In search of the flavors of Vietnam within the bright lights of Hong Kong
You’ll find little Saigons and Little Hanois all over the US, Europe, Australia and Singapore, but not in Hong Kong. A punishing immigration policy that favors those who will contribute significantly to the economy, coupled with the lack of space mean that the Vietnamese who came to Hong Kong were somewhat scattered. Without a home Vietnamese food struggled to become a mainstay in a city that loves foreign cultures, but times are changing. Can the Vietnamese-born chefs returning to Asia help put Vietnamese cuisine on the SAR’s map?
A Tough Start
Forced to flee their birth country from years of war and persecution, waves of Vietnamese refugees started to arrive in Hong Kong in the mid 1970s. They were accepted but officially labelled as illegal immigrants. Eventually many were able to gain refugee status and settled in Western countries, hence the prevalence of expat enclaves in other major cities.
In Hong Kong is was a different story. Many immigrants were held in closed camps, effectively imprisoned behind barbed wire, even though they were seeking freedom. Many were sent back to Vietnam but some were allowed to remain and settle.
All of this upheaval and multiple waves of immigration meant that the Vietnamese population was scattered. Many found themselves living among the Thai community around Kowloon Walled City where the customs and ingredients were perhaps more familiar. Others settled wherever they could afford to and many were left homeless and destitute.
The names of Hanoi and Haiphong roads in Kowloon are some of the only clues to the history of the Vietnamese in Hong Kong, although you won’t find many Vietnamese restaurants on these streets. High rise shopping malls and posh hotels have forced all but the most stubborn of Cantonese sui mei shops out of the area.
A relentlessly resilient people, having been through so much hardship, they persevered and did open restaurants, just not all in one area, and unlike other Asian cuisines, Vietnamese food was not a major part of the food scene until more recently.
In order to survive some restaurants have been driven underground, serving up dishes from the homeland in their own homes. Locations are secret as the restaurants are operated without permits, but within the communities, everyone knows where to go and they surely serve up the most authentic Viet food in the city.
A New Wave Of Vietnamese Restaurants
As Vietnam’s food and culture has become more recognized globally, in Hong Kong restaurant concepts have sprung up that aim to rectify the lack of cohesion in the Vietnamese food scene.
These are not typically run by Hong Kong’s Vietnamese population, they tend to be opened by restaurant groups that see an opportunity to fill a gap in the market. Rather than ‘Mom and Pop shops,’ they are more focused concepts concentrating on one aspect of the food culture or one particular dish.
These are typically headed by Vietnamese chefs whose families had settled in other countries like Canada, Australia, the US and UK, aiming to bring the best of their experience of Vietnamese food to Hong Kong and start a conversation in the city.
Over the years more restaurants have opened, and the quality has improved with the increased competition. These openings tend to be in the more affluent areas on Hong Kong Island or Tsim Tsa Tsui, but there’s still no Little Vietnam.
The Key Players
For a long time, Hong Kongers could be heard complaining that the only Vietnamese food you get in the city was pho. Perhaps restaurateurs were playing it safe, knowing that Cantonese, Japanese, Taiwanese and Thai noodle soups are always popular, and that pho would be too.
Restaurants like Co Thang, Nha Trang and Bep followed, and helped to popularize the cuisine with a broader range traditional dishes of more consistent quality.
Last year, Australian-Vietnamese chef Luke Nguyen caused a major buzz when he announced the opening of Moi Moi in Hong Kong. The restaurant in Central aimed to showcase traditional dishes using the best ingredients available.
Nguyen had experienced refugee camps in Thailand and Australia, before his family settled in Sydney. His experience instilled in him a mighty work ethic and an entrepreneurial spirit. He told the South China Morning Post:
Pho roll from Chom Chom
“My parents opened a Vietnamese noodle house. Coming from a refugee migrant family, we were all forced to work really hard, as soon as we could walk. I knew I would open a restaurant at a very young age.”
Indeed Nguyen opened his first restaurant, Red Lantern, in Sydney at the age of just 23 and went on to make a name for himself with book deals and numerous television appearances.
He gained a passion for real food, “Every morning before going to school I helped buy kilos of chillies, green mango, all the fresh ingredients. I was taught how to buy fresh produce and to not settle for anything less than the best. I also tended to pots of broth simmering for hours on end, to make sure they were clean and clear as water. I’d stand on a blue milk crate, skimming and skimming, watching the temperature.”
“Initially a kid doesn’t want to work like this—it’s slave labor. But what I’m getting from this broth is achieving something fantastic and seeing customers get a kick out of it.”
Nguyen has since moved on from Moi Moi but the influence of his TV chef status has had a lasting impact on the way Vietnamese food is seen in Hong Kong.
Another chef making a difference is Bao La, who leads the line at Black Sheep Restaurants’ Le Garçon Saigon. Like Nguyen he came to Hong Kong via Australia, he was in fact born in Brisbane, but growing up working in his family’s restaurant, he never lost touch with his roots. He explains why hethinks Vietnamese food is so popular in Hong Kong:
“Firstly, Hong Kong people relate to noodle soups—it’s such a main part of their staple diet. Secondly, expats are very well-traveled. Many of themhave grown up eating Vietnamese food, especially in the US and Australia, so they’re used to the cuisine.”
