Viet Nam News
by Vương Bạch Liên
We were wondering what to eat in Kon Tum city when our driver suggested gỏi lá, a local specialty.
It was the first time we ever heard of gỏi lá, and we hesitated. But our driver, a Kon Tum local, said we hadn’t visited Kon Tum until we had eaten gỏi lá. So we decided to try it.
At the suggestion of the driver, we arrived at Út Cưng restaurant, one of the most famous places in the city to enjoy this local specialty.
The restaurant wasn’t adorned with sophisticated décor and furniture, like many "famous" restaurants in Hà Nội. It looked like many simple restaurants for middle-income clients, with its plastic seats and little wooden tables.
We were welcomed by friendly and smiling owners. “You’re from Hà Nội? How do you know about gỏi lá?" the restaurant’s owner asked in a deep central accent, gesturing eagerly for us to sit.
We were a group of 10 people. The owner suggested we sit around the table on a sedge mat on the floor to sample the dish. We waited a long time because the restaurant owner only began preparing our food when we arrived.
Feast your eyes: Wrapped Gỏi lá looks like artwork. — VNS Photo Bạch Liên
When she finally brought a big tray full of different kinds of leaves and colourful and fragrant dishes to eat, we all said "Wow...."
We finally began to understand Gỏi lá as a dish featuring green leaves, pork, shrimp, sauce, chili and pepper.
“There are 50 different kinds of leaves,” said Nguyễn Băng Trâm, the owner’s daughter.
Our gỏi lá featured familiar vegetables and herbs, like cabbage, lettuce, basil and spring onion, plus lots of rare native plants we did not recognise.
“Some varieties of leaves are hard to find in the market, so my family and I forage for them in the forest early in the morning,” she said.
We were wondering how to eat gỏi lá correctly when Trâm offered to show us how to eat the dish.
“You place a big leaf, such as a sung (fig) or cải (cabbage) leaf, in the palm of your hand in the shape of a funnel, then top it up with your selection of leaves, some boiled pork, some boiled shrimp, and a small piece of green chili. Then you roll it or wrap it all up. You then dip your gỏi lá in your bowl of seasoning or pour some seasoning on it and add an unripe hot red pepper and some grains of salt, ” she explained.
The finished creation she held in her hands was a work of art.
Learning the basics: The restaurant’s owner (first from right) explains how to wrap and eat gỏi lá. — VNS Photo Bạch Liên
Then we understood that eating the dish involves as much ceremony as preparing it.
We were excited to try wrapping and rolling on our own. But making gỏi lá as beautifully as she did was not easy. Hungry, we told ourselves not to pay too much attention to the details, but to just savor the meal, rolling and wrapping as best we could.
We really enjoyed all the different and pleasant tastes combined in gỏi lá: the sweetness of the pork and shrimp, the sourness of the tasty sauce, the spicy chili, and the bitterness of some varieties of leaves. The dish had a uniquely satifying flavour. We all agreed that the seasoned sauce is what makes the dish so successful.
The sauce is made of brewers grains cooked with pounded shrimp, diced pork, eggs, shrimp sauce and fermented rice. The resulting mixture is then cooked into a kind of thick saffron paste, the host explained.
Since many varieties of the leaves used are medicinal herbs, gỏi lá not only graces the palate and satisfies the belly but it is also regarded as a sure-fire cure for high blood pressure, indigestion and headaches.
We could have eaten gỏi lá to our heart’s content and never felt full.
The violet rice wine (rượu nếp cẩm) that accompanied the dish made the meal even more delicious.
The restaurant also serves other local specialities, in addition to gỏi lá.
We ordered fried sa kê (a fruit unique to the Central Highlands), grilled veal and fish porridge, which were all delicious.
It was my first experience of eating sa kê and I enjoyed it. A friend of mine even mistook fried sa kê for a kind of gateau because of its yellow colour and delicious buttery taste.
The cost for this delicious and wonderful meal was only about VNĐ900,000 (US$40) for all of us.
The whole experience was as much fun as eating food at home with good friends, a happiness which is not found every day.
I can still taste the rich flavours of the highland jungle, even many days after savoring gỏi lá at Kon Tum.
Don’t forget to eat gỏi lá when you visit Kon Tum! I hope to return to this restaurant and enjoy this wonderful dish again. — VNS
Út Cưng Restaurant
Address: 45 Trần Cao Vân, Kon Tum City
Telephone: 060 3912 432/ 0983 821 723
Hours: 9am to 10pm
Prices: from VNĐ30,000 (US$1.3)
Comments: Delicious food, friendly ambiance, good service, friendly owners, very reasonable prices.