My mother’s hometown and its fabulous foods (Part Two)

The cuisine in Central Vietnam, I would say, one of the best! We have Hanoi, famous with its pleasantly elegant Northern taste, Saigon and Mekong Delta represent generously the sweetness, and we have Huế, our former capital before 1945 in Central, renowned for its delicate recipes, irresistible spice…especially those reserved only for the royal family. Quảng Ngãi seemingly combined a little bit of everything in their cuisine and at the same time – still remained very genuinely rustic. Three days in my mother’s hometown, not enough for me to discover everything, I do hope to come back one day!

1. Eel Porridge

Eel is a popular fish not only in Vietnam but also widely in Asia. To be honest, I don’t like eel much, firstly it looks like snake, secondly eel could live in those places that you never ever imagine, but…if you know how to cook, one of the best! The eel porridge is probably not a typical dish in Quảng Ngãi, but it has been adapted and localized , very tasty! The yellow color of turmeric make it more appealing, especially when adding some pickled garlic, it’s tastier!

Eel porridge and pickled garlic, traditional rice cracker on the left
Adding rice cracker to many dishes – typical Central eating style!

One day, long in the past, I took some rice cracker, a very traditional “snack” or “side dish” put in my soup, some people at the table look at me and said “typical from Central”. I was born in Saigon, South Vietnam, but learnt that habit – adding rice cracker to some liquid dish, from my mother.

2. Roll with pork meat 

Wrap and Roll. There is a popular restaurant in Saigon named “Wrap & Roll”. Wrap everything in a rice paper –  from veggies, fragrant herbs to meat, fish…roll it, dip it in some sauce and enjoy it! We call it “Cuốn”, i.e wrap! So here I wrap some veggies, some fragrant herbs, even slices of green sour mango with pork, roll it…

Special for “Wrap & Roll” here are these slices of pork meat with skin at two ends…
Put what we like on rice paper…wrap it
Roll it…
Dip it…
and enjoy it!

Wrap the pork meat with the skin at two ends together with veggies…actually comes from Đà Nẵng, a bigger city near by, just two hours by train. To be honest I never heard about it before, never tried until this trip! What makes this “wrap” special is the pork meat with skin at two ends…it’s not a secret how to make it but it requires some skill!

To prepare the pork meat with skin at two ends is quite simple, please check video for more instructions!

3. Don 

“Don” – it pronounces like “Zon” in Vietnamese, it’s super tiny clams, very popular in Quảng Ngãi, like No 1 dish for the locals, my mom moved to Sài Gòn in her early 20s, after decades she still missed “zon”, it’s always served with rice crackers.

Don – tiny clams from the rivers, available only from Feb. to August.
Simple dish – clams cooked in the boiling water and served as soup
One of the most typical, traditional dish  in Quảng Ngãi
It looks simple but the smell from Don…is quite irresistible
Eating “Don” is impossible without rice crackers

People originally from Quảng Ngãi, very attached to this simple dish, because “Don” used to be one of the most favorites meals in everyone’s childhood, like family dish, kids love it, so it’s like a childhood memory.

4. Porridge with pork internal organs (Cháo lòng) 

This porridge with pork meat, internal organs…popular in South, especially in Sai Gon, it could be a good meal at anytime for many people. What people like the most are the internal organs, the sausage made of the intestines, liver, heart, tongue…Quảng Ngãi is famous for their pork meat, so no surprise why this dish is one of the favorites not only for the locals but also for the visitors.

Porridge and rice crackers again!
Love the feeling to bite the half soft haft crispy rice cracker when eating like this

Cháo lòng used to be one of my favorites, but I skip it for years , from time to time I do enjoy it and have to admit the one I had in my mother’s hometown – the best. It’s much “lighter” than in Sài Gòn where the porridge has been prepared in different way – more dense and much darker as they add the fresh pork blood to the porridge during cooking.

5. Fried sticky rice with grilled chicken sauce 

It’s actually a side dish, I was recommended to taste the grilled “mountain chicken” so we – a group of 10, went there in the afternoon for lunch. The open place right at the foot of the mountain. The menu offers different dishes but we order only chicken and side dish to go with chicken. But by somehow most of us like the side dish very much! Very tasty, crunchy, a bit sweet, a bit spicy, simply yummy!

Side dish – fried sticky rice with chicken sauce

6. Beef noodles in Central style (Bún bò) 

This dish is different from widely popular beef noodles “Phở”, it’s also noodles with beef (!?) but seasoned with different spices, the key and most important ingredients to make this dish so fragrantly appealing are the fermented shrimp paste, available only in Central, and lemongrass, but good pork meat from the local market also another big plus for this dish in Quảng Ngãi.

and the rice cracker can be served upon request!
I never forgot to add some pieces of rice crackers to my beef noodles

7. Pancake (Bánh xèo) 

Pancake or more common name in Vietnamese “Bánh xèo”, one of the most traditional dishes in Mekong Delta, in the South, one of the favorites, the name “Xèo” comes from the sound when it has been fried on a big frying pan, it’s big and very thin filled with different things from mung beans, pork meat, egg, mushroom…in Central “bánh xèo” much smaller, thicker, not much fillings but tastes good!

Bánh xèo in the making…filled with one or two small shrimps, some sprouting
Here we go some bánh xèo already to serve…it looks like omelet ?
the best way to eat is to wrap with some veggies, dip in sweet, spicy fish sauce and enjoy!
Bánh xèo in Mekong Delta – much thinner, much bigger!

8. Grilled wrap (Ram) 

Ram –  this’s another name of  grilled or fried “wrap”, one of the favorites for the locals, my cousin loves to prepare it at home for Lunar New Year or family gathering. The way of eating “ram” is quite interesting – wrap in wrap! Ram is filled with well-seasoned shrimp, pork and green onion, then it’s either grilled or fried, when eating we wrap it in another rice paper together with veggies, dip in some sauce…

Small wrap filled with shrimp and green onion
when eating we wrap it in another wrap with veggies…
Beside “wrap in wrap” we still enjoy grilled, grilled beef in lolot leaves
and as usual wrap everything in rice paper, dip and eat!

9. Bánh bèo (Water fern cake) 

The image of “don”, “ram” together with this “bánh bèo” represent partly the cuisne of my mother’s hometown, they are so typical for Quảng Ngãi, like baguette in Paris or pizza in Naples! People who live far away from home always suffer a nostalgia for these simple but irresistible dishes.

Bánh bèo served in tiny bowl, topped with special sauce, roasted peanuts…

“Bánh” means “cake” in Vietnamese (either sweet or salted ones), so what does it mean “bèo”? It could be “water fern” as the cake has similar shape of water fern, but  “bèo” could mean metaphorically “cheap”, as we have a proverb “cheap as water fern”. In fact “bánh bèo” is really cheap, in a good way!

Many people are addicted to this “water fern”, filled with good sauce on the top, served with good fish sauce, special chili sauce, I can finish easily a dozen of small bowls, or even more, like in the photo. Bánh bèo in Quãng Ngãi is different from the other regions, especially if compare with “bánh bèo” in Huế or in Mekong Delta.

I don’t know what could be record but easy to eat 10a dozen at once!

I stayed in Quảng Ngãi for 3 days. I visited my relatives that I haven’t seen for long. I’m so happy as I was able to come back to my mother’s hometown, to witness the new life, but at the same time to accept the loss…

I took a train from Quảng Ngãi to Đà Nẵng, about two hours on the road. Đà Nẵng is big city with one of the most beautiful peninsulas in the world , many luxury resorts and Hội An, the famous old town – one of the most visited places in Vietnam. Hope I can share it with you soon!


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