(VIETNAM NEWS/ANN) - We were in the mood for good southern food last week when we stumbled on to Mon Ngon Sai Thanh (Saigon Cuisine), a newly-opened restaurant in Hanoi.
The restaurant, at 59A Huynh Thuc Khang Street, boasts more than a 100 southern dishes on its menu. We decided we would try something new, and settled on ga nuong xoi chien phong (grilled chicken with fried sticky rice ) and lau thuyan bong (flowers boat hotpot).
These are two of the best southern specialties, but not easy to find in the capital city. We placed our order and waited, our eagerness whetting our appetite. We are glad to report that the wait was worth it.
First, the ga nuong xoi chien phong. Even before the waitress brought it out, we could smell the roasted chicken and the greasy sticky rice, that is served as a big, puffed up ball. Accompanying the dish was two small bowls of chili sauce and soybean sauce. The plate was nicely decorated with chicken in the middle, surrounded by chopped fresh cucumber and herbs with sweet chillies, the colours combining well to make dish look delicious.
While waiting for the waitress to cut the sticky rice ball into small pieces, we tried the chicken leg. The first bite itself was awesome, and it was clear that the chef knew what he was doing. While the skin was salty and crispy, the meat underneath was soft, and every bite was as good as the first. The chicken had been marinated carefully and was tasty even without the sauces. But the sauce, a southern trademark that mixes soy sauce, onion slices and fried tao pho (soya bean curd), adds a lot of taste to the dish, so do try it.
The next bite, of a small piece of fried sticky rice, was yummy as well, with the greasy flavour of sesame oil and the sweetness of the rice mixing well. We recommend eating the fried sticky rice and roast chicken together in one bite.
Sharing with us his passion for ga nuong xoi chien phong, chief chef Nguyen The Anh said: “After six months of practice, overcoming several difficulties, we completed the recipe to make this dish as good as it can get. We are the first to present it. It needs real skill and technique, the perfect temperature and perfect time of marinating, then this decoration, this is art.”
We could not wait to try the next dish, lau thuyen bong, a hotpot.
Most hotpots serve different kinds of meat with vegetables like spinach, beans, mushrooms, swamp cabbage, and so on. But this hotpot is different, so we call it the flower boat hotpot. This is new, even for southerners. When it came to the table, the presentation and decoration was so impressive that we had to spend a few minutes just admiring it.
Alongside a plate of fresh hemibagrus fish, fish sauce with special southern chillies and a big pot of broth was a lovely wooden “boat” laden with a veritable garden of colourful vegetables and flowers.
It has been said that this hotpot represents the beauty of nature and culture in the south of Vietnam. These vegetables and flowers are grown widely on river banks, and this dish evokes images of sailing down the river and enjoying peaceful moments, while picking up the best possible vegetables for the hotpot.
These vegetables, originally from the southwest of the country, are imported to the restaurant by air, well preserved and of high quality, meeting VietGAP (Vietnamese Good Agricultural Practices) standards.
The waitress advised us not to boil the fresh fish slices for too long. There is a small bit of fat right above the flesh, so when you boil it just long enough, they mix just right, and when this is dipped in the fish sauce, the taste is perfect, she explained.
Chef The Anh chipped in with more useful information: “The broth is made very carefully in order to bring the best of the southern spirit into this dish. To get the sweetness of the broth exactly right, we use pig bones to create the stock, and then add tomatoes, taro, bones and head of the fish. This is what helps us create a wonderful hotpot broth just like in the south.”
From the fresh purple cabbage to the tiny, yellow dien dien flowers, beautiful and a touch bitter, the boat is a treasure house. These vegetables and flowers cook in a few seconds and each has its own flavour, so it is good to try these one by one, to savour each separately.
Every bite and sip took me back to the day my mother used to go to the market at 5am to pick up the freshest vegetables to make her unique soup for the family.
With its simple, elegant decoration and friendly staff serving you in old-fashioned southern style, the high quality ingredients imported from their places of origin, food tasty till the last bite and the last drop, we could not have asked for more at Mon Ngon Sai Thanh.