Tết is the single biggest celebration of the year for the Viets. Similar to local culture here in Singapore, it is the time when those live faraway would go back home to visit their hometown, parents, siblings and relatives, the big Union.
Reunion dinner is an important event to us, the women in the family because that’s when we have to roll up our sleeves and cook, like a lot of cooking. For me, the Prima Donna who didn’t even washed my own clothes most of the time I was there (mama did it), that was the first test for commercial cooking (lol). I remember spending the whole few days to prepare the ingredients, and the whole actual day cooking for many visitors. That was the only time I had to cook for real back home. However, it was still nothing compared to the amount of cooking I did at Que, but once in a while, I did think about it for some good measures because once in a while some would ask where I picked up cooking. Like, three years ago, I had this kind of, you know, not eye opening experience, but eyes wide open in horror when starting this business.
Before the last big single event, the reunion dinner, we also had to prepare for many things, fruit display for the altar, flower display, spring cleaning, buy new clothes, make Bánh Chưng in time for the reunion dinner, prepare the many kgs of leeks and onions for pickling. The whole preparation and celebration easily spread out over more than a month.
Twenty years away, many things might have changed. But I remember the streets filled with flowers, fruits and Tet’s goodies. I remember the very distinct smell of Tet made of all these. The nights running around the narrow dusty moist streets choosing the perfect pots of flowers with my mom and sis after the crowd had left, or the perfect watermelon for display. It was something I would remember with very fond memories, especially since I left Vietnam.
Some of my earliest memory was following grandma to the village’s Chợ (wet market). The streets lividly were lined with fresh flowers from nearby farms and vendor’s stalls.
Chợ was the center of all activities in the village. That was where farmers sold their produce, villagers met their friends and relatives. Back then, everything was grown out of villager’s garden. Most things especially meat and egg were scared. Grandma would pick a small slice of meat, usually pork, some spices from the dry stall nearby, and plenty of colorful fresh herbs. She sometimes would bring her own chicken eggs to trade with neighbor for beef when someone had extra.
Close to 40 years gone by, grandma had long passed, many things have changed. I still fondly remember sitting on one side of the 𝐪𝐮𝐚𝐧𝐡 𝐠á𝐧𝐡 (carrier, 2nd picture) among the herbs chewing on the peanut candy bought by grandma looking at things for the first time beyond grandma’s garden. That was one of the best and purest joy.
The daily trip to the market was very much anticipated by me and my younger sister whom I had to fight with for the seat on grandma’s special 𝐪𝐮𝐚𝐧𝐡 𝐠á𝐧𝐡. The experience has reminded us how food has become not just a life’s necessity, but also bring people together and build community, be it in a remote northern Viet village, or a modern cosmopolitan society. . . ✍️ and 📸 by: @lg.and.camera 2nd Photo credit: https://cand.com.vn/Phong-su-Tieu-diem/Don-ganh-Vat-dung-than-dieu-cua-nguoi-Viet-Nam-i558440/
As you could see, we have new dishes pretty often, usually they are something nobody ever saw or heard before, especially in Viet cuisine. Many are curious where they come from. To answer that, we like to give an example of how making coffee was first done at Quê.
So we kinda settled into Somerset by then. Coffee powder was ready for like few months ago, but @elgyatque was not ready. No time for even googling. There were simply too many requests for Viet coffee because it needed no introduction. The meal is incomplete without that cup of Viet drink.
LG got creative so she suggested customers to go buy coffee at the many coffee houses in Somerset, and 111Somerset alone to consume at Quê. It was a clear NO from all customers.
One fine day, a gentleman insisted on having Viet coffee despite LG said no. At the end, she gave in, but with ꜰᴜʟʟ ᴅɪꜱᴄʟᴀɪᴍᴇʀ she has never made Viet coffee for the last, errr, 25 years? (lol). Before that she didn’t know either. Customer gave a nod. So the first coffee was made on the spot with @elgyatQue just dumped an unknown amount of coffee into the 𝐩𝐡𝐢𝐧, and just add in another unknown amount of milk and water 😂. To top it up, she gave some wrong instruction to the customer when passing the coffee🙊. Customer came back to drink coffee the next lunch, so we guess that was 𝐞𝐱𝐚𝐜𝐭𝐥𝐲 how Việt coffee was supposed to be made 🙌🏾😝
So yea, that’s how R&D is being done at Quê. You guys can be so assured that’s the way to do it, cos that’s how some of our most popular dishes were born here. Will share more in later posts 😬.
That was the first time though, now everything is being measured and weighted so it’s less fun. But food should be this fun *hi five*
When Quê was first open for business in 2017, everything was very authentic. In the spirit of being a startup (lol!), the idea was to bring authentic Vietnamese food in higher quality, i.e. better meat, nicer fish sauce, homemade fried spring rolls, good beef etc to test as an MVP. The name of the dish was printed clearly in the menu, Bun Thit Nuong Cha Gio. There was no IPA symbols because the founder was obviously in overwhelming mode over the truck load of work starting the business, so no time to figure out how to type that properly in Vietnamese. Maybe her pc did not have Unifont. That or she totally forgot she should write it in proper Vietnamese which was more likely to be the case (lol). We didn’t pay too much attention about the lengthy name of the dish and how difficult it was for the local customers not too well-conversed with Viet dishes. The founder named it Grilled Pork/Grilled Beef Noodle/Rice in the English menu and most (not all) customers were happy to call them that way.
