What is hu tieu?
“This bowl of hu tieu, a magnificent and delectable slow-cooked Vietnamese pork noodle soup, is the finest dish I have ever tasted” – that’s what Gordon Ramsay proclaimed about hu tieu when he introduced it on the popular TV show MasterChef season 4. Hu tieu (hủ tiếu) showcases the Vietnamese talent for seamlessly incorporating regional cuisines into their own in a subtle and graceful manner. Let’s put pho aside for a moment, join us on a journey to the South, and discover the noodle soup that we take great pride in – hu tieu.
The origin of hu tieu
The name hu tieu originated from the Teochew (or Chaozhou) language, also written as hu tiu in some Vietnamese regional dialects. Although it is commonly thought that hu tiu was created by Khmer and Cambodian people, this noodle soup was actually introduced by Chinese people living in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. The original noodles used in Chinese cuisine, called “hu tieu mem,” resemble Vietnamese pho noodles: they are soft, flat, slippery, and slightly chewy. However, people in Southern Vietnam did not appreciate this type of noodle because it gave the dish a similar quality to pho, thereby reducing the unique essence of hu tieu. To address this, they utilized the abundance of rice in the Mekong Delta and created their own version of noodles, known as “hu tieu dai” (chewy noodles), which are chewier, more transparent, and made from rice starch. These noodles are also smaller in size compared to pho or Chinese soft noodles.
By adapting cooking methods, ingredients, and making adjustments to local tastes and available produce, the Vietnamese created their own version of hu tieu, which deeply reflects their culinary culture.
Types of hu tieu
Hu tieu has been around for over a hundred years and became widely popular in the 1950s, particularly in Saigon. During that time, it was sold from food carts decorated with Chinese paintings and writings. Over time, the taste and ingredients were adjusted to suit local palates, resulting in the creation of exceptional versions of hu tieu, of which Nam Vang, My Tho, and Sa Dec are the most well-known.
Regardless of the different variations, all hu tieu recipes share a flavorful broth with a thin layer of oil on top. Underneath is a clear, light soup that has been slow-cooked for 7-8 hours, resulting in a sweet taste derived from pork bones and white carrots. Three key ingredients, grilled red onions, dried squid, and shrimp, add a smoky depth to the broth while also imparting a mild sea scent. What truly sets the three famous varieties of hu tieu apart is their toppings and garnishes, which we will delve into in more detail.
1. Hu tieu Nam Vang
Nam Vang is the Vietnamese transcription of Phnom Penh, the capital city of Cambodia, believed to be the origin of the modern Vietnamese hu tieu. As previously stated, hu tieu was not a native dish of the Khmer-Cambodian cuisine, but was brought to this country by the Chinese people.
In the past, minced pork was used to create a sweet broth, but this method resulted in an unclear and unattractive broth, as Vietnamese people preferred a clean and clear soup. To adapt to this preference, hu tieu Nam Vang was changed to use pork bones, pork legs, and vegetables to create sweetness. The highlight of hu tieu Nam Vang broth is its lightly fatty, clear, sweet broth with an aromatic depth from soy sauce, a traditional ingredient of Chinese cuisine.
A regular bowl of hu tieu Nam Vang is served with a bed of noodles, a mixture of toppings, and a final touch of crispy brown garlic and pork lard. All hu tieu typically includes sliced lean pork and pork parts such as heart, liver, and intestines, which are treated skillfully before being added to other ingredients. Only hu tieu Nam Vang includes the additional toppings of minced pork, quail eggs, and shrimp. Unlike pho, which is served with Vietnamese herbs, hu tieu Nam Vang is garnished with bean sprouts, Vietnamese celery, and chrysanthemum greens, and a teaspoon of pickled garlic minced can be added for an extra touch of acidic flavor.
2. Hu tieu My Tho
My Tho is a city located in the Mekong Delta, which is 2.5 hours south of Ho Chi Minh City. It is famous for its peaceful coconut islands and its traditional craft villages that produce noodles. Despite having a similar recipe for the broth, hu tieu My Tho has thin and chewy noodles with a hint of saltiness, which is obtained from the dew drops during the natural drying process.
