Northern delights in southern HCM City
|Northern favourite: Mien mang ga, vermicelli with chicken and bamboo shoots, is one of the most popular dishes at Cat Tuong.
|Souped up: The restaurant specialises in simple dishes such as pho ga, rice noodle soup with chicken.
Homesick for the north, Thuy Ha
finds solace (and food that's less salty and sweet) at Cat Tuong restaurant in central HCM City.After a few weeks of settling down in HCM City and becoming excited about southern cuisine, I started feeling homesick for food from Ha Noi.
I was craving any food with a northern taste, something lighter, less salty and not so sweet.
Luckily, a colleague told me just in the nick of time about Cat Tuong restaurant, where I could find northern food.
Although the restaurant is not fancy, it has a great location in the tourist area around Ben Thanh Market in central District 1.
An old banner hanging above the entrance of the always-busy restaurant says it all: "Specialities from the North."
From the very first time, when I tried a bowl of pho ga (rice noodles with chicken), I knew that I would return.
Since it is near downtown, the customers at Cat Tuong are a mix of locals and foreign tourists. But what I noticed right away was that many of them speak in a northern accent.
"Around 80 per cent of my customers are people of northern origin," said Dang Thu Trang, one of the sisters who has been operating the restaurant since 1995.
Although the restaurant is not full at every hour, it is usually quite busy. The place is among the best spots in town for quality food and reasonable prices.
The simple setting of the restaurant makes it casual and cosy for groups of friends hanging out and chatting over food and drinks.
Cat Tuong is favoured by those who like light food, ranging from noodle soups, bun, pho and mien (rice and vermicelli) to chao (rice porridge) and steamed sticky rice (xoi). These dishes have been on the menu since the restaurant opened nearly 17 years ago.
Bun thit nuong (rice noodles with barbecued pork) or bun cha, as called by northerners, and nem nuong (fried spring rolls), were added to the menu later.
What distinguishes the southern style from the original northern version is the way the pork is prepared.
|Accent on the north: Some 80 per cent of the regulars at Cat Tuong restaurant are from northern Viet Nam. — VNS Photos Thuy Ha
Address: 63 Thu Khoa Huan St, District 1, HCM City
Tel: (08) 38238679
Hours: 5am-2am (the next day)
Prices: VND25,000-45,000 (US$1.2-$2.2)
Comments: A northern-style restaurant in HCM City serving food with an authentic taste. Friendly service and reasonable prices.
In Cat Tuong, the pork is ground or chopped and prepared in balls before being grilled. But the southern style is to grill the meat on skewers.
For some dishes like pho, bun and mien, which are customer favourites at Cat Tuong, the chef prepares the food in front of you.
Like many other shops that serve noodles, the chicken and other ingredients are displayed in a glass-made stall at one side of the entrance.
Mien ga (vermicelli soup with chicken) is one of my favourite dishes. I like to see the chef tossing the noodles while preparing the dish, which can be quite entertaining for customers to watch.
The chickens used at Cat Tuong are raised on farms. A connoisseur can tell they are not industrially raised as the steamed chicken is juicy and sweet-smelling.
Like the chicken served in the northern way, some lemon leaves, cut in thin threads, are added to enhance the flavour. It reminds me of the taste of a Tet traditional dish prepared in the northern way.
Other northern tastes that are found here include mien mang (vermicelli with bamboo shoots and chicken) and chao ga (chicken rice porridge).
I frequently have mien mang ga for a light dinner. The soup's base, naturally sweetened with the essence of pork bone and chicken, is paired with either vermicelli or rice noodles.
For a change, I sometimes order baby eggs instead of chicken. A dish of steamed sticky rice with steamed chicken or ruoc (shredded pork), called cha bong by southerners, is another choice that I sometimes add to my dinner.
Porridge in the northern style is cooked with ground rice, which makes it thick, unlike the southern porridge, which is watery with less rice.
Tia to (perilla) leaves make Cat Tuong's chao ga special, differentiating it from northern-style porridge served in other shops in HCM City.
The flavour of tia to reminds me of the porridge my mom made for me when I was sick. The leaves are believed to help your body expel poison.
The authentic taste has been changed a bit "to please the mix of customers in the south," Trang said, explaining the presence of onion in the rice noodles and the sweet broth.
"I put a little bit of sugar, just a little, into the broth to give it a soft taste," she added.
Northerners who have been living for a long time in HCM City discover that their tastes change a little as they become used to southern food, which can be sweeter and saltier.
But, compared to many other northern-style food shops in the city, Cat Tuong's dishes somehow maintain the northern spirit and authentic taste.
Besides the great food, there is another reason that will make me return: the smiles of the waiters, who were friendly, and welcomed me with a northern accent. — VNS