Simon Stanley has a new street food fixation. Photos by Kyle Phanroy.
The rising cost of cattle coupled with slowly diminishing grasslands have placed pork, chicken and seafood at the centre of modern Vietnamese cuisine. According to a recent news report by Thanh Nien, beef accounts for just 6 percent of the meat consumed here compared to a world average of 23 percent. So when bo appears on the menu of an old-school street food barbecue joint, it probably deserves some attention.
Welcome to bo la lot — beef in leaves — your new meaty addiction.
I’ve come to Mrs Lien’s renowned District 3 restaurant to ask what makes hers one of the best in town. But tonight she isn’t giving anything away. She smiles sweetly and continues her work, skilfully preparing roll after roll before it’s whisked away to the grill outside. “She won’t tell you,” calls a lady from a nearby table.
Friend and devoted regular, local tour operator Loan Tran knows the recipe is not even worth asking about. “Mrs Lien is very famous in this area. Her bo la lot is the best so all of the restaurants want to know how she makes it.”
It reads, at first, like an extremely simple dish. Morsels of ground beef seasoned with lemongrass, garlic and various other herbs and spices, are rolled and sealed inside a fresh betel leaf (a member of the pepper family), then cooked over a barbecue grill. But there’s clearly something more going on at Mrs Lien’s. She delivers my plate of steaming rolls with a modest yet knowing look in her eye. Deep green and slightly charred in colour, these finger-sized parcels can be eaten as they come (an ideal bar-snack), or wrapped tightly in rice paper with cold bun noodles, fresh leaves and pickled vegetables.
I sample the first piece on its own and am immediately struck by the quality of the meat inside. Denser than I was expecting, the texture reminds me of a beautifully tender steak, with the moisture from the leaf having permeated the whole package, keeping it juicy, not at all soggy and layered with complex flavours that only come from charcoal cooking. The smoke of the grill, infused with the peppery aromatic taste of the leaf, and Mrs Lien’s secret blend of herbs and seasonings — each arrives in delicate waves that perfectly complement the hearty beef at its core.
In my haste I’ve forgotten the dipping sauce. I dunk and try again and the second mouthful soars. The secret to good bo la lot, so I’ve heard, is in the dipping sauce. And of course, in Mrs Lien’s kitchen, a secret it shall remain.
“I’m not even going to ask her,” says Loan. “But at its base is fish sauce with pineapple juice.” The nuoc mam nem gives added zing to the ensemble without making it too sweet, as you might expect. Like every other element, the flavours have been lovingly balanced.
When I finally roll the bo la lot into rice paper with the fresh selection of accouterments gathered before me — dialing in a hefty layer of Thai basil, mint leaves and noodles — I fully understand Mrs Lien’s reticence. If anyone was looking to capture the taste of Vietnam in one bite, she may well have found it.
The steady stream of locals filing in and out of the tiny space proves Mrs Lien is in no need of divulging her recipes just yet. “She doesn’t want her restaurant to change,” says Loan. “She sees so many places putting their prices up while the quality of the food goes down — here it will always be the same.”
I sincerely hope she is right – just keep that beef coming.
Bo La Lot Co Lien is at 321 Vo Van Tan, D3, HCMC.
Published November 2014 – Word Vietnam