At first, hu tieu My Tho only included meat toppings such as sliced lean pork, pork organs, and pork ribs cut into bite-size pieces. However, due to market demand, it now also includes meatballs, fresh shrimp, and squid upon request. In terms of presentation, hu tieu My Tho is also unique. The cook will add some lettuce leaves directly to the bowl before adding the toppings. A pinch of crispy brown onions and pork lards is then placed on top, and finally, lots of black pepper is added to complete the taste. Another detail that sets hu tieu My Tho apart from other versions is the use of pickles. Only in My Tho is daikon or white carrot pickles used to complement the dish. The white carrots are cut into small cubes and soaked in a mixture of vinegar and sugar. These slightly sour and crunchy pickles are what fans of hu tieu My Tho crave.
Another specialty of hu tieu My Tho is hu tieu satay (hu tieu sa te), which greatly differs from its original version:
- Unlike its clean and clear broth, hu tieu satay has a texture and color similar to beef stew.
- Tenderloin beef cuts are used for toppings instead of pork organs, and no pork lard is added.
- The dish is garnished with green star fruit, tomato and cucumber slices, bean sprouts, and cilantro.
- Crispy brown onions and garlic are replaced by roasted peanuts as a garnish.
The satay soup is made by simmering spices, such as red onion, chopped lemongrass, pineapple, satay sauce, and peanut butter sauce, in coconut water. Despite its thick and intense sauté color, the soup is not spicy, but has a pleasant touch of sauté heat and a buttery layer of flavor.
3. Hu tieu Sa Dec
Further South of My Tho lies the small town of Sa Dec, also known as the flower village of the Mekong Delta. During the new year season, the town becomes bustling as streams of people flock to the flower gardens to purchase decorative plants and take photos of the vibrant and colorful flower blooms. However, outside of this period, the town remains tranquil and not touristy, which is why hu tieu Sa Dec is an underrated and less well-known dish compared to its other two cousins.
The highlight of hu tieu Sa Dec is its noodles, which are slightly larger and less chewy than the noodles made in My Tho. According to reports, Sa Dec is the only place in Vietnam with balanced pH levels in its water source, which contributes to the fineness of the noodles and the absence of a slightly salty aftertaste.
Hu tieu ingredients
The broth is extracted from pork bones, dried shrimp, dried squid, daikon (white carrots), jicama, red and white onions, and garlic. Pork bones are boiled for 10 minutes to remove contaminants. To maintain a clear broth during the stewing stage, there are some tips from experienced chefs to follow: (1) constantly remove the boiling bubbles on the surface of the broth; (2) do not close the lid; and (3) do not stir the soup. While waiting for the soup to boil, the onions and dried squid are grilled and then added to the stewing pot after about 30 minutes. Grilling the ingredients adds a smoky layer to the sweetness of the broth. The other ingredients are then gently added to the pot and finally seasoned with basic seasonings from the kitchen.
The toppings require some preparation, especially the pork organs. Pork intestines, livers, and kidneys are rinsed several times under cool water until the slimy substances are completely removed. To get rid of the odor, the organs are washed again with lime or vinegar before being boiled for 25-30 minutes. These pork parts are carefully treated and taste much like ordinary meat with a chewy texture. Shrimp is boiled for 5 minutes, then cooled, and the shells removed. Some home cooks move the boiled shrimp to a bowl of ice before removing their shells to preserve the beautiful orange color and keep the shrimp meat crunchy. The pork mince is well stir-fried in garlic oil with generous seasonings. Garlic oil is simply made by browning chopped garlic in vegetable oil. Finally, pork fat is cut into small cubes the size of a fingertip and heated on a big fire until the fat liquid is extracted, leaving crispy pork lard. The fat liquid can be used to brown sliced garlic and red onions.
Pickles can be prepared a few hours before serving by chopping garlic or cutting daikon into small dice and soaking them in a jar of sugar and vinegar. Locally, sliced chilies are also added to the pickles. Side vegetables typically include fresh chives, bean sprouts, Vietnamese celery, and chrysanthemum greens.
And finally, the star ingredient is noodles. The dried hu tieu noodles are kept in a small basket and boiled in a separate pot of water until al dente.
How to eat hu tieu?
Hu tieu is typically eaten for breakfast or dinner, as lunchtime can often be too hot to enjoy a steaming bowl of noodle soup.
