Rustic countryside food full of delightful flavour
Ca phao – garden egg – is as important to Vietnamese as kim chi is to Koreans. It is a type of fruit that is often salted and served as a side dish in Vietnamese meals.
Every Vietnamese knows the words to this folk ditty: From this far-off place I long for my hometown//for a bowl of morning glory soup//a cup of garden eggs//macerated in soybean paste.
Golden skin: A chicken grilled in clay pot, served with rau ram (laksa leaves) and cucumbers at Mon Ngon Sai Thanh Restaurant in Ha Noi. — VNS Photo Bao Hoa
It depicts a typical Vietnamese meal back in the poor old days when we were lacking all sorts of necessities. No meat, no fish, not even eggs – just vegetables and rice.
Salted garden egg adds flavour to the rather bland taste caused by the lack of protein in such simple meals. Its salty taste seems to sweeten the rau muong (morning glory) or rau mong toi (malabar spinach) soup, and its crunchy texture makes each chew more enjoyable.
Dozens of variations of the garden egg dish have been created over the years. Goi ca phao thit be (garden egg salad with veal) is one of those spin-off dishes that I found rather impressive.
If garden eggs and veal are the main ingredients of the dish, the sweet-and-sour sauce is the star.
The fruits and meat are cut into thin slices, mixed together with the sauce and strongly-flavoured herbs of lemongrass, fish mint, mint, pepper, red chili and garlic. The mixture is then placed in a crispy thin slice of banh trang me (sesame rice cracker) and served as an appetizer.
Multicoloured feast: Goi ca phao thit be (garden egg salad with veal) dish at Mon Ngon Sai Thanh Restaurant in Ha Noi. — VNS Photo Bao Hoa
Take a small piece of sesame rice cracker, use chopsticks to pick up a portion of salad, place it on your piece of cracker then enjoy the whole piece together. Reaching a fine combination of sweetness and sourness that is neither too little nor too much, the sweet-and-sour sauce heightens the flavours of other ingredients and leaves a pleasant sweet aftertaste on your tongue.
As you chew, the soft slice of veal, crunchy slice of garden egg and crispy piece of sesame rice cracker preserve the sweet and sour flavours in your mouth for a little longer after you swallow the herbs. The fresh odors of lemongrass and mint balance the sweetness – but be cautious with fish mint: its smell is a delight for some people but fishy for others.
Chicken grilled in clay pots
Recently at the newly-opened Mon Ngon Sai Thanh Restaurant, located at No 59A on the capital city’s Huynh Thuc Khang Street, I was served the salad as an appetizer, followed by a ga nuong lu (chicken grilled in clay pot) entree. I found that the two dishes complement each other well since I was expecting something a bit greasy after enjoying the light salad.
The technique of grilling chickens in big clay pots came from the southwestern region of Viet Nam, according to culinary expert Le Kim Chi of the Quan An Ngon Restaurant chain in Ha Noi.
The southwestern way: Chickens being grilled in a clay pot, with charcoal burning at the bottom of the pot. — Photo vivuhanoi.com
“Ovens weren’t available in the old days, so the southwestern people took advantage of the clay pots – an everyday item in every family – to cook their chickens,” she said.
Chickens will be stuffed with lemon leaves and green onions and seasoned on the outside before being hung near the top of a clay pot. Charcoal will be put at the bottom, and the pot will be covered well so that heat from the charcoal will radiate evenly.
The result is ideal, pinky moist on the inside, crunchy on the outside, an effect that every cook aims to master.
“The older southwestern generations would take a portion of rice and grilled chicken to the paddy fields and have it at lunchtime,” Chi said.
“They would put some banana leaves on the ground and have lunch right beside their fields.”
“I found [it] to be a very smart way of cooking chickens,” she added.
“It doesn’t only make a tasty dish but has also become a distinctive feature of the southwestern region.”
I like to taste the chicken by itself to enjoy its natural sweetness, but a small dish that contains a mixture of spices, and lemonade sprinkled with shredded lemon leaves is always presented along with the chicken for those who want a stronger taste.
Having chicken with lemon leaves is another Vietnamese culinary tradition. The oil essence in the leaves is said to cool the body after a hot meal.