Archive for the 'Sup' Category

New Threads and Breakin' Bread in Chinatown

District 5, also known as Cho Lon, is home to Saigon’s Chinese population. Unlike Chinatowns in America, the shift from neighboring districts into Cho Lon isn’t nearly as dramatic—there isn’t an ornate archway like in Philly. On the surface, District 5 more or less resembles every other district in this sprawling metropolis but with the addition of Chinese characters on storefronts, and maybe a few more steamed bun carts.

The Astronomer and I ventured into Cho Lon to Christmas shop last December, but haven’t found any reason to return since. That was until Hanh, The Astronomer’s Vietnamese teacher, mentioned that she knew a kick-ass tailor in that part of town. Like my good pal Miss Adventure said, getting custom made clothes can be a real treat.

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On one very ordinary weekday evening, The Astronomer, Hanh and I ventured to Cho Lon to get some new threads made. Prior to our visit to the tailor, The Astronomer and I went fabric shopping at Cho Tan Dinh on Hai Ba Trung Street in District 1. I commissioned two dresses to be made—a replica of a dress I purchased in Bangkok and a dress designed by Theory (above) that I took pictures of when I was back in California. The Astronomer commissioned a pair of corduroy pants and a T-shirt. After the tailor took our measurements and collected a deposit, we headed to a nearby che (Vietnamese sweet soups) shop (Che Thanh Tam – 98 Bui Huu Nghia Street, District 5) for a bite to eat.

I grossed out both of my dining companions by ordering the che me den—sweet black sesame seed soup. The che was served warm and resembled tar, but trust me, it really tasted great. The flavors were sweet, full and nutty. It was even better than the cold black sesame seed Jell-O that I enjoyed so much in Hong Kong at the roast goose eatery.

Hanh started off with a faux tofu che that was less fun than a box of rocks. The cubes of “tofu” were made of agar, and even though they were supposed to be flavored with pandan and ginger, they didn’t bring much to the table.

She also ordered a che with bitter beans/nuts because she wanted to introduce The Astronomer and me to something new. Hanh really dug it, but it just wasn’t our cup of tea. Please holla (or just leave a comment) if you know the name of this not so sweet treat.

To supplement her two che, Hanh ordered a bowl of pig brain soup (sup oc heo) from the eatery next door. While I’m down with brains, I don’t really like the consistency of Vietnamese-style sup. The broth is just too gelatinous.

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Not much of a che enthusiast, The Astronomer ordered a bowl of mi vit tiem from Quyen Ky Mi Gia which was located on the other side of the che shop. The noodles and greens arrived in one bowl, while the broth and duck leg came in a clay pot. The ratio of meat to noodles was insanely skewed—The Astronomer had to order an extra helping of noodles to balance it out. After enjoying the lunch lady’s version, this bowl of mi vit tiem paled in comparison, especially since it cost four times as much.

A couple weeks later, The Astronomer and I returned to the tailor to pick up our new apparel. He didn’t get everything right the first time around, but after a few refittings, we left his shop extremely happy clients. Here are my new dresses! And here’s where you should go if you’d like to get some custom made clothes in Saigon (bring a Vietnamese speaker along): Le Phuc – Tailor Extraordinaire (430/1 Phan Van Tri Street, District 5, Ho Chi Minh City. Phone: 0908006538.

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.

Cơm Niêu Sài Gòn – Ho Chi Minh City

January 9, 2008
Cuisine: Vietnamese

6C Tu Xuong Street
District 3, Ho Chi Minh City

Phone: 820-3188
Website: none

Sugar Apple smoothie, Pepsi (Tet edition)

Crab and Asparagus Soup (20,000 VND)

Squid Stuffed with Meat (55,000 VND)

Thit Kho Nuoc Dua (40,000 VND)

Rau Muong Xao Toi (30,000 VND)

Com Dap (20,000 VND)

Mi Xao Mem Hai San (50,000 VND)

Back in July when The Astronomer and I first arrived in Saigon, my aunt and uncle took us to Cơm Niêu Sài Gòn for dinner. Since we were guests, we left the ordering up to our hosts. Our meal was fairly unmemorable because their selections didn’t exactly suit our tastes.

Since our first visit, I read an interview with Anthony Bourdain in The Guardian where he proclaimed Cơm Niêu Sài Gòn as “the one place visitors shouldn’t miss” –

Com Nieu Sai Gon, a restaurant run by the impressive Madame Ngoc, is my favorite place in town. Everything is good – and travelers who’ve followed up on my recommendation to eat there never return unsatisfied. They specialize in clay-pot-baked rice which, after shattering the crockery, they spin, sizzling hot, through the air over the heads of the customers then dress with sauce and scallions. Always my best meal in Saigon. Just order “everything” and eat yourself silly.

I’m on the fence about Bourdain in general, but he convinced me to give Cơm Niêu Sài Gòn a second go. The Astronomer and I, along with our friends Thomas and Zach, returned last week to eat ourselves silly, or something like that.

For the past month, the restaurant has been operating in a refurbished space behind the original Cơm Niêu Sài Gòn. The new digs are seriously beautiful—dark wood, subtle decor, exposed brick walls and comfy chairs. Easily the most well-designed space I’ve seen in all of Saigon. With such a gorgeous interior, we had high expectations for the eats to come.

Zach and Tom started off with the crab and asparagus soup, which they both thought was done well. I find this style of soup a little too gelatinous and mild.

The squid stuffed with meat arrived next. We were expecting something like this, but instead we received chicken taquitos cut into small pieces. Whatta let down! The kitchen should have focused on the entree rather than the garnish. Who needs blossoming carrot and turnip flowers when the actual dish sucks? It’s as if they made these little doodads to distract diners. This was far and away the worst thing I have eaten in the country.

After a rough start, our remaining selections were all executed well. However, like our first experience, nothing was truly memorable. The thit kho was under-seasoned and lacking in the thit department. The morning glory sauteed in garlic was fine, but any fool can execute this dish. I must admit that the com dap was delicious with its combination of scallion oil, nuoc mam and sesame seeds over crispy rice. The seafood pan-fried noodles were good as well, with a fair ratio of protein to carbohydrates.

Cơm Niêu Sài Gòn is the perfect eatery for those squeamish about street food or in dire need of AC and pretty surroundings. I think Zach summed it best when he said, “I’d go here again, but only with my parents to pick up the bill.” Agreed.

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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