My trip to Vietnam in 2005 left a lot of indelible images, including a walk through a series of back alleys in northern Ha Noi that led to a man hand-cranking a sugar cane press and filling plastic bags with golden, unfiltered nuoc mia (sugar cane juice). He stuck a straw in the open-topped, twin-handled bag and gave it to me in exchange for the equivalent of about 40 cents. The fresh-pressed juice wasn’t as sweet as expected and was ridiculously refreshing on a night that still registered in the 90s. The next night, my final night in Ha Noi, I tried to find the man again, but he was gone.
There have since been other experiences with sugar cane juice in Orange County’s Little Saigon, at places like Nuoc Mia Vien Tay, and their version has certainly been good, but it’s hard to compete with such a vivid memory. Also, a storefront in a Garden Grove strip mall is hardly a back alley in Ha Noi, and who knows, maybe there’s something to the juice being unfiltered and hand-cranked instead of pressed using a motorized machine. Ultimately, the experience isn’t nearly as romantic. Still, fresh-pressed sugar cane juice remains a good thing, and it brought me and friend Matthew “Mattatouille” Kang to the Grand Century Mall food court in San Jose, to try Nuoc Mia Ninh Kieu.
Nuoc Mia Ninh Kieu is an amalgam of the words for sugar cane juice (nuoc mia) and the name of a river in southern Vietnam. Wing Kwok and his business partner opened their stall in 2002, sharing a food court with vendors that specialize in savory crepes (banh xeo), duck meat and steamed buns.
Ninh Kieu featured fresh pressed sugar cane juice (nuoc mia) either on its own or mixed with an assortment of fruits. You can add strawberry, apple juice, pineapple juice and carrot juice, or preserved lime or plum. They also have mashed avocado and durian, and pennywort (a healthy herb/weed) with green bean, if you’re a sugar cane contrarian.
I opted for frothy Mia Cam ($3.75 for 20 ounces), sugar cane juice sweetened with orange juice, slices and all. Mia Tac ($3.75 for 20 ounces), the version with kumquat – green and yellow, ripe and unripe – was tarter and probably balanced the sweetness of the sugar cane even better.