90 years of handmade Chinese noodles in Saigon

Created 20 March 2023
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Duong Huy's noodle shop Thieu Ky has been serving up fresh handmade Chinese-style noodles since the 1930s.
Duong Huy in front of his shops noodle cart. Photo by VnExpress/Quynh Tran

The eatery sells roughly 350 bowls every day.

The noodle shop is located in an alley at 66 Le Dai Hanh Street, District 11. Although the alley is barely wide enough for a car to fit through, it is constantly busy, especially in the morning and on weekends.

Thieu Ky's front facade includes an ancient-looking noodle cart covered with vintage paintings of characters from the Three Kingdoms, a well-known Chinese historical novel, like many other Chinese noodle shops in Saigon. The owner of the shop claims that the cart has been in service for almost 40 years. He says it’s the fourth vehicle the business has owned since it opened.

Duong Huy in front of his shops noodle cart. Photo by VnExpress/Quynh Tran

Duong Huy in front of his shop's noodle cart. Photo by VnExpress/Quynh Tran

Duong Huy is the third generation to follow the family business. The first owner was Tu Ky, who immigrated to Vietnam from China in the 30s. The business started as just a small noodle stall at the beginning of the alley. After a while, the family switched to using a cart, which enabled them to sell their noodles all over Thiec Market, a hub for the neighborhood's Chinese population.

But about 50 years ago, the shop demobilized and took up a new non-moveable location in the same alley, not far away from its original spot.

"The shop has remained at this spot in the alley since the 1970s. We are less than a hundred meters from the original place," said 57-year-old Huy.

Even after nearly a century, the shop continues to make fresh noodles instead of using store-bought ones.

The kitchen bustles from early in the morning to make the noodles before the shop opens. In order to give the noodles their distinctive yellow color, two workers swiftly knead the dough and add duck eggs and ash water. Then the dough is incubated before being rolled into extremely thin strips.

The cook gently separates the noodles out into smaller strands of noodles, which are arranged evenly on a tray. He keeps tossing them in flour so they don’t stick. "The most difficult thing is to swirl them into pretty little noodle nests," said Kim Phong, a 29-year-old staff member.

Every day, the shop spends three hours making more than 20 kilograms of fresh noodles. The number of noodles increases on weekends and holidays. According to Huy, handmade noodles are chewy and springy, and will not get mushy if soaked in hot water for a long time. A regular bowl of noodles includes two noodle nests. The noodles are blanched in boiling and cold water three times respectively before serving. This helps the noodles to not be overcooked, and to retain their chewiness.

The noodles are added to the bowl with a few slices of char siu, pork liver and intestine, lettuce, chives, fried shallots, fried pork fat and spices. The broth is cooked from pork and chicken bones, which are stewed thoroughly for many hours. If you choose to eat dry noodles, the broth will be served separately. The Chinese-style noodles are not served with herbs. Red vinegar is a common condiment that can be used in place of lime if you want to impart a hint of sour flavor.

Dry char siu noodles and oyster sauce served with broth on the side. Photo by VnExpress/ Quynh Tran

Dry char siu noodles and oyster sauce served with broth on the side at Thieu Ky noodles shop. Photo by VnExpress/Quynh Tran

The Thieu Ky menu features noodle soup, dry noodles, wontons, and dumplings, which start at VND55,000 ($2.31) per bowl. Diners can order a bowl with more noodles, or xi quach - pork bone stew, for VND70,000 ($2.94) per bowl. According to the shop owner, bowls of char siu dry noodles with oyster sauce (broth on the side) are the eatery’s best seller. This noodle shop is also known for its hu tieu bo kho - noodle soup with braised beef.

This shop is also where Huy’s family lives. To accommodate more customers, Huy has rented the two properties next to the noodle shop. Red couplets, hanging Chinese wall pendants, statues honoring Quan Cong, a Chinese general who served under the warlord Liu Bei during China’s late Eastern Han dynasty, and Than Tai, the God of Wealth, a mythological figure venerated in Chinese folk religion and Taoism, are all displayed inside the store. Customers won't have to wait long once they place their orders because there are about 10 staff members serving meals swiftly at this small restaurant.

The dining space is about 40 square meters.

For more than a decade, twice a week, Thanh Binh has ridden his motorbike for more than 10 minutes to Thieu Ky for breakfast. He’s a regular at the restaurant, so the cook instantly fetches him an order of dry noodles without asking. "The freshly prepared, chewy noodles are my favorite; they are not mushy. Thus, this area still retains traditional Chinese features," said the loyal 73-year-old customer.

Duc Lam, 27, was introduced to Thieu Ky by a family member and has been frequenting the shop for about a year. He comes here for breakfast once a week. He says that the menu is similar to that of many other Chinese noodle shops, and the cost of a bowl is VND10,000 higher than at other places. "But still, the broth is great, and homemade noodles are used throughout the day, so I feel safer eating here," Lam said.

Since the noodle shop is located in an alley, parking is quite inconvenient. Photo by VnExpress/Quynh Tran

Since the noodle shop is located in an alley, parking is quite inconvenient. Photo by VnExpress/Quynh Tran

Thieu Ky is open from 7 in the morning till 1 in the next morning. On average, it sells about 350 bowls of noodles a day. The shop has a big sign placed at the beginning of the alley, so it's quite easy to find. On the menu, dishes are written in both Vietnamese and Chinese but do not list specific prices for each dish. Drinks and iced tea are priced from VND3,000 VND to VND15,000 (13 cents to 63 cents). Due to being located in a small alley, the parking space is cramped when the restaurant is crowded.

Source: VNE

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