The owner of this shop, or should I say stall, is the archetypal Asian man who lived half his life abroad. The day I saw him he wore a red baseball cap. The peak rounded his angular face, almond-shaped eyes and wide cheekbones. His slim fit T-shirt hung closely to his tanned, muscular body. On top of running his business from 11am to 6pm every day, this man goes to the gym.
He speaks fluent English, probably enjoys a pub lunch every now and then, and sets his stall in one of the most affluent areas in London – at Chelsea near the junction of Sydney Street and Kings Road. Yet there were no polished glasses, shiny plates and fancy lights. Like 4 million of us foreigners in London, he is too proud to let go of his root.
“Phac phuc is Vietnamese, but you are also selling Laksa. Are you Malaysian? Because I am!” I chirped. In fact, it was the Laksa that brought me there in the first place.
“Yes, I’m from Penang! What about you?” He lightened up immediately. And I know he misses Home as much as I do.
The conversation flowed naturally. It was easy. When an Asian meets another Asian halfway across the globe, there is an instant connection. Thanks to the daddy of all lovers Genghis Khan, we are probably blood-related anyway.
Phat Phuc means Happy Buddha in Vietnamese. It sounded so rude when you pronounce the words in English phonetics. But like many other things, if you care to ask, you will know what it means.
The Happy Buddha is said to be this fat, bald, smiling deity figure in Chinese folklore, a monk who wore his robe loosely and couldn’t care less about his ballooning belly. A wise loving old man and the favourite among the kids, he’s the symbol of contentment. Someone who had achieved the “state of perfect bliss”, or so say the Buddhist.
It is not uncommon to find a stall like this in South East Asia. A Vietnamese pho shack that also serves Thai tom yum and Singapore fried noodles? Aplenty. It does feel like all countries in the region cross-pollinate in one place, but it is what it is. After all, we are all the descendants of the post-World War II immigrants from the Far East.
The war had the roots of our ancestors grafted onto the trees of our adopted countries – Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Myanmar, Vietnam, Philippines, Cambodia and Laos. The second and the third-generation of Chinese immigrants like us now speak a myriad of different languages and follow different customs and traditions. It’s a mishmash of cultures and beliefs more colourful than the embroidery on an emperor’s robe.
When Phat Phuc opens in the morning, its tiny kitchen already sets its pulse racing with pots of simmering soups and broths that were prepared overnight.
Customers first find themselves a table, then queue up at the counter to make their order, doing it all in the South East Asian way. Why hire extra help when these hungry Southerners can do their own work?
They also pick up their own drinks from the fridge. All in front of the eyes of the vigilant owner who doesn’t need a CCTV or ask where his customers sit. The right bowls of noodles will be delivered to them promptly. This man got it all under control.
^ The words on the weathered aluminium plaque says “Jia Ji”, the Chinese equivalent of Chez Jia.
The Chinese pork buns arrived slightly before the Malaysian laksa and the Vietnamese pho. It was like a food festival on the table. I doubt Phat Phuc make the buns themselves, but the steaming was timed right, they came out of the bamboo basket soft, warm and light.
Then, the laksa. The laksa which I had spent all my London life waiting for, sadly, fell slightly below par. The noodles were al dente done in the wrong place and I would much prefer the more chewy and dense egg noodles to the flat ones made with rice flour.
The wonderfully fragrant and spicy broth played the Saviour in this case. The red chili oil sure looked intimidating but the taste was a lot milder and pleasantly so because of the glugs of coconut milk added into the broth. With a few stalks of lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves and curry paste, this bowl of laksa broth really saved the day.
The best, of course, was the pho which needs no introduction. A few sprinkles of fried shallots and Siracha was all it took to paint ourselves a beautiful bowl of Vietnamese flag.
As fascinated as you might be to the burst of these flavours, you wouldn’t miss the festive motifs and the carved Chinese characters on Phat Phuc‘s plastic tableware.
I wouldn’t compare these plates and bowls to the likes of Wedgwood and Fortuny, for the latter (are a bazillion times more expensive, but) would not be able to hold up one of the world’s oldest cultures – and the hardship of leaving all behind to fight for an identity in a harsh foreign land.
With love x
**Phat Phuc Noodle Bar, 151 Sydney St, London SW3 6NT, open daily from 11am to 6pm, phatphucnoodlebar.co.uk