Archive for the 'Saigon' Category

Lunching with Bà Sáu

Bà Sáu, my grandma’s younger sister, rocks my world. I hope to be just as cool as her when I get old.

Like the majority of people in Vietnam, Bà Sáu rises early. A couple Friday’s ago, she woke me up at the ungodly hour of 8:30 to invite me to lunch at her house. Even though I was groggy as heck, I was fortunately conscious enough to accept because Bà Sáu is a culinary genius. Seriously.

On this afternoon, The Astronomer, Luscious and I feasted on fresh cha gio (egg rolls), bo bia (spring rolls with jicama, carrots and Chinese sausage), leftover banh chung from the New Year, watermelon, and preserved pineapple candies.

This is the second time The Astronomer and I have been treated to Bà Sáu’s famous cha gio, which contain pork, shallots, taro root and are about the size of one’s pinky finger. The Astronomer pops these cha gio into his mouth like bonbons. Learning how to make these babies is on top of my to-do list, so look out for a recipe in the future.

Her bo bia was killer as well. I was certain that bo bia was the one Vietnamese dish that was superiorly prepared in America. However, I changed my mind with one bite of Bà Sáu’s rendition. Whereas the carrot and jicama slaw is usually sauteed until softened, Bà Sáu leaves a bit of crunch in the vegetables which elevates the dish to new heights.

While we were eating up a storm, Bà Sáu was downing a Tiger Beer. She says that beer aids in the digestion of meat. I told you she was cool.

The best thing about Bà Sáu is that she’s sort of a bully when it comes to feeding her guests. She insists that we gorge until our bellies can handle no more. At one point during lunch, we ran out of bun (rice vermicelli noodles), so she sent her daughter out to buy more even though we were full and begged her not to.

Another awesome thing about Bà Sáu is that after she’s stuffed us to the max, she packs up extra food and fruits for us to bring home and enjoy later.

She’s the best.


Bột Chiên

While the children in America chomp down on Trix and Pop Tarts for breakfast, the kids in Vietnam dig into plates of savory bột chiên.

Every morning on Ton That Thuyet Street in District 4, there’s a small herd of uniform-clad school children huddled around the bột chiên lady waiting for their portions to be dished out.

“Fried dough” is the literal translation of bột chiên, but the dish is actually much more interesting (and not the least bit doughnut like).

Little pieces of fried dough made of rice flour form the base of the dish. The doughy squares, along with a generous amount of oil, turn golden and crispy on the hot skillet.

Once an order is placed, the vendor cracks an egg (or two) and a sprinkling of scallions over the dough. The fried dough, egg and scallion omelet is garnished with shredded carrots and daikon or green papaya and dressed with a spicy nuoc tuong (soy-based sauce with chilies) sauce.

Each ingredient in this simple dish plays an essential part in the overall flavor. The eggs enhance the dough with texture and body. The fresh vegetables cut the dough’s oiliness. And the nuoc tuong provides a deep saltiness that ties all the ingredients together.

According to my aunt Phung who resides in HCMC, bột chiên is more of a light snack than a traditional breakfast food. Perhaps the West’s egg-intensive breakfast ideal has influenced Saigon, or at least District 4.

The Art of Making Bánh Chưng

A questionably appropriate Tet display on Le Loi Street in District 1

Ngự Viên

Ngự Viên—take three.

Slowly, but surely, we’re gonna eat our way through Ngự Viên’s extensive, Hue-inspired menu. Read about our first account here and our second one here.

Cathy’s mom was in town a few weeks back for the Tet holiday and desired traditional Vietnamese rice dishes for lunch. After little debate, Zach, The Astronomer and I decided that Ngự Viên would be the perfect place to satisfy her craving.

We ordered two of our standbys (ca hu kho and goi mit) and tried four new dishes—clockwise from top left: hen xao (54,000 VND), chao tom (30,000 VND each), bo xoi xao toi (21,000 VND), and canh chua tien (48,000 VND).

Like all standbys ought to be, the ca kho and goi mit were superb. By the way, the best way to distinguish a good ca kho from a great one is the uncontrollable desire to sop up every last bit of caramelized goodness with rice once the fish has disappeared. Mmm, boy!

Of the new dishes, the canh chua tien was a true standout. While the most common version of canh chua (sour soup) is mildly tangy and heavy on pineapples, this version was spicy and contained thin slices of rough bamboo shoots. The soup’s fiery hotness came courtesy of some strong chili powder that really hit the back of my throat.

The hen xao—small clams sauteed with glass noodles and herbs—were served with sesame rice crackers as an appetizer. Perhaps a little too similar to goi mit to be eaten side-by-side, the hen xao was tasty nevertheless.

The chao tom—grilled shrimp paste wrapped around sugarcane—took a good 45 minutes to arrive because Ngự Viên makes them from scratch.  Fair enough, but our waiter insisted on coursing the meal with the slowpoke dish second.  As a result, we spent over half an hour staring at an empty table after polishing off our appetizers. Timing aside, the chao tom were definitely good. However, at 30,000 each, they were not worth the price or wait.

Cathy desired some greenery and ordered the bo xoi xao toi. None of us knew what bo xoi was and our waiter could not provide any insight. The leafy greens tasted like a cross between morning glory, spinach, and bok choy and were slightly bitter. Sauteed in copious cloves of garlic and oil, the mysterious bo xoi served its purpose well.

Bánh Cuốn

January 31, 2008
Cuisine: Vietnamese

Nguyen Khoai Street
District 4, Ho Chi Minh City

Phone: none
Website: none

Bánh Cuốn (10,000 VND)

Due to the tropical heat in Saigon, it seems as though life actually happens during the edges of the day. And by life, I mean food. The best (i.e. freshest and most varied) stuff is sold either early in the morning or after the sun sets. Lunchtime equals nap time in these here parts.

Now that I’ve properly quit my day job, I’ve started to venture out at night to try the evening offerings. One of my favorites thus far has been bánh cuốn.

Making bánh cuốn requires a delicate touch. A rice flour batter is spread thinly over a hotplate to cook for a few scorching seconds. Removing the ever-so-thin crepe from the steaming plate takes precision and patience. If the process is rushed, one ends up with a ball of rice flour rather than a dainty crepe. Next, the crepe is stuffed with a prefabbed mixture of ground pork and woodear mushrooms seasoned with ground black pepper and fish sauce. The crepe is then folded up like an egg roll.

The six rolls of bánh cuốn on my plate were topped with blanched bean sprouts, basil, fried shallots, cha (pork forcemeat), nem chua (fermented pork forcemeat), banh dau (deep-fried mung bean cake), and a healthy dousing of nuoc cham.

The bánh cuốn were so fresh that the heat from the griddle were still with them. Ahh… The crepe was light and held the meaty contents well. The nem chua was decent as far as sour salami goes, but I much preferred the plain ‘ol cha. The banh dau was a spongy doughnut that soaked up the nuoc cham nicely.