Archive for the 'Lau' Category

Central (H)eating in the Central Highlands: Quán Bình Dân 07 – Đà Lạt

Quan Binh Dan 07 - Dalat Vietnam

After spending a week in Saigon visiting family and taking advantage of the city’s unbelievable dining scene, The Astronomer and I hopped a flight to Dalat. Nestled in the mountains of the Central Highlands, Dalat offered a breath of fresh air, literally and figuratively, from Saigon’s frenetic pace.

Here, temperatures were markedly cooler, roads were downright spacious, and the terrain was hilly and green. It’s no wonder that newly wedded Vietnamese honeymoon here in droves. Fresh air is romantic!

Quan Binh Dan 07 - Dalat Vietnam

One of the highlights of our side trip was the meals that we shared at Quan Binh Dan 07, a scruffy local restaurant specializing in cac mon nhau (drinking food).

The sounds of boisterous revelers, along with the irresistible scent of meat sizzling on the grill, beckoned to The Astronomer while on his evening run. He was so excited to have stumbled upon such a find that we dined there that very night.

Quan Binh Dan 07 - Dalat Vietnam

The restaurant was mostly packed when we came in, with small groups of friends and families huddled around communal hotpots and tabletop grills. This sort of fare is popular throughout Vietnam, but here in the crisp mountain air, it seemed less out of place.

Continue reading ‘Central (H)eating in the Central Highlands: Quán Bình Dân 07 – Đà Lạt’

Ancestor Veneration

In addition to spending time with Ba Sau (my grandma’s sister) in Saigon, The Astronomer and I also see a lot of Ong Ty (my grandpa’s brother). Ong Ty lives in the house that my mom grew up in on Ly Chinh Thang Street in District 3. How cool is that? We usually meet him for lunch, but sometimes Ong Ty invites us to his home for special occasions, namely ancestor veneration.

Ancestor veneration is one of the most unifying aspects of Vietnamese culture, as practically all Vietnamese regardless of religious denomination (Buddhist or Christian) have an ancestor altar in their home or business.

In Vietnam, traditionally people didn’t celebrate birthdays (before western influence) but the death anniversary of a loved one was always an important occasion. Besides an essential gathering of family members for a banquet in memory of the deceased, incense sticks are burned along with hell notes, and great platters of fruit and food are made as offerings on the ancestor altar, which usually has pictures of the deceased.

These offerings and practices are done frequently during important traditional festivals, the starting of a new business, or even when a family member needs guidance or counsel, and is a hallmark of the emphasis Vietnamese culture places on filial duty.

Earlier this year we recognized my grandfather’s father and a couple weeks back there was a gathering for my grandfather’s mother. My American upbringing becomes very apparent during these occasions because I’m not too handy with the joss sticks or bowing on my knees (if you know what I mean). As a result, I pretty much just watch from the sidelines, which isn’t a big deal.

The most notable difference between ancestor veneration in Saigon and back in America is the day of the week it takes place. In Vietnam, ancestor veneration is held on the exact death anniversary, while in America, my family gathered on Saturdays and Sundays due to jobs and other commitments.

After everyone pays their respects to the deceased by lighting joss sticks and bowing on their knees, we feast! Here’s a close-up of the altar.

Another big difference between ancestor veneration here and back home is the food. Back in California, grandma makes the meal from scratch, but in Saigon, Ong Ty calls in the caterers. I’m pretty sure that the majority of Vietnamese households still make their spread from scratch, but Ong Ty’s wife isn’t much of a cook.

Dinner started off with a platter of head cheese and force meats, mostly of piggy origins. The usual suspects were present including cha, nem chua, ham and xa xiu. It was a little funny eating cold cuts without its good friend banh mi, but tasty nevertheless.

Next came a seafood soup with white asparagus. I’m not that enthusiastic about gelatinous soups, but the Vietnamese love the stuff.

My favorite dish of the evening was comprised of flaky fillets of white fish battered, fried and topped with a tomato-based sauce and fresh watercress. I have only encountered this dish at Ong Ty’s house—a most rare Vietnamese dish indeed.

Is a multi-course Vietnamese meal truly complete without hot pot? I think not. This seafood-based broth was served with chrysanthemum leaves and egg noodles.

And lastly, a dessert of Vietnamese JELLO (thach). Ong Ty and his wife also packed goody bags for all the guests to bring home that included xoi (sticky rice) and fruits.

Oh, and I almost forgot to mention. Ancestor veneration is sort of like a frat party (that ends at eight o’clock). Okay, not really. But there are a lot of beers involved. It’s true both in Vietnam and America that a little alcohol makes family gatherings a lot more sprightly.

Lẩu Cá Kèo Mưa Rừng – Ho Chi Minh City

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October 13, 2007
Cuisine: Vietnamese

4 Su Thien Chieu Street
District 3, Ho Chi Minh City

Phone: 9307064
Website: none

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Lau Ca Keo La Vang – Keo Fish Hotpot (50,000 VND)

The Astronomer proclaimed today that the neighborhood surrounding the EMW office in District 3 offers the best Vietnamese food in the city in terms of variety and value. Although I never thought about it before, I think the boy’s got a point!

