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Sizzling kebabs light up Old Quarter street

Update: September, 11/2012 - 23:12

 

Tough call: Acustomer debates which skewers to place in her basket. The whole eggplant, on her left, would be a particularly worthwhile choice.
 
Street food has many detractors among both foreigners and locals but Elisabeth Rosen reports on a sidewalk spot where the skewers are unforgettable. As the motorbike pulled up to Do Nuong Trung Hoa, I thought my companion had made a mistake.

Surely this street corner where two men crouched over a grill barely larger than a plastic table, behind a crowd jostling for skewers of raw frog and unidentifiable fritters, couldn't be the same place where a previous reviewer enjoyed a "quasi-religious experience".

Even by Vietnamese street food standards, the atmosphere was closer to a meat market than a sit-down restaurant.

 

Hot trend: Once only found in Muslim areas of China, the kebab is now a popular street food. Choose your own, and they'll grill it over hot coals.
But now we were parking our bikes, and my dining companions – veterans of the sidewalk establishment – were filling plastic baskets with uncooked mushrooms and sticks of meat.

Dubiously I picked out one skewer, then another. To say I was surprised with the results would be an understatement. The grill does magical things with vegetables, turning whole raw eggplants into gloriously tender slivers that hold on to traces of smoke and coaxing clumps of enoki mushrooms to melt into velvety strands.

The meat, too, can be sublime. Chunks of beef are grilled until just tender, the outsides tinged with charcoal. Button mushrooms are swaddled in rashers of bacon, a mischievous take on the dumpling that comes out juicy and swollen with flavour.

Of course, I don't believe in magic. But how else to explain the sweetness of the crab, heated in its shell, or the okra, which came off the grill crunchy and tender, as succulent as any meat offering – if not more so? Or that eggplant, bathed in the smoky garlic-scented oil that pervades everything on the platter, at once charred and buttery-soft?

There were a few missteps. Corn on the cob was tough, with only the barest hint of grill marks, suggesting it had not spent long enough on the embers. Pork and salmon skewers were forgettable. Seafood fritters clumped into glutinous rounds, left a fishy aftertaste.

But the skewers that work are spectacular. And the condiments have an international character that puts ketchup and mustard to shame. Given a hasty spin through fiery chili sauce and fresh basil leaves, beef skewers transform into something like a Thai stir-fry, while the same accompaniments lend vegetables cooling on the platter a new jolt of energy. In a nod to yet another Asian neighbour, the food is served alongside generous mounds of kimchi: an ideal respite from the constant heat.

 

Stick-to-your-ribs: restaurant offers a wide variety of kebabs, from okra and corn on the cob to pork, snails and fresh crab.

Do nuong Trung Hoa

Add: 66 Hang Bong, Ha Noi

Hours: From 6pm till late.

Price: VND80,000-200,000

Comment: Pick your own kebabs and watch the chefsgrill them over hot coals.

 
These global references are only fitting given the kebab's origins, which are not, strictly speaking, Chinese. Kebabs have been a culinary staple in the Middle East since ancient times. When Uyghur Muslim traders settled in northwestern China, they brought these skewers of beef and lamb with them. Once only found in the Uyghur ethnic area of Xinjiang, the kebab is now a popular street food all over China, although some of the best are still to be found in Chinese Islamic communities.

Here, the variety of kebabs extends far beyond the sticks of beef and lamb you see on Chinese streets. Grilled snails, earthy and so delicate they slip from their shell with just the faintest nudge. Plates of creamy tofu, edges crisp from the grill. Strips of fluffy white bread, finished with a gloss of honey.

The setting, too, is ideal. The restaurant might not look like a gastronomic temple, but once you're settled in at a plastic table, your hands dripping oil and stained with charcoal grease, an ice-cold beer at the ready to wash down the smoky slabs, you'll understand why the magic wouldn't happen any other way. — VNS

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