A whirlwind tour of Da Nang's incredible Vietnamese street food left me with all sorts of cravings, but one dish wouldn't get out of my head: mi quang. Part soup, part salad, it's rich with chicken broth and rice noodles, freshened up with crunchy vegetables, and topped with everything from chicken to shrimp to snakehead fish.
The dish is ubiquitous streetside comfort food and an icon of Central Vietnamese cooking, a historically impoverished cuisine nonetheless rich with local produce. Da Nang cooks, too poor to afford the beef bones for pho, relied on humbler chickens and only a scant ladleful of broth. The dish's vegetables come from household gardens, the proteins from local fields and waters. And the whole thing is seasoned with cu nen, a pungent garlic-like vegetable that's fried in raw oil for a rich, funky finish.
I had to learn how to make it.
Fortunately Summer Le, my street food tour guide, also hosts private cooking classes by appointment, where she showcases the anatomy of classic Central Vietnamese dishes. Held in her mother's kitchen, the classes are about as intimate as it gets.
Here's Summer and her mother at work.
Mi quang begins with a whole chopped chicken that's been marinated in soy sauce and sugar for half a day. "The chickens we use are whole, bony, countryside chickens that run around a lot and have a stronger smell than normal industrial chickens." That means an intensely flavorful broth, but also gamey notes that need toning down by other ingredients.
Which brings us to the cu nen, full of garlic punch, that Summer grinds in a mortar. The cu nen will be fried in raw peanut oil, which like "tastes very rich, not light like normal oil." While refined peanut oil is essentially flavorless, the raw stuff is unmistakably peanutty, as potent in its own way as a Tuscan extra virgin olive oil.
Cu nen and raw peanut oil are pure Da Nang. Of the peanut oil: "only people from Da Nang know about this," Summer tells me. "You have to know someone who makes it." Summer's mother has a peanut oil connection in the Quang Nam countryside, and if you can find some of your own, it's worth the effort. "It makes a huge difference from normal oil and garlic."
Once the cu nen turns golden in the pot, Summer adds fresh turmeric, which also tempers the chicken's gaminess. Now she's ready for the chicken.
She browns the chicken in the peanut oil before adding water to barely cover. The stock is a quick one: it boils for just 15 to 20 minutes, after which Summer removes the chicken and lets the stock cook with some extra water. But not much: "You don't need too much water because mi quang doesn't use a lot of broth. The concentrated broth is more salty than a traditional noodle soup."
Meanwhile, she moves the chicken parts to a new pot and adds sugar, fish sauce, salt, and pepper to taste. The chicken cooks another 20 minutes until the meat is easily separated from the bowl and it drinks up all the seasonings.
While Summer's been tending to the chicken, her mother has been picking and chopping vegetables, including crunchy banana blossoms, tender lettuce, mint leaves, and other Vietnamese herbs. "The more variety you have, the better," Summer explains.
Next up: the noodles. Mi quang calls for broad rice noodles that are dense and chewy, like chow fun. Half of them are infused with turmeric, both for color and for the earthy, musty flavors of the rhizome. The noodles are cooked just long enough to turn tender.
Now they put it all together. The vegetables are heaped into a shallow bowl, then a helping of noodles, then the broth and chicken. These are the basics, but the real fun comes with the condiments.
"It has to have the lemon, green chili, and rice cracker to make it the real deal," Summer tells me. "Some people overlook this, but the ingredients are very specific." She also adds some chili pepper jam and roasted peanuts.
All that's left is to stir it all together. Mi quang is full of big flavors: nutty peanut oil, pungent cu nen, a deeply concentrated chicken broth, spice from chili jam and fresh chilies, and the cooling vegetal bite of banana blossom. For a supposedly humble dish, it's incredibly complex. And you'll likely only find it in Da Nang.
The only necessary accompaniment? A cold beer.