Vietnamese food can be broadly categorised into three main styles: northern, southern and central cuisine. Recently in Vietnam, regional distinctions have become quite blurry, but in Sydney it’s a different story. Because such a large chunk of Vietnamese migrants came from the south when the country was politically divided, the cuisine here is almost entirely dominated by southern-style food.
VN Street Foods is one of the exceptions. The Hanoi-born owner, Thang Nyugen, opened the tiny Marrickville restaurant because he thought northern-Vietnamese people in Sydney didn’t have the option to eat the kind of food their parents made. “This is for the people who miss their home. I know it's hard to buy a lot of things to cook at home. It's very complicated, it takes a long time to cook.”
That’s the idea behind the bento-box servings. A traditional Vietnamese home dinner usually has five elements – a meaty main course (in the north, caramelised pork belly with deep-fried egg and stir-fried goat are common); stir-fried or boiled vegetables (usually bare, sometimes with garlic or dill); salad (pickled mustard greens, lotus stems and papaya); soup (usually simple stocks with vegetables and thin cuts of meat) and steamed rice. Each box at VN Street Foods, with five choose-your-own dishes, is a miniature home-style feast.
The other side of the menu is more focused on street foods, which Nyugen says are often just different versions of what’s found in the home. “On the street you have everything: the food of the high class, low class, food for the people who can't cook at home – everyone has food on the street.”
Like in south Vietnam, the street food in the north starts with noodle soups. At VN Street Foods you’ll find popular Hanoi choices such as the chicken- and shrimp-based bún thang with shredded chicken, egg, preserved vegetables and slices of pork-cake (like a spongey mortadella); the pork-based bún ốc with roasted snails and pork belly; and, of course, phở. In the north, though, it’s not as sweet; the climate and economy limits the herbs and spices used. “We just use the sweetness of the bone. We slow cook it for a long time. The soup is very clear, like water,” says Thang.
Later in the day, rice and dry-noodle dishes served with meats and greens are more common. The dishes to try here are cơm chiên bò dưa chua, beef fried rice with house-pickled mustard greens; bún thit nướng, a rich, slightly fishy and sweet lemongrass-flavoured grilled pork served with bouncy vermicelli noodles and lettuce; and bún đậu mắm tôm, deep-fried bean curd that you dip in a pungent, thick fermented-shrimp-paste soup. “When some people smell this they get scared, but it's very special for [northern Vietnamese] people. I thought to myself I should sell this. I tried it and, luckily, it worked. Now even some Western people love it,” says Nyugen.