Published on Saturday, 25 November 2017 11:12
Written by Dana Filek-Gibson. Photos by Dana Filek-Gibson.
The first time I stumbled upon cô Ut’s nightly sidewalk ritual, the performance was already well under way. Perched on the low steps of what serves as a VietinBank branch by day, the young woman sat rooted to a plastic stool behind her metal display case, but her arms stretched in all directions, cleaning countertops, replenishing ingredients and ladling spoonfuls of slate grey chè vừng into plastic cups and porcelain bowls.
By the wisdom of a coworker and the grace of Google Maps, I found myself watching this scene from across Cau Dat, a hectic street in Hai Phong that I had come to appreciate for its abundance of bakeries. Night fell and so, too, did the temperature, as winter officially arrived in the north. Drawn by the glow of cô Ut’s fluorescent sign and the crowd of customers rippling out from her modest, makeshift stall, I crossed the street and ordered one of Hai Phong’s local specialties, sủi dìn.
Though it’s not technically native to Vietnam’s third-largest city, Hai Phong seems to hold the market on sủi dìn in Vietnam. Brought over by Chinese immigrants, this particular version of sweet dumpling soup includes glutinous rice dumplings in a steaming hot broth garnished with ginger, peanuts and shredded coconut.
In its homeland, the modern-day version of tangyuan, as it’s known in southern China, includes a vast and ever-changing array of ingredients, from pumpkin to chocolate to fruit preserves – and that’s without getting into the savory variety that exists further north. Hai Phong, however, sticks to tradition; its sủi dìn vendors produce two varieties of dumplings – black sesame and coconut – and does not tend to venture outside the ingredients listed above. Innovation isn’t on the agenda for cô Ut or her competition, but when tradition is delicious there isn’t much need.
Long before these hearty dessert dumplings ever made it to Hai Phong, they played a starring role in the creation of China’s Yuan Xiao Jie, or Lantern Festival (the same holiday is known as Tet Nguyen Tieu in Vietnam), which is celebrated on the 15th day of the first lunar month. There are a few versions of the festival’s origin story – the Vietnamese tale makes no mention of dessert – but most include the young and forlorn Yuan Xiao, a Han dynasty maid known for her dessert-making prowess.
Employed at the imperial palace, Yuan Xiao excelled at preparing glutinous rice dumplings but, on account of her talent, was never able to return home and see her family. Gravely homesick and missing her parents, Yuan Xiao grew so desperate she was caught contemplating suicide by jumping into a well. The man who stopped her was Dongfang Shuo, a writer and Taoist magician who served as an advisor to the emperor.
Sympathetic to her plight, Dongfang Shuo promised to help and went on to create an elaborate ruse in order to help Yuan Xiao get home. The adviser set up a fortune-telling stall in the street and, through his reputation, managed to attract hordes of curious commoners. Dongfang Shuo gave everyone the same prediction: there would be an enormous fire on the 16th day of the first lunar month.
Panicked, news of this prediction spread through the general population and eventually reached the emperor, who turned to Dongfang Shuo for counsel. The fortune-teller informed the emperor that the God of Fire, who would be responsible for setting the earth ablaze, was a fan of glutinous rice dumplings. In order to appease him, Dongfang Shuo suggested, the emperor ought to use the talents of Yuan Xiao to prepare as many as possible and then send her out into the villages to test the quality of all of the other glutinous rice dumplings to ensure they were up to snuff. Red lanterns, too, should be hung in each house to trick the God of Fire into believing the world was burning.
With the emperor convinced, Dongfang Shuo’s plan went off without a hitch. The night before the predicted fire, every village was abuzz with firecrackers and people carrying lanterns. Amid the melee, Yuan Xiao slipped out of the palace and reunited with her family for an evening. The following day, the God of Fire did not, in fact, set the earth aflame, and the emperor was so pleased with having avoided this fate that he decreed the same holiday would take place every year, and it would be named Yuan Xiao in the young woman’s honor.
To this day, the people of northern China still refer to the holiday treat as yuanxiao, however southerners use the name tangyuan thanks to Yuan Shikai, the first president of the Republic of China, who served from 1912 to 1916. Believing the word yuanxiao was too similar to the Chinese phrase for “remove Yuan”, the president ordered the dessert to be called the appetizing phrase tangyuan, literally “round balls in soup”.
On my second visit to cô Ut, I arrived at 5:25pm, just before the production was scheduled to begin. Loitering outside the half-closed bank that would soon become her domain earned me strange looks from the security guard, who smiled but maintained an appropriate level of suspicion about the random foreigner lingering outside his workplace.
The day before, I was informed that dessert servings would begin at 5:30pm; with a few minutes left to go, the steps outside the VietinBank remained barren. Eventually, a child passed by and shouted “Bonjour!” at me from the back of a motorbike, providing an entrée into conversation with the adults.
“You’re French?” the security guard asked.
“No,” I replied. “Canadian.” This launched a wide-ranging discussion of the older man’s former job moving lumber in Vancouver; the politics of North American colonialism, indigenous people and land rights; and an explanation of what, exactly, I was doing on the empty sidewalk outside a VietinBank after hours.
“I’m waiting for the sủi dìn,” I told him. The security guard let out a full belly laugh and, without explanation, disappeared into a crevasse between the bank and the neighboring flower shop. Moments later, a woman emerged with a single plastic stool, a packet of serviettes, and a bowl of the wintertime dessert.
During those first few minutes, I sat on the street by myself, chatting to the security guard every so often as I attempted to eat the sủi dìn without burning my tongue. Its broth, perhaps a little too sugary to consume on its own, was a solid complement to the doughy morsels of coconut and jet-black sesame seeds.
Eventually, the rest of the set pieces appeared: first, a tarpaulin to protect the steps, then a string on which to mount the fluorescent light, the same sign I had seen the day before boasting chè nóng, several vats of steaming dessert and, finally, the metal display counter, complete with containers of shredded coconut, ginger paste, chopped ginger and peanuts. Already, other customers were starting to arrive.
As I tucked into my second helping, not more than 15 minutes later, parking space at cô Ut’s ran out. The sidewalk vanished beneath plastic stools and winter boots. Amid the chaos, however, cô Ut never lost her cool. A many-armed master of food preparation, the young woman called out orders to the security guard as well as an older woman, who flitted back and forth between the street and a hidden kitchen. With an empty bowl and a full stomach, I rose from the throng of dessert enthusiasts, paid my bill, and left as the performance continued with perfect execution.
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