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Hẻm Gems: Xôi Khâu Nhục, the Cantonese Breakfast for Pork Belly Lovers

I first found out about khâu nhục where I find all my Saigon information: Facebook.

Like a lot of expats here, I use Facebook for basically everything. It's where I get my restaurant recommendations and find out about the latest events in the city. It's where I apartment shop. I buy books from there. It’s my source for all.

I recently joined Chuyện Chợ Lớn, a Facebook group my Cantonese teacher here recommended. She said if I read through the posts, I could learn more about the Hoa (ethnically Chinese) community in the city. I love scrolling through the posts. There are suggestions on different temples to pray at. Lots of posts begin with “tái cá hủ,” a Cantonese greeting meaning “hello, everybody.” Many members share TikTok videos from China, more often than not featuring cheesy Cantonese puns. And, most importantly to me, there are lots of food posts.

"That looks too fatty."
"I know, it looks amazing, I'm going to eat it tomorrow."

One Friday after lunch, I was on my usual food coma social media scroll. I was leaned back as far as I could in my chair, phone held oh-so-delicately in my hand, when I saw a post of a glistening slab of meat with a caption about how the person had finally succeeded in making khâu nhục. I started down a Google rabbit hole to learn more about the dish and quickly became obsessed. When I found out the Chinese name, 扣肉, a spark went off in my head with memories of having eaten a dish of the same name in China. I got excited, and wanted to eat the version sold in Vietnam immediately.

My search eventually led me to a YouTube video filmed at a stall in District 11. I drooled over the footage of pork belly and piping hot sticky rice. A coworker stopped by to ask what I was watching. With a look of disgust on her face, she said: "That looks too fatty." Without thinking, I responded, "I know, it looks amazing, I'm going to eat it tomorrow." She shrugged and walked away. I set my alarm so I could get up early the next day to check it out.

The stall is right at the lip of a hẻm, just deep enough in so that it's not on the street. Coming from the main road, it’s on the left. If you’re having trouble, look for the yellow sign with khâu nhục xôi in red and 扣肉糯米飯 in green. A steady stream of people in motorbikes stop by, taking containers of the dish home. There’s a metal table to eat at, but most people seem to do takeaway.

A decadent breakfast that might leave you full for the whole day (or week even).

The dish is simple and comes in at a cheap VND35,000 a serving. It’s a hunk of pork belly resting on a bed of sticky rice and dressed in scallions. Peppers and peanuts are optional. There’s even an option for the addition of chà bông, lạp xưởng or chả for a little extra money. As far as I’m concerned, the dish is perfect as it is, so I don’t get any extras.

A standard plate and a thập cẩm plate with lạp xưởng, chả, chà bông.

What I find remarkable about the flavors in a lot of dishes here is how unremarkable they are. It’s sweet, savory, and spicy, all at the same time. If this stall were in some big city in Europe or the US, I can see the articles now, raving about the chef’s boldness to combine such seemingly incongruent flavors. And for breakfast, of all meals! But here, this is totally natural and normal, and it works so elegantly with such little effort or fanfare.

The owner's family moved from Hải Phòng a few decades ago, and have ancestral origins in Guangdong, China.

The little stall is run by a woman born in Saigon. Her family moved from Hải Phòng a few decades ago, and have ancestral origins in Guangdong, China. She speaks Cantonese and Vietnamese fluently. If you ask her about her family’s history, she’ll eagerly point to pictures of various family members hanging on the wall, rapidly naming them off. If there aren’t many guests, she might even take out her phone to show you more pictures of more distant relatives.

The stall is open bright and early at 7am. She sells until sold out, which is normally around 11am or 12pm. I recommend getting there early to make sure you get some. Her family has been selling this dish for over 70 years. When I asked how long it takes her to make the meat every day, she said 10 hours. In response to my look of surprise, she put down her phone and raised all her fingers and said, "That’s right, 10 hours."

It takes 10 hours to prepare these slabs of delicious pork belly.

The stall owner is a savvy businessperson. The first time I visited, she noticed I was taking photos with my phone and immediately invited me to stand inside her home, telling me that the angle was better from there. She was right. The moment she saw that we were taking pictures for this article, she grabbed the largest pan of meat she had and displayed it eagerly. While she prepared our dishes, she placed the meat across the rice photogenically, and she made sure to grab extra juicy pieces. Even if you aren’t going to take pictures, don’t worry. Every piece is juicy and excellent.

Ladling on the umami-rich broth.

The first time I went, I opted to sit down to eat. The shop is family-run, and the entire family is kind and has a healthy dose of Vietnamese curiosity. As I sat there, one of the sisters running the shop asked me the typical string of questions I get asked here in Vietnamese, “Do you have a girlfriend, yet?” “Are you married?” “How old are you?” “What do you do here?”

The stall is open bright and early at 7am. She sells until sold out, which is normally around 11am or 12pm.

When new members of the family or neighbors appeared, they recounted my information to the new arrivals in Cantonese — “He’s 26, he teaches English, but he’s not married.” When I was struggling to rip apart the sinewy pork belly with just a fork and spoon, they immediately went to grab a knife. I love places like this in Vietnam, where people have time to sit on a street, chat, and watch the world go by. I feel so fortunate that I get to take the occasional Saturday morning to eat and sit and watch the world go by too.

I’ve seen the name for this dish a few different ways online. Some people write khâu nhục, others write thịt khâu nhục, and still others call it nằm khâu. Of these names, thịt khâu nhục is my favorite. Thịt means meat, and khâu nhục comes directly from the Chinese word 扣肉. It sounds pretty different from the Mandarin pronunciation, but it’s very close to the Cantonese reading of these characters. The character 肉 also means meat. So in the name, you have Vietnamese word for meat as well as a Sino-Vietnamese word for meat. Maybe it seems repetitive to have two different words for “meat” in one name, but I like how it reveals the Cantonese origins of a dish now localized in Vietnam.

It’s the perfect place to grab a quick bite in the morning, or to grab some takeaway to eat for lunch.

Like so many eateries in Saigon, this xôi khâu nhục stall is unassuming. The stall owner sells one thing, and sells it really well. It’s the perfect place to grab a quick bite in the morning, or to grab some takeaway to eat for lunch. The neighborhood it’s located in is interesting, fanned out in concentric U’s that leave plenty of hẻms to wander around after a filling meal.

Xôi khâu nhục is open from 7am to 11am.

To sum up:

Taste: 4/5
Price: 5/5
Atmosphere: 4/5
Friendliness: 5/5
Location: 4/5

Brendan hails from the state of Mississippi and is working on eating so many dumplings he turns into one. He also loves ice cream and is constantly on the lookout for new coffee shops to waste away an afternoon in.

Xôi khâu nhục

259 Lãnh Binh Thăng, Ward 12, D11


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