Cao Thị Linh owner and chef at one of Hanoi’s best vegetarian restaurants talks food philosophy
Words by Kaela Greenstien ● Edited by Rose Arnold ● Images by Huong
Linh welcomes me into her West Lake apartment, shared with husband Luca and their three year old daughter Gaia. Luca and Gaia are playing in a vibrant pink playroom while Linh prepares lunch in the kitchen. Her supplies and equipment are basic. There’s a stock of pots and pans, vegetarian fish sauce, and, most importantly, fresh vegetables. Linh stands in her own kitchen as she does in her vegetarian restaurant Bồ Đề Quán – focused and certainly busy, but always ready to effortlessly juggle a conversation while continuing to work.
Linh is diligently managing the kitchen with the sounds of her husband and daughter playing happily in the next room. Today we’ll be eating typical communal Vietnamese style with dishes of lotus root, okra with fermented tofu paste, ginger, savoury mushrooms and rice, of course. But the seemingly simple, healthy dishes are actually far beyond expectations, especially for vegetarian food found in Vietnam’s chay restaurant scene. As we sit around their kitchen table, Gaia sits between her parents. Luca, sommelier at Italian restaurant Da Paulo in West Lake, knows what it means to enjoy good cuisine and knows how lucky he is to be living with the master of vegetarian cuisine in Hanoi.
Linh’s love for vegetarian cooking is deeply rooted in her beliefs; she is a devout Buddhist and has spent years learning vegetarian recipes from monks. Eating vegetarian is an important part of Linh’s life and spiritual practice. She shows me the alter in her house – perched on a windowsill as the landlord won’t allow drilling into the walls – with the female Buddha she prays to.
“My grandfather was a monk,” Linh says, “When I’m sleeping, I dream all the time about the lady Buddha…always I dream about her”. The dreams lead her to start going to temple and from there, lead her to realise her calling was to open a vegetarian restaurant. “I must do something to save the animals….At the temple, they tell me, there are no vegetarian restaurants” she says.
So last year, and seven years after moving from Saigon to Hanoi for her husband’s work, Linh opened Bồ Đề Quán in a tiny shop on Âu Cơ. The name Bồ Đề was chosen for her by a monk and roughly translates as enlightenment or awakened. It’s the combination of food and spirituality that guide Linh’s restaurant – her passion for both are evident and come through in her lush simmering soups and instant, genuine friendly charm.
Linh and Luca sit on either side of their daughter, helping her with a few bites and we slowly make our way through small bowls of each dish. There are a lot of dishes Linh would like to make for customers, but ensuring the quality of ingredients is her top priority – she says her home in the Mekong Delta has far more fresh vegetables than Hanoi. Inspiration from her home in the south is key to her cooking. Each time she visits she seeks out different vegetables and dishes to bring back to Hanoi, while also carrying on a continual search for staff who truly understand vegetarian cooking.
Linh already has her mum and sister, who moved from the south, to help with her restaurant. And despite missing her home town, Linh tells me her mum has never felt as healthy or energised as she does living a vegetarian life with her in Hanoi. Her Italian husband has also caught on to Linh’s enthusiasm for vegetarianism and is happy to serve up pasta dishes with a splash of vegetarian ‘fish’ sauce for their daughter.
Bún riêu and banana soup are the top staples on the menu at Bồ Đề Quán and it might just be impossible to pick a favourite from these two. Bún riêu is Linh’s favourite dish from the south and banana soup is a specialty of the north. “People from Hanoi, like to eat food that belongs to Hanoi people. The spring rolls, no one makes like I do” she adds, as her husband laughs along with this bold declaration. “It’s true! I put a lot of yam, sweet potato, coconut…it’s completely different. Everyone tells me they’ve never eaten nem like this in Hanoi or Saigon.”
Last month, Linh moved Bồ Đề Quán to a larger location up the road. It’s unlikely this will be her last expansion. “Maybe the Buddha protected me and gave me more customers…now with the big place, it is even busier”. As we finish our lunch, I ask her if she has plans to expand. She laughs with a smile that holds a thousand hours of planning behind it and says “Yes, definitely. I hope and pray every day.”
Bồ Đề Quán, 164 Âu Cơ, Hanoi