To savor a bowl of dried squid bamboo shoot soup in the 500-year-old Bat Trang Village of Hanoi, visitors are required to make a reservation priced at VND400,000 (US$17) per person.
Situated just 15 kilometers away from the center of Hanoi, Bat Trang Village is renowned for its ceramic craftsmanship and serves as a tourist destination. Amid the village's towering houses and luxurious eateries, traditional serving trays are still used.
A traditional meal at Bat Trang village includes a bowl of dried squid bamboo shoot soup (front).
In the past, wealthy families in the village possessed a set of six bowls and eight plates, symbolizing prosperity. Ordinary households prepared a set of four bowls and four plates, representing the four seasons and cardinal directions.
As per seasonal variations and individual family circumstances, the dishes displayed on these trays would differ. However, one village specialty that cannot be replaced in any tray is the dried squid bamboo shoot soup.
Throughout its historical journey, this dish has a royal reputation as a culinary delight served for kings, thanks to its unique blend of flavors, combining elements from the sea and the forest.
The process of preparing a bowl of dried squid bamboo shoot soup involves sourcing ingredients from various regions. The bamboo shoots, procured from Tuyen Quang Province, 150 km north of the village, are dried, yellow, and robust. The dried squid, collected from Thanh Hoa Province, 170 km south of the village, boasts a firm and fragrant texture. Although the villagers willingly share their cooking techniques, the intricate and time-intensive nature of the preparation has dissuaded many from attempting to replicate the recipe.
Pham Thi Hoa's family has been rooted in Bat Trang for generations and operates a restaurant specializing in traditional cuisine. On weekends, Hoa busies herself preparing meals for guests hailing from both northern and southern Vietnam, as well as foreign visitors.
Initially, customers are taken aback by the quoted price of VND350,000 to VDN400,000 per meal, wondering why a rural experience comes with such a hefty price tag. However, as they sit at the table and feast their eyes upon the abundant array of dishes, the reason behind the cost becomes evident. The table is adorned with an assortment of delicacies, including dried squid bamboo shoot soup, pigeon spring rolls, shrimp rolls enveloped in betel leaves, stir-fried squid with kohlrabi, salad, chicken, sour fish soup, sticky rice, green beans dessert, and plain white rice. The generous owner ensures that diners are continuously supplied with refills of the soup.
Yet, the star of the dining experience remains the dried squid bamboo shoot soup. Due to its preparation process, customers often have to pre-order this dish. The owner soaks, boils, and stir-fries the ingredients, which takes several hours.
Bamboo shoots are soaked for approximately an hour, washed, and dried, with the older parts discarded. Subsequently, they are soaked in cold water, dried once more, and finely sliced. The bamboo shoots are then boiled three to four times before being washed and dried again, followed by being marinated in fish sauce, sugar, and spices.
The dried squid's innards are removed, retaining only the meaty portions, which are rinsed with ginger wine to eliminate any fishy odors. The squid is then grilled over charcoal until tender and shredded into small pieces resembling the bamboo shoots. It is also marinated with fish sauce, sugar, and spices.
Tenderloin pork is boiled, shredded, and stir fried until it achieves a golden hue. The broth, crafted from simmering pork bones along with dried shrimps from Nghe An, ensures a clear and flavorful base.
Women prepare the bamboo shoots for Bai Trang's iconic soup.
As mealtime approaches, the chef starts stir-frying bamboo shoots, dried squid, and tenderloin with a splash of broth and a touch of lard, all cooked on low heat. Finally, all the ingredients are combined in a pot of broth and allowed to simmer for approximately 45 minutes.
The soup tastes at its finest when it is still steaming. The textures of the bamboo shoots and squid create a crunch, while the bamboo shoots and the meat offer their sweetness. Some restaurants even offer an additional garnish of sliced pork roll on top.
Diners often choose to begin their meal with the dried squid bamboo shoot soup before indulging in other dishes. All of the dishes are equally satisfying, without overwhelming the palate. To conclude the meal, a bowl of rice with soup is suggested.
Although the soup can be purchased from different places at a cost of approximately VND150,000 ($6.40) for four servings, many still choose to visit the village in person. They delight in the chance to enjoy a meal after exploring the village and acquiring pottery souvenirs.