Shrimp hotpot from south Vietnam balances sweet, sour and spicy

Served hot: When the shrimp hotpot was introduced in Hà Nội, water lilies and yellow burrheads had to be imported from the south.
Served hot: When the shrimp hotpot was introduced in Hà Nội, water lilies and yellow burrheads had to be imported from the south. PHOTO: QUAN AN NGON

(VIETNAM NEWS) - It is a feature of Vietnamese culinary culture that people identify the best fruit or dish as belonging to a particular locality.

This characteristic extends to dishes and restaurants, and to dishes and chefs. So, this restaurant serves the best pho or bun cha, or this lady makes the best xoi.

And with the ongoing trend of hotpots, there has been an explosion in the variety of this communal soup served in eateries across the country, and new star chefs have emerged in this category.

One of these chefs is Nguyen Thi Cuc, a native of Bien Hoa City, which neighbours Ho Chi Minh City. And the dish that has fetched her some well deserved fame is the shrimp hotpot, already identified as a Bien Hoa delicacy.

Ms Cuc, known popularly to the locals as co Nam (Aunt Nam), was born into a very poor family and had to work as a kitchen assistant for local restaurants since she was very small.

“She had an aptitude for cooking. This, along with the experience of working for many eateries has now made her a famous cook in the area, even though she has never attended any cooking class,” said Le Thi Thanh Nguyet, Ms Cuc's daughter.

Now here: Once a particularly southern delicacy, people in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City can enjoy the shrimp hotpot in a few eateries . PHOTO: QUAN AN NGON

The shrimp hotpot created by Ms Cuc comprises broth made by boiling pork bones; different kinds of local vegetables and shrimp, which is boiled before being added to the broth.

A sip of the broth is by itself a delight. A light, pleasantly sour taste turns spicy on the tongue, followed by the sweetness of shrimp.

Ms Cuc is very particular about what makes for an authentic shrimp hotpot. The sourness has to come from tamarind, nothing else.

“Without tamarind, it is no longer a real shrimp hotpot. And the tamarind used must be the ones that have a yellowish brown colour,” said Ms Nguyet.

Culinary expert Le Thi Kim Chi is a Bien Hoa native famous for her association with the Quan An Ngon chain of restaurants. She said: “The shrimp hotpot is very popular in the south. It may have been modified from canh chua (sour soup - vegetable broth with tamarind).”

In the south, the ingredients to create a sour taste for the are plentiful and easy to get. If not in their own garden, people can get them from the local market - tamarind, starfruit or green, sour mango. Adding any of these fruits to a vegetable broth makes a canh chua, a daily accompaniment to meals.

Said Ms Kim Chi: “Shrimp hotpot is one of the delights in Dong Nai Province (Bien Hoa is the provincial capital).”

“The regional feature can be seen in vegetables used in this hotpot, like water lilies and keo neo, yellow burrhead. When I introduced the shrimp hotpot in Hanoi, I had to import these two ingredients from the south, because they are not available locally.”

N indicates the nitrogen level of the fish sauce. Between 25 deg N and 30 deg N is considered the high-grade type, and that over 30 deg N is seen as the optimal fish sauce.

Fish sauce is an important ingredient in a quality shrimp hotpot. “For this dish, cooks often choose fish sauce 40 deg N to boost the aroma,” said Ms Kim Chi.

“As small children, we do not remember exactly when my mother first made this hotpot, but it may be decades ago,” said Ms Nguyet.

“It was only in 1992 that my family opened the very first restaurant serving shrimp hotpot in Bien Hoa City. It was named after my mother and father, Lau Tom Nam Ri (Nam Ri Shrimp Hotpot) restaurant.”

“As there was only one restaurant this in the old days, the restaurant became so well-known that this type of hotpot is also known as Lau Tom Nam Ri now,” said Ms Kim Chi.

Nowadays, people in HCM City and Hanoi can also enjoy this dish. Cuc's family has expanded their business with two more restaurants.

Ms Nguyet, who manages the three shrimp hotpot restaurants along with other siblings, said: “Since it opened in 1992, the restaurant was always crowded. So, some years ago, we decided to open another two. Many people from other regions also come here to enjoy this dish and learn to make it at home.

“My mother, who is in her sixties now, is still the one who prepare the ingredients and the main cook at the restaurants. My siblings and I only look after the management side.”

Crustacean crunch: Chao tom, grilled minced shrimp wrapped around a sugarcane stick, originated in the upper Hue region, but is popular nation-wide, now. PHOTO: EMDEP.VN

Other shrimp delights

Chao tom, grilled minced shrimp, originating from the upper Hue region, is another dish that has gained in popularity across the country.

This is dish yet another one that has moved from royal realms to the common man.

To have a good chao tom, which has a somewhat crunchy taste, the cook has to pound shrimp with a mortar and pestle by hand. The minced shrimp is then mixed with minced fish and pork fat. The mixture of shrimp, fish and pork fat is then rolled into a paste. The cook then sticks the mixture to a thin piece of sugarcane which then serves as the skewer when grilling.

The finished chao tom looks very much like nem lui, a dish also part of the erstwhile royal cuisine. While nem lui delights fans with an intriguing aroma of grilled minced pork and lemongrass, chao tom has a sweeter taste of seafood because the shrimp absorbs the additional sweetness and fragrance from the grilled sugarcane stick.

Chao tom, like other meat dishes, is served with rice-based food like banh trang, rice wrapper or banh hoi, rice vermicelli bundles topped with scallions or garlic and dipping sauce served with fresh herbs.

Shrimp hotpot is served at:

Quan An Ngon Restaurants

18, Phan Boi Chau Street, Hanoi. Phone: 04 3942 8162

34, Phan Dinh Phung Street, Hanoi. Phone: 04 3734 9777

Floor 1, 25T2 Hoang Dao Thuy Street, Hanoi. Phone: 04 3556 0866

B2 Vincom Royal City, 72A Nguyen Trai Street, Hanoi. Phone: 04 6664 0066

Lau tom Nam Ri Restaurant

121 Vo Thi Sau Street, Bien Hoa City. Phone: 061 3822 283

20/3B Cach Mang Thang 8 Street, Bien Hoa City. Phone: 061 3842 107

142 Tran Nhan Ton Street, 2, District, Ho Chi Minh City.  Phone: 08 6660 5999

Chao Tom is served at:

Quan An Ngon Restaurant

18 Phan Boi Chau Street, Hanoi. Phone: 04 3942 8162

34 Phan Dinh Phung Street, Hanoi. Phone: 04 3734 9777

Co Do Restaurant

367, An Duong Vuong Street, District 5, Ho Chi Minh City. Phone: 08 38350 442