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A Bún Đậu Mắm Tôm in Singapore That Tastes (and Smells) Just Like Home

Joo Chiat, a neighborhood in the eastern realms of Singapore, is hardly a forgettable area.

Filled with colorful Peranakan buildings from the district’s flamboyant Straits Chinese past, Joo Chiat is one of those places in the island nation where one can sample at least half a dozen good local dishes without traversing more than 300 meters.

But these days, the enclave preserves not only the past century of Singapore’s multicultural heritage, but also an unlikely, yet fast-growing, community. Joo Chiat Road is also home to a sizable population of Vietnamese bar girls, thus over time giving rise to a range of good places to grab decent Vietnamese grub.

A non-traditional bún đậu

I met Kim at her restaurant, Ky Anh Quan, near one of my favorite places for cháo tiều, otherwise known as Teochew porridge in Singapore. I’d probably seen Kim's eatery once or twice but never bothered to stop by. I then discovered that she was not the first owner of this Vietnamese restaurant. Three or so years ago, Kim bought it from the previous owner, (partially) re-named it, and changed its destiny for good. My visit was warranted by a simple reason; Kim’s bún đậu mắm tôm had achieved fame amongst the local Vietnamese community for being a remarkable rendition of the original dish.

Guests are provided with tiny spray bottles to wet bánh tráng before rolling.

“My bún đậu is not traditional...it’s a fusion of three regions,” Kim explained. “Cách tân ba miền.” She uses the phrase commonly associated with fashion and clothing, referring to her noodle creation as a modernizing project.

“My bún đậu is not traditional...it’s a fusion of three regions — cách tân ba miền.”

A respectable bamboo mâm with portion big enough for four people, Kim’s platter consists of de-boned pork leg, tofu, chả cốm, crispy deep-fried pig entrails, vermicelli and a surprisingly large serving of fresh vegetables. It is not exactly a common serving at Vietnamese eateries in Singapore. Spray bottles help to soften a side serving of bánh tráng for wrapping everything together.

Using rice paper to eat bún đậu may not be common, but it's accepted among certain circles in Vietnam's food scene. Some restaurants in Saigon, for example, call this style bún đậu cuốn miền Tây, meaning southwestern-style bún đậu.

Bánh tráng is a common addition to a bún đậu portion in the Mekong Delta.

Operating a quán in Singapore is no cakewalk

“Pork [is] not cheap in Singapore,” Kim said. For her, Vietnamese ham and meat cakes have to be made with the freshest ham hock and minced only once to preserve the right bite and consistency. The recent bout of swine flu in Vietnam has also caused a spike in pork prices in Vietnam, approaching those of many affluent cities. We laughed at the fact that pork may have already overtaken beef as meat for ‘splurge days.’

To Kim, operating a Vietnamese restaurant in Singapore is not just a matter of expensive rent, human resources and material costs, but a next-level cultural challenge. How does one make Vietnamese food that appeals to Vietnamese people from different regions? Beyond all that, procuring ingredients, especially greens, can be a mammoth task.

A small slice of Vietnamese cuisine in Singapore.

“It’s unbelievably difficult! Not just [the] food safety [standards in Singapore]. Every dish requires something different. You need a different herb or leaf for a different dish. Vietnamese food can be complicated,” she explained. Many times, she has to venture to the Golden Mile Complex, known to many as Singapore's Little Thailand, to visit its supermarket for rare herbs. 

“Every dish requires something different. You need a different herb or leaf for a different dish. Vietnamese food can be complicated.”

From her original bún đậu dipping sauce to a large menu which draws inspiration from all regions of Vietnam, Kim insists that her success lies in understanding her clientele.

“[You have] all kinds [of Vietnamese] living on this island,” as she began an almost statistical lecture about the socioeconomic diversity of the Vietnamese community residing in Singapore. “[You have the] professionals with family, Vietnamese brides. And also the expats on high-skill employment papers. [And] students. Oh, [and] don’t forget the beautiful ladies who work along this street.”

We sat down together with her crew for a quick bite since the dinner crowd was slated to appear shortly. As I spoke casually to her team, who hail from many regions of Vietnam, I began to agree that Kim had successfully pleased the taste buds of so many ethnicities.

“Even Singaporeans can eat our mắm tôm sauce,” she said proudly.

Ky Anh Quan is located at 233 Joo Chiat Road #01-01, Singapore 427491.

Ănthology is a series exploring stories of Vietnamese food served around the world. It focuses on chefs and restaurants that are reimagining Vietnamese cuisine or crafting traditional dishes in new contexts, and how our national dishes have evolved in response to different geographic tastes and ingredients.

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