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Ngõ Nooks: Crispy Fried Eels Complete This Warming Winter Soup

I am Hanoi’s hungriest tourist; and the capital welcomes me into its flavorsome, umami-rich warmth with open arms.

There are many things that are churning in my mind before my first-ever trip to Hanoi: will the budget airline delay my flight into oblivion; will my perpetually tropical self shrivel up at the slightest drop of temperature; and are the city’s commuters the casual daredevils their reputations suggest. As it is somewhat of a last-minute trip, I land on the tarmac of Noi Bai — giddy with enthusiasm but slightly creeped out by the menacing smog — without any concrete plan in mind detailing whom to see and what to do, except for a tiny notebook chock-full of fantastic food and where to find it.

The next day is a whirlwind of speedy slurping, chomping and unbridled indulging. Cơm rang dưa bò, check. Egg coffee, check. Hearty chicken mixed phở, check. Next on the list: miến lươn giòn, a dish of glass noodles with fried eel that I’ve grown attached to even in Saigon and have made it a personal goal to sample in its natural habitat. On the morning before we set out to hunt down a bowl of eel soup, Hanoi greets me with a pleasantly surprising cold front that allows for some autumnal layering and shameless hoodie snuggling. At merely 20°C, the chilly atmosphere hugs you just right when stationary; and the gale is just sharp enough to be palpable on your cheeks as you’re perched on the back of a Grab Bike zipping through a frenzy of traffic.

Prior to the northward pilgrimage, I’ve carefully laid out my food schedule to a few trusted friends in the hope that they would confide in me their most treasured eateries. “Now, you must be vigilant,” one says as she renders on my notebook from memory the entire map of Hai Ba Trung District, where Mien Luon Tan Tan resides. “It’s at the corner of Tue Tinh and Mai Hac De, but there are two places selling the same thing [eel soup], manned by two different siblings. Go for the one on the left side, she’s the original one.”

As a designer by trade whose family home is still in Hai Ba Trung, she has my utmost trust when it comes to visual aids and Hanoi's culinary excellence. Following her treasure map, we set foot in 16 Tue Tinh — the one on the left, of course — after 9am while the morning service is in full swing. A modest serving station sits in front, its surface occupied by towers of white bowls, basins of blackish fried eels and vats of steaming broth that clouds my glasses and smells like the most alluring compendium of herbs.

The actual indoor dining area is perhaps the size of two newsstands swished together, with a handful of metallic tables. The majority of Mien Luon Tan Tan’s patrons pour onto the pavement in front of the stall and even next door, all intently relishing their soup with almost-religious solemnity. According to many online reviews of Mien Luon Tan Tan by Hanoi residents, the restaurant is a storied local staple with more than three decades of service. Most young reviewers have fond memories of munching on miến lươn at Tan Tan with their parents as a child.

I leave the ordering to my friend and snap us a couple of seats in front of…a karaoke parlor. This early in the day, the night hangout is nothing more than a metallic shutter atop fake marble steps, which also double as my seat. Like everyone else, we each use a tall plastic stool as a table. I try my hardest to tune out the surrounding conversations in a vain attempt to respect my neighbors’ privacy, but it proves impossible considering they’re only half an arm away. In my head, I’m silently praising myself for remembering to put on deodorant that morning.

Perhaps it's either the cold, the pure goodness of the miến lươn, the lack of privacy, or a combination of all of them, but everyone mostly keeps to themselves in cordial silence. My bowl of miến lươn giòn arrives without much fanfare, but it ignites inside me a warmth that’s hard to transcribe into words. Imagine traveling all the way to Paris’s Musée de l'Orangerie to see Monet’s ‘The Water Lilies’ for the first time after years of loving it from afar, except that in this case, the water lilies are tangible objects you can touch, admire and, most importantly, taste.

On the tiny surface of the blue plastic stool, the bowl of smoky eel noodles stares at me, its transparent broth filled with chopped herbs, spring onion, and rings of half-cooked white onion. As I have a tentative first sip, a part of me worries that I’m making too big a deal out of this, and everything will come crumbling down when the soup turns out to be shit. But, fortunately, it’s delicate with strong herbal and umami notes.

After adding a tablespoon of freshly squeezed calamansi juice, a dollop of chili sauce and heaps of quẩy, I slowly make my way through other components of the bowl. The vermicelli, Hanoi's special miến dong, is tender and well-soaked with broth, and the fried eel is adequately crunchy. The perfect lươn giòn, or crispy eel, in my mind must be on the hard side of the crispiness spectrum — just enough to soften up after being submerged in the soup for a while. Over the span of 20 minutes, as I savor my portion, I hear order after order of extra eel from nearby diners, a testament to Tan Tan’s superior fried morsels. A typical bowl of eel noodles costs VND30,000-50,000, but one lady buys VND100,000 worth of lươn and no one bats an eye. Respect.

Despite sharing the same conventional name in both Vietnamese and English, the fish used in miến lươn and Japan’s famed unagi are only distant relatives at best. Vietnamese eels are Asian swamp eels (Monopterus albus) that live in fresh or brackish water near rice fields while Japanese eels (Anguilla japonica) spend their younger days at sea and adulthood in freshwater. This taxonomical difference also lends itself to the two species’ position in the culinary map. Vietnam’s lươn looks black and unappetizing at a glance, even when fried, and may never reach the level of glitterati reverence enjoyed by Japanese unagi. Ironically, the latter’s popularity is also paving the way for its impending demise, as even Japan now has to outsource its eel production to China.

On the other hand, swamp eels are readily available in Vietnam, both from nature and commercial farms; and its subtly earthy taste is interwoven with northern Vietnam’s miến lươn soup, a rustic dish that’s hard to forget. What it lacks in luscious eel meat, an attribute that elevates unagi to delicacy level, it more than makes up for in complex broth, crunchy texture, and wholesome herbs and spices.

As I slurp on the last few spoonfuls of crystal-clear broth, I am overcome with an all-consuming, debilitating sadness. Because my life would never be this perfect again, when all the pieces — molded randomly and sprinkled all over one another with reckless abandon — suddenly fit together as if by divine intervention. There, huddled on a karaoke parlor’s front steps under the lush canopy of a chukrasia tree, my existence is reduced to a bundle of giddy sensory nerves: taste buds on crunchy eel morsels, arm hairs tingling from the brush of the autumn breeze, and optic lobe desperately chronicling the sight, the sky, the vivid reminders that one’s alive.

You can find Mien Luon Tan Tan at 16 Tue Tinh. They open from 9am to 9pm every day. 

 

To sum up:

Taste: 5/5

Price: 5/5

Atmosphere: 4/5

Friendliness: 3/5

Location: 4/5

Khoi Pham has never met a noodle dish he didn't like and plans to visit every lake in Hanoi.

Miến lươn

16 Tue Tinh, Hai Ba Trung

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