Whereas District 1 caters to the touristy/ex-pat crowd and District 4 is slightly on the down-home side, District 3 strikes a perfect balance between the two—baby bear if you will.

To be fair, we’ve only explored a handful of Districts—1, 2, 3, 4, 7, 10 and Binh Tan. But from what we’ve seen and tasted, D3 is tops.

A three minute walk from the office is the city’s unofficial lau ca keo row. Su Thien Chieu Street is barely 100 meters long, but has at least five multi-story eateries serving up this variety of hotpot.

The Astronomer and I headed to “the row” for lunch last Saturday after an unsuccessful “vintage” shopping excursion nearby. Although this is a little off topic, it must be stated that the selection of clothes in Vietnam is terrible. Carrying on… From the scores of identical ca keo joints, we chose Mua Rung because the crowd inside was rowdy and the restaurant’s name/theme was especially fabulous—Rain forest!

Whereas the majority of restaurants in town would score a big fat zero in Zagat’s “atmosphere” category, Mua Rung actually puts some effort into their ambiance. The walls of the main dining room are decked out in plaster molded foliage, while “rain” constantly falls along the entrance. My personal favorite touch is the ceiling water misters, which brings about a foggy forest feel. The only thing missing is little monkeys carrying disease, swinging all over the place.

The menu at Mua Rung is extensive and strictly in Vietnamese. While I tend to avoid restaurants offering more than their greatest hits, I think it’s the nature of these hotpot spots to offer a lot of variety for boozers’ sakes. The Astronomer and I stuck with the house specialty, lau ca keo la vang. A small pot goes for 50,000 VND, while a larger one costs 80,000 VND.

Our waitress placed a portable stove atop our table on high heat with a large pot of broth on top. The broth boiled for five minutes, while she brought over a plate of vermicelli rice noodles and a pile of greens. The best part was when our waitress brought the ca keo to show me they were super fresh (i.e. still very much alive). They were jumpy little buggers and a few even managed to escape their container! The waitress scooped up the runaways and rinsed them before adding them into our boiling hotpot.

The broth is the most important component of a good lau and this one was right on the money. The la vang, which I am unable to find much information about, creates a broth tinged with sweet and sour notes. The citrus-y broth ranked high in both my and The Astronomer’s book.

The greens were decent and a good contrast to the steaming broth and fresh noodles. There was one especially bitter leaf out of the bunch that I was not a fan of. It was probably rau dang, which actually translates to “bitter green.” Figures.

The ca keo were plentiful and tasty as far as little fishes go. Once we got the hang of removing the flesh from the bones, they were more pleasurable to eat. However, neither The Astronomer or I could stomach the little fish heads.

Lau ca keo was a great introduction to hotpotting in Saigon. I think an eel hotpot without rau dang is next on my “to try” list.

Click here for a good Vinglish article about lau ca keo.

Mien & Dung's Wedding

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Vietnamese weddings are so damn cool.

I attended my first one, and sadly probably my last, a couple weeks ago at the Saigon Star 2 Restaurant. Mien, my grandma’s sister’s son’s daughter, got hitched to a fellow named Dung and they were nice enough to invite me to the celebration. The couple officially tied the knot in a Catholic ceremony a day earlier, so this evening was dedicated to partying.

The two hour reception was filled with great company and plenty of cold beers—Heineken was the bia of choice.

I arrived a bit on the late side and was greeted by the bride and groom on the staircase leading up to the banquet hall. I congratulated them on their big day, we snapped a picture with the professional photographer, and then I made my way into the dining room. I’m pretty bad with estimations, but I’d say there were somewhere around 200 guests at the shindig.

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The evening began with dancers performing a little number in silky, all-white ensembles. I initially thought they were Mien or Dung’s friends, but my aunt informed me that they were hired by the restaurant.

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Following the dancers, the bride and groom were introduced to the enthusiastic crowd.

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Next, came the in-laws—here is my Uncle Hai and Aunt Phung.

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Following the introductions, the bride and groom performed a champagne ritual. Ten minutes and three bottles of champagne later, the glasses were finally filled. Unfortunately, the bride, groom, and in-laws were the only ones who got to drink the bubbly. The dry ice brought about a mystical element to the ceremony don’t you think?

After the champagne came the food! The six-course feast was served family-style and was very tasty as far as wedding food goes.

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Appetizers: Onion Salad (goi hai san kieu Thai), Stir Fried Vegetables with Cashews (so diep xao hat dieu), Crab Dumplings (cang cua bach hoa)

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Seafood Soup

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Steamed Shrimps in Young Coconut

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Banh Hoi

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Thit Heo Quay

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Seafood Hot Pot – lau Thai hai san

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Tropical Fruit Gelatin

The last wedding I attended had a buffet dishing up seven layer dip and crudités; this was definitely a giant step up. Although palatable, the food was far less memorable than the festivities. Standouts include the crab claw dumplings on the appetizer platter and the tropical fruit Jello dessert.

As guests dined, the happy couple made their rounds and greeted each table. They must have been smashed by the end of the night because every table raised their glasses.

And somewhere between all the boozing and food, the Karaoke started up and went on for the rest of the evening. My Uncle Minh sang the first song—he was completely toasted.

Saigon Star 2
Tan Binh District, Ho Chi Minh City
Phone: 088117844

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