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The Book Tour Stops Here: "The Beauty of Humanity Movement" Book Review with a Favorite Phở & Vietnamese Shrimp Bún

Posted Apr 04 2011 10:30am
Old Man Hung has a wooden street cart where he has been making the best phở in Hanoi for decades. Although he no longer has a shop, he sets up his stall wherever he can until he is forced to move on, his loyal customers following for their breakfast bowl of Hung's wonderful beef noodle soup. One of Hung's daily customers is Tu'--a young tour guide and the grandson of Dai, an old friend of Hung's and a leader in The Beauty of Humanity Movement. The movement, a group of artists, writers and poets used to gather at Hung's shop in the 1950's before the Communist Party tortured, killed or captured them, sending them to "re-education centers" for speaking out against Ho Chi Min. Maggie, a young art curator who escaped Vietnam with her mother as a child has returned to her birth land from America, looking for information about her father, an artist who disappeared during the war, hitting dead ends until she finds Hung who may have known him. The stories of these three characters intertwine in " The Beauty of Humanity Movement " a beautifully-written book by author Camilla Gibb .

Although primarily set in present day (2007) Hanoi, the book takes us back at times to the decades before and a part of Vietnam's history that I was not familiar with. It starts out a little slowly, but gains momentum as the stories build. The three characters give us different perspectives of Vietnam--Hung has seen the country suffer over eight decades of unrest and change, Tu' finds his (often American) tour groups are really only interested in the history of his country after 1965 and the Vietnam War--the things he learned about in his tourism class, and finally Maggie sees it as an outsider, digging into the past to learn about her father and her roots. Author Gibb's Ph.d in social anthropology is evident as she skillfully illuminates the history, people, food, art and culture of this often mysterious country. This is a curl-up-in-your-favorite-chair, pour-a-cup-of-tea and get-swept-away-kind-of-book that will transport you far away from your everyday world.

Of course one can't help but crave a big bowl of phở when reading "The Beauty of Humanity Movement." As Gibb so eloquently describes, " can tell a good broth by it's aroma, the way it begs the body through the nose. And phở bắc--the phở of Hanoi--is the greatest seducer, because of the subtle dance of seasonings that animates the broth. It is not just the seasonings that make the phở bắc distinct, it is provenance, a lesson Hung would happily deliver to anyone who would listen."

I thought about making my own soup but the descriptions of Hung's customers bringing their bowls, spoons and chopsticks to his cart for their daily helping of those rice noodles, thin slices of beef and aromatic broth, made me crave a bowl from one of my favorite places for phở in Honolulu, Hale Vietnam . I used to take a weekly yoga class with a co-worker nearby the restaurant and although I loved the class, my favorite part of the evening was grabbing a take-out order of soup to take home and enjoy. Rather than carting my large favorite blue fish noodle bowl and eating implements to the restaurant and asking them to fill it up like Hung, I brought my order home to photograph and enjoy in peace. ;-)

Opening up the containers and assembling my soup, I was reminded how glorious well made phở broth is and how it elevates the soup to something special. Hale Vietnam's broth is so flavorful, I almost just want to drink it on its own. I ordered my old favorite the #9--a combination of cooked thinly-sliced beef brisket and thinly-sliced rare beef which cooks in the hot broth. I don't like bean sprouts so I leave them out but add plenty of everything else. Heaven! I can almost imagine Old Hung serving me. ;-)

Since I "cheated" and didn't make the Phở--I still wanted to cook a Vietnamese dish for the book and was I craving something fresh and salad-like. I chose Vietnamese Shrimp Bún--a noodle salad, and adapted a recipe I had clipped from Fresh Magazine for a minced pork version and used shrimp instead.

Fresh says, "This street food favorite comes in a multitude of incarnations with toppings ranging from prawn, chicken, beef and even duck, but always features wonderfully fresh salads and herbs. With the sweet, fiery and piquant dressing that the diner mixes through the salad just before eating, this makes for a refreshing light meal."

Vietnamese Shrimp Bún
Fresh Magazine Sept. 08
(Serves 4)
Prep: 15 minutes (+30 min marinating time) Cook: 10 minutes

For the topping:
400 g / 14oz minced pork (I used large shrimp, peeled and deveined)
2 tsp finely grated ginger
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 Tbsp fish sauce

225g / 8oz dried rice stick noodles or vermicelli
1 cucumber, cut into thin strips
2 carrots, peeled and cut into thin strips or ribbons
2 handfuls beansprouts
1/2 head iceberg lettuce, shredded
2 small shallots, halved and thinly sliced
1 red chili, deseeded and finely chopped
1 lemongrass stalk, outer skin and bottom removed, chopped
1/2 tsp sugar
juice of 1/2 lime
large bunch mint. leaves only
large bunch coriander, leaves

For the sauce:
6 Tbsp fish sauce
3 Tbsp rice vinegar
juice 1 lime
3 Tbsp sugar
3 cloves garlic, mince
2 Tbsp finely chopped carrot
2 large red or 2 bird's eye chilies, deseeded if desired and chopped

80g / 3oz salted roasted peanuts, roughly chopped

  • Place the pork (or shrimp) in a bowl with the ginger, garlic and fish sauce and mix together. Leave to marinate for 30 minutes.

Notes/Results: Fresh, tangy, sweet and spicy--this dish hits it on all cylinders for flavor. The combination of the noodles and fresh veggies and herbs is satisfying and delicious. The recipe may seem long but it goes together quickly and makes a perfect light lunch or dinner. I paired it with the Asian Corn Soup from yesterday's post and was in flavor delight. I will make this again for sure.

An excellent book, bowl of delicious soup and a fresh and tangy salad--life is good!

For more blogger feedback on this book you can check out the other Book Tour Stops for "The Beauty of Humanity Movement" here .

***Giveaway Reminder***

Don't forget to enter my giveaway of a copy of a great book, "The Provence Cure for the Brokenhearted" by Bridget Asher. Check out my review, a recipe inspired by the book and the details on how to enter here .

Obligatory Disclosure Statement: A review copy of this book was provided by the publisher and TLC Book Tours but I was not compensated for this review or influenced by anyone--as always my thoughts and opinions are my own.

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