I’ve never been a morning person. Why, then, am I hauling my Saigon Bia-sodden self awake at 8 AM, when I’d only put my head to a pillow a few hours ago?
Simply put, because a Vietnamese breakfast is right up there with its Udupi and Malayali counterparts, my gold standard. And totally worth cutting back on a few brews the previous night for.
You’d expect people who eat beef for breakfast to be beefy, right? So, how do the Vietnamese manage to stay slim and trim? The answer’s pho. Pronounced ‘fuh’. A noodle soup that’s slurped by the gallon every morning almost in unison by millions of Vietnamese, it’s best consumed sitting on a tiny plastic stool on the sidewalk, performing an intricate dance with chopsticks and a soup spoon. Loaded with slices of tender, sometimes rare beef, it’s periodically reloaded with handfuls of sprouts and assorted greens from a huge piled bowl. Light, but supremely nourishing, pho fuels the Vietnamese body and soul. And, mercifully, it’s also the perfect antidote for a hangover – much needed in a country where the beer’s being practically given away.
But, opposite the friendly pho restaurant is another familiar figure, the cause of my daily struggle with myself – the bánh mì lady.
Do I feed my noodle-soup craving, or should my fondness of good piggy win out? Because, good people, a bánh mì from any half-decent street cart will make Subway weep tears of envy and go hang itself, all footlong of it. A golden-crusted fruit of France’s ill-starred rule in Vietnam, it’s the best bloody sandwich I’ve had – a crisp baguette, smeared with a don’t- ask-what-liver-it-is paté, fortified with thick slices of pork sausage and then crammed with salad, before being drizzled with fish sauce, lime juice and crushed chili. It’s what a vada pav is to a Mumbaikar – available everywhere, made on the spot and eaten all day.
But, when you find yourself going eenie-meenie- bánh mì –pho, stop. And order a ca phi. Being a South Indian, with coffee planters as family and friends, I’m pretty snooty about Indian coffee. Yet, I bow deeply before thee, ca phi. Thick, strong and very hangover relieving, it’s best sent straight on ice, with a small spoon of condensed milk at the bottom.
So, good morning, Vietnam. I’ll cherish your breakfasts, even if it means crying into my sambhar.