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Hai Phong nem square up to competition

Update: January, 05/2015 - 15:36
Hip to be square: A giant seafood spring roll is just enough for lunch. — VNS Photos Truong Vi

The name ‘spring roll' fails to do justice to the port city's hearty square nem, stuffed with crab meat and fried. Nguyen My Ha reports.

If you live in Ho Chi Minh City and Ha Noi, you may be familiar with the popular little nems that are the thumb's size, served in restaurant's and well placed on bamboo sticks around a lantern made of a green pineapple.

If you are used to having nem as a side dish at many sidewalk bun cha eateries around town, they are about double the size of the restaurant nems, but still, it's a roll, then the name spring rolls can still be correct.

Even if you are familiar with the new creations nem hai san, or seafood spring rolls that are fried with bred crumbs outside and seafood mixed with mayonnaise inside and you dip in a mayonnaise with chili sauce, you will be jaw-dropping when you see the real original seafood spring rolls in its hometown.

But if you go further toward the East Sea from Ha Noi and stop in Hai Phong, the city's nem version can not be called a roll at all.

Recommended by a native citizen of Hai Phong, we went to Phuong Mai Restaurant, a place that can sit up to 50 people at a time, with polyester table cloth and plastic chairs. It is the ultimate nem destination in Hai Phong.

Though the menu offers many seafood dishes as Hai Phong being famous as a port city for all of its history. Only about 20 years ago, when mud piled up in the middle of the Red River Mouth then big ships can not come closer to the port, then the city marine population slowly dies out.

Thinking of a port city, you may imagine seeing young sailors in blue and white outfit walking down the streets, but you don't see any of them in the city.

At Phuong Mai Restaurant, a family-own business with its owner inheriting the trade from her mother, Luong Xuan Phuong, 52, says she's proud that her family has been making the best nem for the city for the past 38 years.

Other eateries in town also offer fried nem, but at much lower price, VND30,000 or 40,000 (US$1.5-2). Phuong Mai tops the list by selling at VND70,000 ($3-5) each, including fresh herbs and noodle. Now if you compare the price of this special square nem with the little hotdog, also Hai Phong style (but that's for another food story) costing VND2,000 each, you feel like a millionaire sitting down and having this giant nem.

It's square, like when you wrap something precious in a handkerchief. So when we went to Hai Phong recently, we were all very eager to try the city's signature dish: cha nem cua be, or the Crab Meat Spring Rolls.

Long history: Hai Phong's oldest restaurant serving the spring rolls has been open for nearly 40 years.

If I were to give it another name, I'd say it's a Crab Meat Fried Square. Also deep fried in high heat pan full of oil, the cover of each nem becomes very crispy when eaten.

The reason why people of Hai Phong make their nem so huge, according to Madame Phuong, is to give more stuffing into a piece of rice pancake. "We have lots of shrimps and crab meat inside the roll," she said.

I suggested that because the seafood supply was so much, compared to other cities in the country, so people in Hai Phong want to get as much as seafood into their nem as possible and there you go, the square version was born.

You may feel unfair if you try only one dish at a restaurant and write a review, but really, the giant nem can be all-in-one meal.

When the waiter used a pair of scissors to cut the nem, the inside came out as a big flower in full bloom. You can see everything inside: the pink shrimps and white crab meat, the red julienned carot and brown mushrooms, and the soft glass noodle soaked in the fresh smell of ground pepper.

Bun cha Phuong Mai

Add: 87 Cat Cut St.

Le Chan Dist., Hai Phong City

Tel: (+84-31) 351-0091

Price: VND70,000 -150,000 per person (US$4-8.00)

Comment: Great seafood spring rolls, original style

Usually the nem will be served with grilled pork slices in a bun cha, but seeing that it was so big, we did not order the meat and we were right. After one nem, we all felt full.

Next to our table sat a father with his two children, still wearing the red scarf from school. They were having lunch and the father would go back to work and kids back home.

The restaurant owner looks super rich. She's wearing all things in diamond: the necklace, the earings, the wrist bracelet and two huge single-diamond on each hand. And she had fake nails on. Oh, I almost forgot to mention that her watch also had a full circle of diamond around the surface.

Having the square nem in its home town in Hai Phong reminded me that nine years ago, when we met up with some friends and cooked a dinner in New York City, my friend Hien Dao was making square nem. And she believed she was the first one to ever make this kind of nem in the US.

When I spoke to Madam Phuong, she says she has two grown up children who are working and studying in Texas and they do make their family's delicacy to treat their friends.

"A restaurant serving only nem in the US?" "No, not for now," has been the owner's answer.

So if you ever want to try this delicacy, you still need to make the effort to go to Hai Phong. It's a two hour drive from Ha Noi. — VNS

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