Soup for the soul from southern Vietnam

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Banh canh ghe isn’t like other noodle soups you’ve had in Hanoi.

>>Pho (Noodle soup)

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Soup for the soul from southern Vietnam

That’s because it didn’t make its way up to the capital from HCM City until a year and a half ago, when friends Nguyen Anh Tuyet and Hoang Bich Huong first opened their restaurant Ut Coi.

The broth of Ut Coi’s signature banh canh ghe (crab thick rice noodle soup) is thicker than you’d expect from a Vietnamese noodle soup. It’s clear and thickened with tapioca, creating a texture similar to the classic American-Chinese sweet and sour soup. It’s made with banh canh noodles, which are round like bun but nearly as thick as your finger. They’re fun to try, but a bit unwieldy and less likely to pick up herbs and flavours in a spoonful.

Soup for the soul from southern Vietnam
Soup for the soul from southern Vietnam

Ut Coi has moved around, but its current location is 2B Quang Trung, just southwest of Hoan Kiem Lake. The décor is simple: a bamboo-lined storefront, white interior walls, bamboo tables and squat little bamboo chairs not unlike the seating at street food stalls.

“We loved banh canh at first sight,” said co-owner Tuyet. She and Huong are from Ha Noi, but they studied how to make the intensely popular soup when they were visiting the south. “Pho is so popular in the south, but we don’t have banh canh here (in the north). It’s one of these really special traditional soups.”

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How delicious it is?

Pho is a lot easier to make than banh canh, Tuyet said. The thickness has to be just right. There are more steps involved, and careful control is required in the heating and addition of ingredients. Most of Ut Coi’s seafood is sourced from the northern shore, but the crab comes from down south — it’s best there, Tuyet said.

The broth’s sweetness — more evidence of its southern origins — comes from the fresh crab, as well as a little sugar. It’s also made with pork bone, garlic, dried shrimp and squid. Floating in the broth are fresh herbs, green onion, sliced pork, a shrimp and a quail egg. It comes with more fresh herbs on the side — a big plus in my book.

The small morsels of fresh crab I scooped up in each spoonful were extremely satisfying to someone used to the field crab crumbles of bun rieu cua (field crab noodle soup). The bits of crab shell were quite distracting at times, but not a deal-breaker. The broth was so tangy I forgot to add the extra essentials sitting on the table – lime and fresh chilli.

Soup for the soul from southern Vietnam
Soup for the soul from southern Vietnam

My friend and I also ordered the goi cuon tom thit (shrimp and pork spring rolls). They weren’t much to look at and the rice paper was quite sticky, but the dip was divine, made with pork, peanuts and black sauce. They also offer banh bot loc mang cay (bamboo shoot dumplings with tapioca starch), which have a strong black pepper flavour and are worth a try if you enjoy the pungent bamboo.

Ut Coi’s prices are affordable — VND55,000 for a bowl of seafood-laden soup. If you’re craving a bowl of noodles and seeking out a sweet southern alternative to your regular bun or pho, it’s worth a try.

Tuyet and Huong want to show diners a bit of traditional culture without the grimy reputation of street food, Tuyet said. Their establishment is reminiscent of a street food stall in terms of decor, but they are looking to divorce themselves from that image when it comes to hygiene. They see Ut Coi as a growing brand.

“We plan to expand, but not too many,” Tuyet added. “We want to do it in a very traditional way, not like a fast food restaurant, so we do it step-by-step, not so quickly.”

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