12/02/2010

Giang’s Shashlik

The War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh is sure among the most visited places in the city. But apart from seeing the popular Vietnam-American war exhibits, there is another good reason why many would frequent Vo Van Tan Street. Just adjacent to the museum is a narrow space serving one of the tastiest meat-on-a-stick dish one will ever come across with. Long, narrow and sometimes uncomfortable with the number of people wanting to dine in this place, but people don’t mind. A taste of their specialty, the Shashlik, makes everything worth it.

A Turkish barbecue recipe, Shashlik is a piece of skewered meat flavored with the right amount of salt and spices that brings out the best aroma and flavor - - - probably one of the bests Ho Chi Minh can offer. Sure, grilled meat is popular in the city, and in the county in fact. But as to what the secret is behind its flavors and what makes this one different from the rest, only Pham Thanh Giang can make you understand.

Giang owns the little space that serves this delicious Shashlik people talk so much about. But what may be a plate of tasty treat for many diners could mean entirely different from the man who cooks them over the fire. For Giang, these pieces of meat stringed in a stick hold not only the best flavors, but also decades of his life, and love.

It was in 1971 and at the height of the Vietnam War when Giang came to Ukraine with a group of Foreign Exchange students. At a young age of 17, and with the eagerness to leave the Hanoi suburbs and the chaos in his home country, it didn’t take much for the then young Giang to love the life in Kiev, Ukraine’s capital and largest city. The huge buildings, tree-lined streets and snow was like a dream for the young man. Though sent by the government to study Economics, Giang seem to have discovered more than that. He started making friends with Germans, Poles and Czechs. He went to public parks and the many social places he could explore.

But apart from friends, Giang also met one special girl, Anna. He recalls being 20 years old that time, and it was during a summer work program when such happened. Now 64 year-old, retired and have already married three times, Giang gives out a grin as he talked of how beautiful Anna was. They met at her parent’s roadside Shashlik stand and fell in love over grilled skewered meat. Giang became good friends with Anna’s mom. Upon learning that the young man is set to head back to Vietnam, she offered to teach him how to prepare their traditional food so that he could always remember USSR. In their home kitchen, Anna’s mother taught him how to choose and prepare the meat. She also taught Giang how to properly season the meat with salt and spices which makes the very special Shashlik he is now preparing in his little place. As to what the ratio of the seasoning is, he prefers to keep it a secret.

Though Giang’s final days in Ukraine were spent mostly in Anna’s family restaurant in order to learn the recipe right, and to stay close to Anna, there wasn’t any promises made before he left. Being young and without money, he thought he had nothing to offer her that time. He returned home in 1974 and after liberation, Giang was transferred to Ho Chi Minh City where he started working as a government economist. He enjoyed the tropical weather. But Giang became more attracted to the southern girls and got married. Not once, but twice. After 20 years, he decided to retire from public service and lived a normal life.

It was in 1994 when Giang realized he had nothing to do and started getting bored. He then remembered the recipe taught to him by Anna’s mother and decided to open a little restaurant. When searching for a place to start his little business, some of his friends told him about a long-narrow space that had opened up next to the War Remnants Museum. Giang rented the place, and for the next 16 years, prepared the tasty Shashlik on the very same narrow space. But Giang’s restaurant also feature a number of unlikely imports. Among his specialties is a bowl of ostrich grilled and served in tender brown slices with pickled root vegetables. He also serve “Soviet style” pork, lamb and veal skewered onto twisted metal skewers and cooked through over charcoal. For Giang, the dishes he serves are work of art and love. His place is cozy and not very expensive.

But it isn’t just business that flourished in this dining place. Along with his love for preparing the sumptuous dish, he also fell in-love, for the third time, and got married again. He took up became fascinated with photography and became fascinated on taking photos of beautiful nude women. His wife, Ho Thi Kim Yen, help him manage the restaurant. Looks like Giang had moved fast forward in life from his days in Ukraine. But he never forgets his wonderful memories in the country. He didn’t have the chance to go back there, but have heard that Anna got married. Her mother, who taught him how to cook Shashlik, had passed away.

So if you think a plate of Giang’s dish is just another tasty meal, think again.