When the first top blogger came, during the cooking, in the attempt to impress the famous blogger (lol!), the lady owner accidently found out the use of the glazing sauce on meat. That was the turning point. After that, she got more creative and more bold to experiment and make more changes to the (then) existing ways of cooking the dishes. As a matter of fact, we don’t have to follow anything. This is a private-owned business, if the founder or customers don’t like something, it’s time to change or make improvement. If it’s not there, create it if there is a need for it. That’s Que’s philosophy and how we operate. It doesn’t have to be precisely “authentic” in some ways. It just had to be good food, Vietnamese style and taste while still sticking to the ABC of Vietnamese cuisine. After all, it’s hard to define Authenticity because at some points in the past, some people created these sets of rules and over time people just follow. Besides, food is an interesting business. If you are willing to listen, customers are more than willing to tell you what and how they like to eat. Eighty to eighty five percent of customers here are regulars, of course you bet, we take it seriously when it comes to listening to customers :).
This was also when we realized customers had problem pronouncing the whole name Bun Thit Nuong Cha Gio. Customers here, especially those come often are really the sweetest. They always tried really hard to pronounce the whole Vietnamese name. So we told them they could call it Bun Cha as short name. We ladies have solutions for everything! Bún refers to the fact that it is a noodle dish, Chả refers to the fried spring roll, which are the 2 original main items inside the dish. The menu started to have an category item called Bún ChảQuê so not to confuse with Bún Chả Hà Nội. It also helped to fit the name nicely into the category in the menu.
For a long time, we used both long and short names for practical reason, shorter for category menu, longer for where else with enough space. Now, with the introduction of Salmon, the part Thịt Nướng (grilled meat, most of the time refer to Pork in traditional Bun Thit Nuong Cha Gio) in the name doesn’t make sense anymore because Salmon is Cá (fish), not Thịt (meat). It makes more sense and neat to call it xxx Bún Chả where xxx refers to the main protein used. Quê now has Pork, Beef, Salmon, and a so-called Vegan option. Chả giò (Fried Spring Roll) is a recommended option in this dish, and always there. More options might be coming soon too!
So that’s the story of the name Bún Chả (Giò)Quê. You are still very welcome to call it Bún Thịt Nướng Chả Giò if you could when order the pork version, which is the closet among the 4 to being original and/or authentic in this category. But, it’s still not “authentic”/original/exact like what you can find at a typical Vietnamese restaurant. There is a good chance if we call these dishes Bún Thịt Nướng Chả Giò xxx, more and more of the traditionalists would start to question us why they are not the same as how they sell it in Hanoi/HCMC like this-and-that customers reviewed on Google etc. In short, Bún Chả (Giò) Quê is Bún Thịt Nướng Chả Giò – improved or inspired, it is not Bún ChảHa Noi. We had some regulars who made the trip to Vietnam to verify our version and came back pretty, err, not as expected. Call good food good food, not authentic. Being authentic does not exactly mean good either.
Therefore, come to Quê with the expectation of trying something new, slightly different, but fun and very yummy 😉 .
Some times back when Que was still at the old location in Toa Payoh, we had one regular who only ordered chicken Pho and fresh spring roll set. He ate it day in day out despite us asking him if he wanna try something else reassured him they are pretty good as well. One day, he came and we were determined he should/had to try other dish (LOL!), and if he wanted we could give him the soup version (some customers prefer soup!!). He finally sheepishly replied to our horrid, “Your famous noodle has no taste. I tried before on the first time I came here”. We made him order the grilled pork noodle, then asked to show us how he ate. It turned out our dear regular didn’t use the fish sauce provided! New customers who never had Vietnamese food before would think the small bowl of fish sauce is only for dipping. Yep, despite all the photos we posted.
Once in a while we would encounter similar incident, therefore, at Que, staffs are informed to remind the customers who we don’t recognize to pour the fish sauce into the noodle and mix it up.
Fast forward, at almost 3 years, (no) thanks to Covid, we finally have time to sit down and do a proper video guide how to eat the famous Bún (Thịt Nướng) Chả (Giò) Quê. Now, let’s see the recommended way to enjoy a Bún Chả Quê as demonstrated by our very charming Kyri.
Herbs add soul and complexity to dishes. While most cuisines use herbs, they are extremely essential in Viet cuisine. Like the French’s, Viet cuisine is all about celebrating herbs and the elegant use of them in our food.
What is Phở without all those herbal garnishes? There is nothing magical, nothing unforgettable in a Bún Chả without that exact combination of basil, perilla on a base of crunchy freshly cut lettuce and the essence from that chilled slice of cucumber put together by fish sauce to go with smoky fatty grilled meat. Bánh Mì would be so ordinary without those sprigs of nutty citrus cilantro, floral fire dusky red cut chilli bits, and refreshing cucumber laced on the tender juicy meat slices on that French loaf.
When I was growing up, I was told our ancestors only made use of the readily available herbs that grew freely around the garden, the same way a brilliant chef makes good use of all things available in his/her kitchen and creates real magic with just those very ordinary. Whenever I have a Pho, the first thing I look for is if the restaurant uses culantro. It’s a deal breaker for me. No Pho is complete without culantro. One of my very early childhood memories was crawling around the red brick backyard at grandfather’s house picking culantro grew out of the cracks and crushed it to smell (yea my mom used to call me Smell queen cos I wanted to smell everything!). Every bowl of Pho evokes that very dear piece of memory, and the simple bowl of homely Phở Gà my grandma used to make with just culantro.
Despite the many herbs we have in a Viet garden, certain dishes only use a certain set of herbs which have become the standard chosen over time. That’s how Pho and all other dishes were built as we know today. Let’s celebrate cultural diversity starting with appreciating the little herbs used in Viet cuisine more than as a way to brighten the dishes. They come with a long history of over 2000 years.
Fun fact: A majority of westerner customers at Que are French. We almost could tell!