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Shrimp paste dish kicks up pleasant stink

Update: May, 26/2013 - 03:07
News travels: Although it has been open less than a year, Bun Dau A Vung restaurant has acquired a regular clientele.

A Ha Noi speciality made with rice vermicelli, fried tofu and shrimp paste has become a smash hit at a newly-opened HCM City restaurant. Xuan Hiep checks out Bun dau A Vung to see what all the fuss is about.

I was shocked to discover that an American man, a friend of someone I know, was a fan of mam tom (shrimp paste) sauce, a pungent ingredient often used in Southeast Asian cuisine, especially in Viet Nam.

The sauce "smells like hell but tastes like heaven", the American man reportedly told my friend.

Many Vietnamese dishes, including bun rieu (vermicelli and sour crab soup) and ca phao mam tom (Vietnamese eggplant served with shrimp paste), use sauces made with the paste, which contains fermented ground shrimp and salt.

Whenever I visit Ha Noi, I make sure I always try bun dau mam tom (rice vermicelli and fried tofu and shrimp paste), an authentic northern dish.

Now, I can have it in HCM City. One of the best places to sample bun dau is a restaurant named after the dish.

Located in central District 1, on Luong Huu Khanh Street off the busy streets of Nguyen Thi Minh Khai and Bui Thi Xuan, the two-storey restaurant is easy to find.

Opened late last year, the restaurant, with mid-range prices, has already acquired a regular clientele.

Simply designed and furnished with wooden tables and chairs, it can accommodate up to 150 diners.

On its walls are photos of Ha Noi scenes, which bring back memories of diners' visits to the capital city.

Feast of flavour: The restaurant's dishes include rice vermicelli and fried tofu, boiled half-fat and half-lean pork, and pork pie with green-rice flakes, shrimp-paste sauce and fresh herbs. — VNS File Photos Xuan Hiep

As you enter the restaurant, you can see an area on the right where cooks make tofu, the eatery's signature ingredient.

My friends and I arrived at 6pm, just when the restaurant was beginning to be busy. Ravenous customers, ordering and impatient for the dishes to be served quickly, were making a lot of noise.

We noticed that the main dish was bun dau, rice vermicelli and fried tofu (VND25,000 or US$1.2).

Alternatives were boiled half-fat and half-lean pork (VND35,000 or $1.6), and cha com (pork pie and green rice flakes) at VND40,000 ($1.9). All three can be ordered for only VND55,000 ($2.6).

The rice vermicelli is nothing special, except for its texture and shape, which resembles a large cake. To ensure its authenticity, the bun dau is served with a delicious shrimp-paste sauce imported from northern coastal provinces.

Pursuit of perfection: The tofu at the restaurant is homemade according to the style of northern Bac Ninh Province, where tofu is a specialty.

Sugar and chili should be added to the sauce, and some hot oil from the frying tofu can also be included. And fresh kumquat juice makes it even more mouth-watering.

For those who dislike the odor, you can always choose fish or soya sauce instead of shrimp paste sauce.

The dish is not complete without cucumber and fresh aromatic herbs, including basil and shiso.

Of the three choices, I preferred the fried tofu, which should be eaten hot so you savour the crispy outer coating.

Be careful while eating, though, because the fried tofu and spicy sauce could burn your tongue. Biting into some herbs can help cool off your mouth.

Service was attentive and all the restaurant staff was well-trained.

However, at peak time, from 11.30-12.30am and from 6-8pm, customers have to wait about 15 minutes to be served.

Ton Duc Tho, 30, the restaurant's manager, says the waiting time is due to the frying of the tofu. All the tofu is fried only halfway, then fried fully after it is ordered. This ensures that it is always hot and crispy.

Although some customers prefer fresh tofu, the fried variety is the most popular.

The tofu is at its best when the outside is golden brown and crispy, and the inner part soft, according to Tho.

The restaurant's homemade tofu is the most popular item on the menu and is what keeps customers coming back, he says.

"We teach staff how to make tofu according to the style of northern Bac Ninh Province, where tofu is a specialty," he said. "It looks easy to make, but it's actually rather complex. After experimenting with combining different kinds of soya beans, we finally developed our own recipe."

To accompany the meal, I recommend tra chanh (green tea with lime), a refreshing drink from Ha Noi that also contains ginger. It is a nice complement to the spicy and sour flavour of the shrimp-paste sauce.

At the end of the meal, each customer is provided with chewing gum to clear the smell of the shrimp paste.

I was quite pleased with the meal, as are many others in town. To meet such high customer demand, Tho has opened another restaurant on Ky Dong Street in District 3.

Within a short time, the restaurant, with its highly affordable prices, has become a hit, even during tough economic times.

Now I understand why the American man loved shrimp-paste sauce. It really does taste heavenly. — VNS

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BUN DAU A VUNG RESTAURANT

Address: 53 Luong Huu Khanh Street, Pham Ngu Lao Ward, District 1, HCM City

Tel: 39251939

Hours: 9.30am - 9.30pm

Price range: VND25,000-40,000 (US$1.2-1.9)

Comment: Northern cuisine, homemade tofu, tasty sauces, great drinks, good location, attentive service and reasonable prices.

 

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