Everyone loves exploring the Cu Chi tunnels and munching on tasty cassava. But do you know that this land has a hidden “specialty”? Ladies and gentlemen, let’s meet chi Tam, our lovely lunch lady who has lived in Cu Chi for over one-third of her life!
Before digging into the fascinating conversation with the very special Chi Tam, let me briefly touch on Cu Chi. A suburban district of Saigon, Cu Chi is famous for the Cu Chi tunnels – which were constructed during colonial times, however, extended and properly used during the Vietnam War. The tunnels spread out over 200 km and were essentially a place where civilians and soldiers cooked, ate, slept, had meetings, celebrated and even went to school underground as war raged on above. After the war, this place quickly became a famous attraction and rightfully so.
After a day participating in the activities such as exploring the tunnels, or filling your hungry tummy with some small, sweet, and salty cassava, it’s time to reward yourself with an authentic, hearty, and yummy meal. And chi Tam lunch spot is our favorite place to give our guests an unforgettable Vietnamese feast.
I visited chi Tam past midday with an empty stomach and excessive sweat on my forehead. I was really hungry, and I jokingly remember thinking I could eat a horse. But my eyes instantly sparkled with possibility when I saw a full table packed with alluring dishes. Poached pork ribs, Vietnamese sweet and sour fish broth, steaming rice, morning glory, and so many more dishes were ready to be eaten!
In the kitchen, chi Tam was frying omelettes fresh for us. Every five minutes, she carefully glanced at our table to make sure her guests were satisfied with her cooking skills. But she did not need to worry about the quality! After six years with her store, she has never heard a complaint from her foreign travelers.
I took a seat, and she gave me a cold can of soy milk. Our story began naturally with how she became a cook and restaurant owner. “About 13 years ago, this place was a coffee shop that I also owned. At that time, the street was big, so the tourist buses, which brought travelers to take a break, could park outside my house. But then, as time went by, people started building houses, and the street became more narrow. There wasn’t enough space for the tourist buses anymore, which meant fewer people came to drink coffee. To keep up with the situation, I opened a food store.”
“Even though the street narrowed and you saw fewer customers, how did you come to partner with Onetrip?” I asked.
“Over five years ago, a Onetrip tour guide named Mr. Duc coincidentally stopped by my store to eat. We got to know each other and after that, I started cooking lunch for Onetrip Cu Chi tours.” she replied.
Many people who have tried chi Tam’s food think that she was born with a cooking gift, but actually she wasn’t. “I was working all day and night in a factory” she said, then revealed, “You know what, I’ve never been to a cooking class in my life!”
Laughing at my silly face, she responded, “I just learned from the people around me. But the key is to listen to your guests. For example, foreign guests tend to eat less salty and spicy food than Vietnamese people. So when I serve them, I put less spice in the food.”
As I listened to her speak, I could tell that she put a lot of love, effort, and patience into her food. And I have to admit that her food tastes like home. I tried morning glory first as it’s my favorite dish. Just from the first bite, the crunchiness of the morning glory, along with the flavors of the garlic, salt, and seasoning opened up my taste buds. I craved more.
The poached pork ribs were closest, so I immediately reached for one. The ribs were well-cooked, not too soft, but not too firm. However, the sauce was the part of the dish that made me surrender. It was a little bit salty, sweet, and peppery: a perfect combination with the rice. If I didn’t care about how much I was eating, I might have had four big rice bowls!
While I was munching on the ribs, I almost completely forgot about the Vietnamese sweet and sour fish soup. I went all in and scooped a full spoon of the soup and poured it into my bowl. Can you recall the sound after you sip cold beer on a hot day? I couldn’t help but feel that refreshed after finishing the soup, even though I tried to hide it.
After finishing the big bowl of soup, I intended to stop my eating adventure. But the moment chi Tam brought the fried chicken drumsticks and omelettes out, I started craving the flavors again! The omelettes looked simple yet delicious. Different from Western countries that use olive oil or butter to fry the egg, chi Tam uses Vietnamese cooking oil which is lighter. It helps eaters focus on the egg flavor only.
But to me, the star of the table is hands down the fried chicken drumsticks, like people always say “Save the best for the last.” I’m not exaggerating, but I’ve never tried such a delicious chicken drumstick in my entire life! It’s crispy from the skin yet juicy, soft, and perfectly marinated from the meat. I fell in love with it from the first bite, so I had to ask chi Tam the secret. And she answered, “I’ve heard many people compliment it and it is also my favorite dish to make. I will tell you a secret: first, you have to choose fresh drumsticks, and when you cook them, you need to lower the heat to make sure the drumsticks are cooked from the inside to the outside. To make the perfect crispy skin, you raise the heat toward the end. Remember to mix garlic, sugar, and fish sauce then pour the combination over the frying drumsticks. Don’t forget, the crucial key is to evaluate the exact time to take the chicken out of the pan.”
The longer we talked, the better we understood each other. She told me about her daily routine. She normally opens her store at 10 AM. After selling the food for lunch, she cleans the store and prepares for the evening. So when is her busiest time of day? According to her, “The hardest time is in the afternoon. There are so many guests that you must pay attention to. Sometimes, the guests are easily offended if you accidentally spend too much time with one group. For example, recently, there was a man working for a government office nearby who came here alone for lunch. I was in the kitchen, so I didn’t see him coming. He was quite offended, and he told me that I discriminated against him. I had to quickly apologized for being tactless.”
Then she continued, “There are times that I feel tired, but I know that I need to stay positive. These days, I feel under the weather so I’ve been using gua sha (a traditional Vietnamese medical treatment in which the skin is slightly scraped with medicated oil to produce light petechiae). But you know, I have to be really careful about this because international guests are not used to the smell of the oil. Moreover, if they see red small scratches on my body, they will feel uncomfortable and suspicious about my health, which leads to their worries about the food.”
The time I spent with her made me realize that being a cook is not easy. You have to get to the market in the early morning, then prepare the food for hours, and sell it from day to night. It can knock you down at any moment. But chi Tam accepts trading her time for people’s smiles, satisfaction, and great memories of Vietnam. When I asked her about her future plans, she said “There is a friend nearby that wants to help me cook. In the past, my wish was to save money to rebuild the store. But now that wish is fulfilled. My cooking job is quite difficult, so I don’t have much time to spend with my children. I wish for free time to care for them better.”
In the hustling city life, to know that there are still caring people like chi Tam really makes my day. She may not be a celebrity but she represents and helps our foreign friends to experience the authentic Vietnamese cuisine, lifestyle, and culture. And to me, Cu Chi is not only a land riddled with war wounds. It is now the land of love, sharing, and hospitality like the characteristics of the people living on it – chi Tam.