His dishes are characterized by smokey meat and fish elements straight from the charcoal grill, inspired by the Southern Vietnam style. Mounds of fresh herbs and sweet, sour and funky sauces are the accompaniments and round out the flavors. He doesn’t serve pho, and says there’s more to Vietnamese food than noodle soups.
“Vietnam is opening itself up to more people traveling in. Cheap flights and the exchange rate make it a popular destination. These last few years travel to Vietnam has seen a big bump, meaning more people are introduced to the wider Vietnamese cuisine. There’s so much more to it than pho and people are exploring hidden gems which are exposing them to a different side of Vietnamese food.”
Salt and pepper squid by Chom Chom
Steve Nguyen, another Vietnamese-born chef heads up Chom Chom, a restaurant and bar based on the bia hoi tradition of Vietnam; all about fresh beer and street food served up in a casual setting. Growing up in Toronto, Steve was exposed to all kinds of cuisine but enjoyed traditional Vietnamese dishes at home with his family.
When he started cooking professionally, it was anything but Vietnamese, in fact, he ran a German beer hall, and worked in business development prior to that. Steve thinks Vietnamese food in Hong Kong is in a really exciting place:
“I think it’s at next stage of evolution, but still in its infancy. With a new generation of chefs like Bao and myself, and the folks who opened up Co Thanh— there are hungry and ambitious Viet chefs who want to represent and take it to the next level.
“I’m really impressed with what Helen Ngo has done with Bep and Nha Trang, bringing quality and authentic Viet food but also making it accessible. Luke Nguyen has really done well with promoting Vietnamese food, but we also need more chefs to become more visible and be actively promoting the cuisine.”
Vietnamese people and the cuisine itself didn’t have the easiest of starts in Hong Kong, but as the world has become wise to the delicious variety and freshness of the food of Vietnam, a new wave of restaurants has come and taken advantage of the gap in the market.
Happily with more chefs returning to Asia and reinventing the cuisine of their ancestors, the quality and variety of dishes is getting better and better, and it looks like Vietnamese food is here to stay.
Top Picks in Hong Kong
Vietnamese food is on the up in Hong Kong. Gone are days of moaning that you can’t get a good pho, or conversely, complaining that all you can get is pho. Vietnamese chefs are returning to Asia and reinventing the cuisine they grew up eating, bringing traditional recipes bang up to date. Here are three of the best restaurants in the city and their signature dishes.
Le Garcon Saigon, (G/F, 12-18 Wing Fung Street, Wan Chai)
Le Garçon Saigon is headed by Vietnamese-Aussie Chef Bao La. Bao loves adding smokiness to meat and fish by grilling over charcoal and has developed unconventional techniques for tenderizing the flesh.
One of his signature dishes is yellowfin snapper, roasted in a banana leaf with lemongrass and chilli paste. The dish comes with a mountain of Vietnamese herbs and house-made sauces which add freshness and balance to the succulent main event. There’s plenty of rice paper to wrap everything up in for many a satisfying mouthful.
He explains, “this is the type of cuisine and food I wanted to show Hong Kong. Mainly focussed on grilling, Southern Vietnam style.”
Saigon Pho (42-56 King Man Street, Sai Kung)
Saigon Pho specializes in bowls of steaming noodle soup that are certainly worth a slurp. Located out in Sai Kung in the New Territories, they had to earn their reputation, but hungry pho fans still travel out to the beach side town to get their fix.
There’s a range of options from angus beef to chicken, and a vegetarian pho, to one topped with squid cakes. It also serves rice and vermicelli dishes and typical Vietnamese appetizers like summer rolls and papaya salad. If you’re on the hunt for unpretentious Viet food made with passion and skill, it’s well worth the trip.
Chom Chom (58 Peel Street, Central)
Chom Chom, under the leadership of Canadian-born Steve Nguyen, provides Central Hong Kong’s hip Soho with the bia hoi experience. The carefully selected Vietnamese craft beers on tap may not be dayfresh or cost VND5,000 a glass but sitting out on the terrace is the closest you’ll get to sipping a fresh beer on a street corner in Saigon or Hanoi. The best part is you can enjoy your beer without worrying that it’ll lose its fizz.
The menu features typical bia hoi accompaniments optimized with modern tweaks and top notch ingredients plus Chom Chom originals. The pho roll is a masterstroke. Tender braised beef, rich and full of umami, is offset with sharpness from pickled carrots and rolled up with rice noodles and thai basil with crunchy peanuts scattered on top. The whole thing is wrapped up in rice paper and is as satisfying a morsel as you could wish for with a cold beer. As is the salt and pepper squid, salty and crispy with a creamy kick from the funky fermented flavor of kimchi mayo.
Steve explains what he’s trying to achieve at Chom Chom: “Right now i’m trying to focus on reinterpreting classic Viet dishes my way, through my perspective. I’m trying to take the experiences and techniques I’ve
learned to help modernise some aspects of the cuisine.”
His inspiration comes from his family. He grew up in Toronto cooking all kinds of food, but it was his native country’s cuisine that they ate at home.
“As a chef who now gets to cook his native food, my family is my source of inspiration. I get to draw from a vast well of food memories I had growing up.”
“For me, Vietnamese food at its foundation strives to strike perfect balance in its experience. It can be light and healthy but also full of flavour and depth at the same time. Fish sauce and fermented flavors are the backbone and foundation of Viet food, that’s really the secret weapon in Viet cuisine.”
Feature Image – Whole Yellowfin Snapper from Le Garçon Saigon