Not Just Calamari Anymore

Squid is fast becoming one of my favorite proteins over here.   The abundance of it inspired my latest article for Tuoi Tre newspaper.  Here is a link and the text follows:

Let’s venture offshore deep into Vietnam’s sparkling seas to take a closer look at an ocean going friend very much at home in the local cuisine.  Perhaps I speak for many an American when I say for us the word “squid” conjures up images of murky waters laden with quite scary, ink squirting beasts.  As a matter of fact, the Giant Squid growing up to 13 meters long does little to help matters, though thankfully its more edible brethren clock in no bigger than a human hand.

The slick marketing of squid as “calamari” back home is a bait and switch ploy presenting a more benign image to the seafood eating public.  This calamari is usually so breaded and deep fried that any recognizable vestiges are left behind in the oil filled vat.  I remember once upon a time a friend boldly declaring to our dinner table that the calamari and aioli dipping sauce we had just consumed indeed was squid, and we met what we thought to be a preposterous claim with incredulous stares.

Much to my delight, Vietnamese squid requires no alternative branding and is sold by its given name, muc.  Uncleaned and resting whole in market buckets, dried strips hanging off hooks, flat pieces grilling over hot coals, and sliced rings complementing delicious stir fries all beckon further exploration.  With time having tempered my initial squeamishness, I have even waded up the food chain by preparing my own.

Cleaning squid the first time can prove a daunting task for a Western guy like me.   Grasp the body, twist the head, and pull.  Remove the quill and then dissect the small piece of cartilage attached to the head once the tentacle end is sliced away.   It’s not so difficult after all, and anyone will quickly become a pro.  If home preparation is still a final frontier better left undiscovered, don’t despair for Saigon’s chefs dish up an infinite variety of squid delights.

Tuong Phuong at 72 Ly Tu Trong in District 1 offers a diverse selection of squid preparations ranging from the common lemongrass and chili stir fry to a new one for me, muc xao cai.  Rings of squid meet watercress like greens before taking a swirl around the wok in a sweet buttery sauce.   A liberal sprinkling of black pepper contrasts nicely with the inherent saltiness of the squid.

A sidewalk grill always seems to be smoking in front of District 1’s Quan Loan at 37 Ly Tu Trong Street, and the heat packed muc nuong thai, or grilled squid Thai Style sets mouths ablaze.   A bright red marinade drips off this ocean going vessel as it is laid to final rest in a grill basket atop white hot coals.  Once the squid chars to perfection, the grillmaster uses scissors to create long thin strips out of what was once an entire oval.

Café 91 set in an alley between two towers of The Manor Apartments at 91 Nguyen Huu Canh in Binh Thanh District offers a squid based dish many days of the week.   Muc nhoi thit (Pork stuffed whole squid) topped with a savory tomato sauce and muc xao thom (stir fry pineapple and squid) are two of my go to choices at this neighborhood lunch counter.

Whether stuffed, stir fried, or even dried, Vietnam’s cuisine plates up a variety of muc sure to please even the pickiest of palates.  So go ahead, don’t be shy.  Take a swim around some squid based cuisine and embrace a whole new side of the kitchen well beyond the deep fried calamari so well known in the West.

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Categories: Vietnamese Food

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