crépinette (pan-fried sausages) or the unfortunately named British faggot (meatballs baked in the oven). Most remarkably, sheftalia, a popular skewer dish in Greece and Cyprus, involves seasoned minced meat wrapped in caul fat and grilled on charcoal. Sound familiar? The most probable, but rather lazy, theory speculates that Vietnam’s bò nướng mỡ chài might be an adaptation of French crépinette, arising during colonial time.

A roll with bò mỡ chài inside.

If bò mỡ chài may have originated in Europe, bò lá lốt descends from a long line of Asian leaf-wrapped delicacies. According to The Oxford Companion to Food, Vietnam learned how to use leaf wrap from Indians, specifically Bengalis, who adapted the technique from Middle Eastern traders. Middle Eastern cuisines employ grape leaves in stuffed dishes called dolma — minced meat, rice, spices, potato and other veggies wrapped in a grape leaf and then steamed or boiled.

Nestled at the apex of the Bay of Bengal, Bengal is the easternmost region of India and has been an important trading link between the Middle East and Southeast Asia for centuries. It was here where the Pala Empire was founded in 750 CE and became the dominant power by the 9th century, with a focus on trade and cultural exchange, which brought in new ideas and techniques like Islam and dolma. The latter became a unique creation of Bengali cuisine.

From Bengal, the art of making dolma traveled further eastwards with merchants to mainland Southeast Asia, particularly Vietnam. However, the tropical climate in the country proved inhospitable to grape vines, so locals improvised by replacing grape leaves with lá lốt, a leaf indigenous to Southeast Asia that shares the same heart shape — perfect for wrapping. Though lá lốt is commonly translated as "betel leaf," they are in fact two different species in the same family, which also comprises black pepper and kava. Lá lốt (Piper sarmentosum), has a much milder taste than betel leaf (Piper betle), making it more suitable for use in cooking.

The use of leaves in wrapping food is not unique to Vietnam.

Half an hour after sitting down, I finish my tray of bò lá lốt, taking my own sweet time to perfect every roll as much as I can and scraping the bowl of dipping sauce clean. The owner's family has set up their own dinner on a plastic table nearby are happily munching away on a feast of fried fish and rice. I feel dumb for expecting them to hunker over trays of bò lá lốt; they must be sick of the dish by now. All told, Bo La Lot Phuong Co Giang’s food was excellent, albeit nothing unique that could justify making a trek all the way to District 4 for more. I suspect the eatery’s reputation was built entirely on its extremely affordable price rather than the morsels of perfectly charred but forgettable bò lá lốt. Still, if you happen to be in the neighborhood or live nearby, it's a perfect destination for a casual dinner with friends, or alone.

Bo La Lot Phuong Co Giang is open from 3pm to 10pm.

 

To sum up

Taste: 3.5/5

Price: 6/5

Atmosphere: 4/5

Friendliness: 5/5

Location: 3/5

Khoi loves tamarind, is a raging millennial and will write for food.

Bò nướng lá lốt mỡ chài

228A Xom Chieu, Ward 15, D4

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