Hu tieu is served in two ways: nuoc or kho. Hu tieu nuoc, meaning watery hu tieu, is served in one bowl with the noodles, toppings, and broth mixed together. On the other hand, hu tieu kho, or dry hu tieu, is served in two separate bowls, with the noodles and toppings in one and the soup in another. This option is preferred by some because it allows the noodles to stay chewy and the broth to maintain its sweetness by not being mixed with the rice powder that can be released from the noodles. The noodles are coated in a special sauce made from broth, soy sauce, hoisin sauce, and kitchen seasonings, giving them a caramel color and savory taste.
If you are not a fan of pork organs, don’t worry! Simply tell the staff to remove them by saying “khong do long,” meaning “no pork organs,” or by pointing to them at the food counter and signaling “no.”
For the green garnish, you have two options: rau song (fresh vegetables) or rau trung (blanched vegetables). If you are not used to the intense flavor of Vietnamese greens, it is recommended to choose the blanched option.
When you visit a hu tieu restaurant, you will likely see a tray of seasoning garnishes on the table, including soy sauce, fresh sliced chilies, sauteed chili, cut lemons, and pickles. Squeezing some lemon into the soup is a common practice to balance the sweetness.
At the restaurant, you may be provided with wet wipes, but these are usually not free and can cost around 2,000 VND ($0.1) each. Similarly, iced tea may also be offered. If it is brought to your table immediately after you sit down, it is often free; otherwise, it may cost the same as the wet wipes. We suggest ordering a glass of iced tea or sugarcane juice to enjoy with your hot bowl of hu tieu, as the combination of a steaming soup and a refreshing drink is perfect.
Fun facts about hu tieu
- If you have a chance to taste hu tieu Nam Vang in its birthplace in Phnom Penh or other parts of Cambodia, you’ll be amazed at how different the original version is compared to the Vietnamese one and how delicious the adapted version has become. It is the result of culinary evolution and innovation by both Vietnamese and Chinese-Vietnamese, making it a magnificent fusion of Chinese, Cambodian, and Vietnamese cuisine.
- Originally, hu tieu satay came from Chaozhou cuisine. The Chinese-Vietnamese often used venison in this dish. However, when it was introduced to My Tho, people substituted venison with local beef and pork ingredients.
- Hu tieu go (knocking/striking noodles) is a term that refers to street vendors selling hu tieu. In the past, these sellers would ride through the winding alleys, knocking bamboo sticks to advertise their presence. Once they were stopped by a customer, they would take the order, return to their food cart to prepare the meal, and then deliver it to the customer’s doorstep. Today, hu tieu go is cooked in a mobile food cart with low tables and small red plastic stools set up temporarily for customers on the sidewalk. This type of hu tieu is typically sold in the evenings and targets low-income workers and students who are looking for a cheap, filling meal after work. A bowl of noodles with full toppings costs around 25,000 VND (around $1). This will be a unique culinary experience for you when in Saigon, so make sure to add it to your nightlife activities.
Where to eat hu tieu?
The reputation and popularity of soup in the South are equivalent to pho in the North. It absolutely deserves more recognition among international travelers and food lovers. We hope this introduction gives you a new perspective on Vietnamese cuisine. It is not only about pho and banh mi but a whole lot of regional noodle soup varieties. Now that you have more food options on your list, let’s plan your next trip to Vietnam and try them out. Here are some suggestions on where to try hu tieu in Vietnam:
Ho Chi Minh City
- Hu Tieu Nam Vang Thanh Dat
Address: 34 Co Bac, District 1
Price: 59,000 VND – 69,000 VND ($2.5 – $3)
- Hu Tieu Nhan Quan
Address: A68 Nguyen Trai, District 1
Price: 85,000 VND – 120,000 VND
- Hu Tieu My Tho Thanh Xuan
Address: 62 Ton That Thiep, District 1
Price: 32,000 VND – 60,000 VND
My Tho City
- Hu Tieu My Tho 43
Address: 305 Ap Bac, Ward 10
Price: 50,000 VND
- Hu Tieu Tuyet Ngan
Address: 481 Ap Bac, Ward 5
Price: 40,000 VND – 60,000 VND
Sa Dec City
- Hu Tieu Ba Sam
Address: 188 Tran Hung Dao, Ward 1
Price: 10,000 VND
- Hu Tieu Chi Dau
Address: 292 Tran Hung Dao, Ward 1
Price: 20,000 VND