Dream big but start small, they say. Hana Ho seems to have taken this maxim to heart, when she opened Little Saigon, a Vietnamese eatery, in Delhi’s Hauz Khas Market. Tiny and cheerful like her restaurant, the 35-year-old bustles around Little Saigon to help out guests with their orders and recommend dishes, while her uncle helps out in the kitchen. It’s entirely a family affair.
Which is how Ho’s career, in fact, began. Straight out of high school, she and her sister began to help their mother at her restaurant in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon), where they were born and raised. Ho learned with her mother for six years, before heading to her city’s Marriott hotel after her family restaurant shut shop. She worked there for two-and-a-half years before shifting to the Intercontinental. In the interim, fate intervened. “In 2008, the Marriott in Mumbai held a Vietnamese food festival and I was sent to help curate it. The response was so wonderful that I knew I had to come back,” she says.
She got an opportunity when the Taj Palace in Delhi opened Blue Ginger in 2010 and Ho was one of the two Vietnamese chefs stationed there. Two years later, her countryman left and Ho was the sole Chef de cuisine at the restaurant till its closure. While she had a host of offers, Ho decided to strike out on her own. “Ten years was more than enough in a five-star hotel and I wanted to do my own thing. I was determined to do it in Delhi, because while there are so many different cuisines here, Vietnamese food has no representation,” she says. Little Saigon launched operations in late August. Three months later, it has become a belle of the ball.
While Little Saigon delivers to its neighbourhood, Ho isn’t particularly enthused with the idea. “Vietnamese food is meant to be eaten hot and fresh from the kitchen. If you do delivery and then get stuck in a jam the food will lose a lot of its quality,” she says. “Our food is so healthy and light; we use only fresh ingredients without too much oil or a lot of spices. There’s a lot of steaming and boiling involved so you don’t feel heavy after a meal,” she adds.
The cuisine includes rice noodles, rice paper sheets and Vietnamese coffee, all of which Ho has a friend of hers get directly from Vietnam on his monthly trips between Delhi and Ho Chi Minh. All her other ingredients are sourced locally, “from INA, of course.” Having been in Delhi for the last six years has ensured that her supply chain is in place, with one small exception — the beef with beef, which is a major element in Vietnamese food. “When the government banned beef last year that was a problem because I cannot use buff in the place of beef. You can use buff as a substitute in Indian and other heavily spiced cuisines because the flavour of the meat gets disguised, but because we don’t use that many ingredients we can’t use buff as the whole taste of the dish changes,” says Ho, admitting she tried to tweak the dishes but to no avail.
By next year, Ho hopes to open her second restaurant in the city, for which she is flying her brother into the country. The plan is to have one Vietnamese chef in each kitchen because as Ho says, “You need a Vietnamese to cook Vietnamese food.”