Every morning, rain or shine, An Ngô or one of her two sisters-in-law rises at 03:00 to begin preparing one of Hoi An's most beloved snacks. She walks for 10 minutes from the family home, wheeling a steel cart of supplies to the family's street-side stall just outside Old Town. Here, she settles on a red plastic stool, lights the fire and waits for the vat full of an inky, charcoal-coloured mixture to come to temperature.
Before long, a regular stream of locals appears, waiting for their daily fix. Her hand disappears under the steam and quickly emerges with a heaping portion of xí mà. As a chaotic symphony of wildly honking motorbikes zooms by, she remains laser-focused, expertly siphoning the black paste into a small plastic bag, tying it with an elastic band and handing it to the customer, then spends the morning doing it over and over again.
The ancient Vietnamese city of Hoi An has a number of famous dishes that attract domestic and foreign tourists, such as the ubiquitous noodle-and-pork dish cao lầu or bánh mì from Bánh Mì Phượng (the perennially packed go-to thanks to Anthony Bourdain's 2009 episode of No Reservations). But the black sesame pudding xí mà is a favourite of the residents who live here – and the Ngô family's version is considered by many to be the best in the city.
Xí mà is a morning snack made of pulverised sesame seeds blended with sweet potato starch and kudzu root starch (a local vine), extracted centella juice (a popular health plant in Vietnam) and sargasso juice (a brown type of seaweed) along with Traditional Chinese Medicine herbs and water. Eaten warm with a spoon, it's slightly sweet with a silky texture and a gentle, nutty sweetness. While some refer to it as black sesame soup, its texture is thicker, more pudding-like.
Xí mà, or black sesame soup, is a beloved morning snack in Hoi An (Credit: Patrick Sgro)
"It's something you might not think you like until you've tried it," said lifelong Hội An resident Trinh Nguyễn. "Don't judge its colour and texture."
Like many Hội An natives, Nguyễn was first introduced to the dish as a baby and still eats it at least once a month. According to locals, its herbs have medicinal qualities that can ease whatever pains you, from menstrual cramps to a cold. In addition, the water that the Ngô family uses to make xí mà is taken from the Old Town's famed Bà Lê well, which has been steeped in mysticism and legend since its construction in the 10th Century. Residents believe that there's something supernatural about the well and that its fresh, pure water has healing properties.
It's something you might not think you like until you've tried it. Don't judge its colour and texture
"I've experienced mothers drive up on their motorbikes right next to the xí mà [stall]. They take it home because if their child is ailing in some way, it's an elixir," said Neville Dean, founder of The Original Taste of Hội An Food Tour.
Dean's tours stop for xí mà daily at the Ngô family stall, introducing tourists to this beloved Hội An dish. "Most people on the tour do like it, with very few exceptions," he said. "We've had people ask for as many as three or four bowls."
While the Ngô family currently serves hundreds of portions of black sesame pudding a day, the dish's outsize success is all down to local legend Thiểu Ngô, An's father-in-law, who is known as "The Xí Mà Man". Many copycat vendors have popped up around the city since Thiểu started slinging the snack more than half a century ago, but he is the original hawker and pudding master. He popularised the dish, and for many who've been eating it since childhood, his is the best.
Thiểu Ngô started making and selling xi ma in Hoi An in the 1950s (Credit: Quang Ngoc Nguyen/Getty Images)
On 1 January 2022, Thiểu celebrated his 107th birthday. According to An's husband, Bảo Ngô, the secret to his long life is his daily dose of xí mà.
Bảo explained that Thiểu, who was born in 1915 to a family of silk weavers in a village 30km outside Hội An, learned the fiercely guarded recipe from a Chinese shopkeeper he used to work for in town. He started making and selling the dish in the 1950s, brandishing a bamboo yoke across his shoulders with two huge, heavy pots of xí mà.
"My father- and mother-in-law got up at 03:00 to make it," said An. "He carried it around the city from 05:00 to 19:00, [walking] 10km a day. When I came to this house to marry my husband, I tried to pick up the xí mà. But I couldn't. It's very heavy and very difficult to carry. But he could carry it easily."
When Bảo was a child, making the dish was a family activity. "I often had to get up at 03:00 every morning to help my father to make the fire. The smoke from firewood stung my eyes and made me cry," he said. "But my father taught me to always overcome the difficulties in life."
Thiểu is revered by locals as a kind and gentle man who conjures up memories of childhood for many. "I used to see teenagers gathered there having their medicine [xí mà]," said Dean. "You'd see 10, maybe more, sitting around Mr Thiểu. He was like their grandfather. It was a view of Hội An that I thought was unique."
He might have been kind and gentle, but he wasn't timid. A local story recounts that one day a group of men attempted to rob Thiểu on Cẩm Nam bridge but he used his martial arts skills to kick each of them off the bridge and into the river below. "When people hear this story, some people doubt it, but it's true," said An, laughing.
Thiểu's famiy continue his work, using the same recipe and selling xi ma each day at their street stall (Credit: Patrick Sgro)
While Thiểu is now bedridden and in the final stages of an extremely long life, his family continues his work. Each morning at the family home, located just a stone's throw from Bà Lê well, they make xí mà the same way Thiểu used to and take it to sell to a steady stream of faithful locals.
How to try it
You can find the family's stall across from 120 Nguyễn Trường Tộ. There are several other vendors nearby, so look for the red and blue "Xí Mà Hội An" sign with "black sesame sweet soup" written in English underneath.
Served from 06:00-11:00 every day; a bowl costs 7,000 đồng (£0.24).
Before the pandemic, their house was a xí mà museum of sorts, an in-the-know stop for visitors to the lantern-clad city. Inside are photos of Thiểu and his wife with huge grins, squatting next to their vat of xí mà. The original gigantic stone mortar Thiểu used to grind the black sesame and the bamboo fan he used to bat the coals sit in the corner.
"Two years ago [pre-pandemic], many people came to my house to visit. Especially people from Hanoi and Hồ Chí Minh City. Many kinds of foreigners," said An. "They like xí mà very much because it's very good for your health. Especially for your heart. Many people work hard and are very tired, but they come and eat one bowl of xí mà, and they feel better."
Today, Thiểu's family members ladle endless portions of the patriarch's famous black sesame pudding into small ceramic bowls (if the customer is eating streetside) or into a plastic bag (if they're taking it home). And the legacy looks set to continue, with Bảo and An hoping their two sons will also make and sell the dish.
But while the dish remains a comforting mix of nostalgia and history, residents still miss the single-toothed smile of the Xí Mà Man. "Sitting there each day with the smoke coming off the coals and serving his xí mà, that was his natural home," said Dean. "The taste of Hội An is really in that little bowl."
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