Baby Steps into the Cuisine – 10 of 365

Today's Selections

A coworker’s restaurant cooking up the local specialties is a short taxi ride away from the westernized world of my apartment tower.  What better place to really jumpstart a culinary journey deep into Vietnam than at a restaurant owned by an acquantance who can walk me through the cuisine.  This morning my friend Crystal and I set out to try something new and most importantly to support our fellow coworker and her year old restaurant.   The name of this busy little shop, Trường Nguyễn, combines our coworker’s family name along with that of her friend and co-owner’s, and storefront is a short walk down an alley at 66/5 Phạm Ngọc Thạch in Saigon’s District 3.

Our friend and coworker, Ms. Diep, welcomed us at the door and we asked her to just dish up whatever she thought we might enjoy from the day’s selections inside the glass case.   She asked how local we wanted to go and luckily she understood I am taking baby steps towards the more hardcore menu items.   Two plates of steamed rice with vegetables, sliced cucumbers, and tomatoes arrived along with a clear spicy broth containing chunks of pumpkin.   Right behind came our true introduction to Trường Nguyễn…small plastic dishes of fish and pork.  Lets’ begin!

Caramelized Fish

Ms. Diep explained each food atop our formica table along with their ingredients.   Imagine a piece of pork much like a thin boneless chop.   Now add a marinade of soy sauce, bone marrow, sugar, and fish sauce.   Pan fry the meat until the sauce forms a nice thin reddish glaze,  and this delicious piece of sườn ram imparts a combination of salty and sweet with every bite.

We must take a short detour here and explain the basis for so much of the cooking in Vietnam (as well as other countries across southeast Asia)…fish sauce.  To fully understand nước mắm as it is known locally is to fully appreciate Vietnamese cuisine.  Anchovies and salt placed in wooden vats ferment and after several months of pressing  yield a slow dripping liquid.  This salty liquid is then recycled back into the vat and the fermentation process continues until about six months have passed.  When ready for bottling, the fish sauce is rather foul smelling, but mixing it with other ingredients such as sugar and lime cuts its maladorous air and sweetens the overly fish/salt taste.  Nước mắm is about as common an ingredient in the Vietnamese kitchen as ketchup, salt and pepper are to an American.

Now back to the other tiny bowls on the table…Ms Diep selected two fish dishes as well and the first was tiny pieces of fish called cá bống kho tộ.   Whatever fish this had been is about the same size as an anchovy and is cooked in a caramel made from sugar, fish sauce and lots of pepper.   Each bite is a combination of savory and sweet much like the coating on a piece of caramel popcorn along with tiny bones.

Fish with Tomato

A second fish dish called cá chim arrived in small bowl of tomato sauce .  One of the ingredients is…surprise…fish sauce mixed with the tomato, onions and sugar.  The sweet firm flesh of the butterfish yields so easily to the poke of chopsticks and mixes so nicely with the diverse range of flavors.   Imagine spoonfuls of steamed white rice mixed with this tart and sweet sauce as well.

Ms. Diep explained that all her ingredients are bought fresh daily at the Phạm Văn Hai Market right there nearby in District 3.   MSG is not even a concept at the restaurant and why would Ms. Diep’s recipes need it anyway?  Her ingredients are so fresh and sauces so tasty that no unhealthy flavor enhancers are even needed.  A spicy dish of kimchee rounded out our meal and added some nice fiery contrast to the  mostly sweet dishes.

Two of us dined for about $4 total on all this food.   Thank you Ms. Diep!  You have whetted my appetite even more for dozens of meals yet to come.

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Categories: Vietnamese Food

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