First published July 2016 | Words and photos by Vietnam Coracle
For me, there’s always been something rustic and gloriously primitive about eating goat. It’s rough, chewy, earthy and rich: the kind of meat I want to eat around an open fire, sitting on the cold ground, under the night sky, tearing meat, muscle and sinew away from the bone with my hands and teeth. One of the most memorable goat meals I’ve ever had was in Axum, northern Ethiopia. It was lunchtime in an Ethiopian eating house: an ancient Italian espresso machine whooshing in the background; a boy busily seating customers. Orders were shouted at him from across the room: goat stew was all that was available. It arrived in huge bowls on people’s tables, and they dived in with their hands; chewing excitedly on trotters and ribs, spraying the red sauce all over their clothes, tables, chairs and floor. I loved watching the people eat; it reminded me of Vietnam. Last week, in Saigon’s Chinatown, I found a place that brought me back to that goat meat restaurant in Ethiopia.
Several giant pots of simmering bones and organs stand out front of No.189 Nguyen Chi Thanh Street, District 5. Hủ Tiếu Dê Tiến Nhân [MAP] has only been serving goat noodles for 6 years, but already this soup house has the reassuring feel of a long established place. Despite the smart, cushioned office chairs, the interior shows all the promising signs of a great eating hole: the walls are damp and stained and the paint is peeling; naked strip light-bulbs and crusty, rotating fans decorate the ceilings; the floor is strewn with food-related detritus: squeezed lime halves, discarded herbs, serviette wrappers, chopsticks, chilli sauce, goat bones, soup spillages. But this is all good because, as anyone who knows Saigon’s informal food scene will tell you, nice décor and clean floors are usually a smokescreen for average quality food. You’ve got to learn to appreciate a good mess if you’re going to get to grips with Vietnamese street dining.
Another thing you’ve got to get used to is guts, organs and bones. There’s plenty of these ‘nasty bits’ in many of the best dishes in Vietnam, and the goat noodle soup in Chinatown is no different: it’s heavy on guts and goodness. Sure, it may take a while to appreciate, but these nasty bits are the tastiest, most nutritious cuts of any animal. So get over it, because this will open up another meaty world of flavours and textures.
The rough cuts of goat meat are served in a separate small bowl of deep red sauce. The noodles – a slippery, slimy, white rice variety – are served in a larger bowl, sprinkled with spring onions. Then there are the condiments: a little saucer of spicy sa tế sauce, a plate of fresh cut chillies and limes, and a basket piled high with fresh perilla leaves. Mixing any combination of these in your bowl of noodles cranks up and intensifies the flavours: it’s like putting your car into sport mode.
Look around the soup house and you’ll see that everyone has their own way of eating their goat noodles: some mix the meat with the noodles and the leaves; others keep them separate, dipping each morsel of meat in the sa tế sauce. With practice, you’ll find the method that best suits you. Most importantly, eat with fervour: lean your head down to the bowl, slurp the noodles, tear at the meat, splash the broth, throw your detritus on the floor. This is what I like to call Total Dining: it’s what I saw in the Ethiopian eating house, and it’s one of the things that makes eating in Vietnam such good fun.
The broth and the general flavour is deep, meaty and rich: it’s like a farmyard, or a barn in a bowl. Make no mistake, this is a heavy breakfast, and you’ll notice that 90% of the customers are male. The noodles are extremely silky and smooth – I’ve not really experienced this with any other variety of hủ tiếu noodles in the past. They have a buttery flavour and texture, so that the noodles simply slide down your throat: it’s like swallowing a silk scarf. All this richness is balanced nicely by the heaps of perilla leaves which are torn up and added to the broth. Perilla is one of the most delicate herbs I know, but in some mysterious yin-yang way, it combines wonderfully with the brawny bowl of meat and noodles. A bowl of goat noodle soup (hủ tiếu dê) costs 40,000vnd ($2) – it’s not that cheap, but you get a lot of meat for your money. Opening hours are 6am-11am daily.
MAP: Goat Noodles in Saigon’s Chinatown: 189 Nguyen Chi Thanh, District 5