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Shrimp hotpot: not too sweet, not too sour

Update: December, 20/2016 - 11:25
Served hot: When the shrimp hotpot was introduced in Hà Nội, water lilies and yellow burrheads had to be imported from the south. – Photo Courtesy of Quán Ăn Ngon
Viet Nam News

Hồng Vân

It is a feature of Vietnamese culinary culture that people identify the best fruit or dish as belonging to a particular locality.

This characteristic extends to dishes and restaurants, and to dishes and chefs. So, this restaurant serves the best phở or bún chả, or this lady makes the best xôi.

And with the ongoing trend of hotpots, there has been an explosion in the variety of this communal soup served in eateries across the country, and new star chefs have emerged in this category.

One of these chefs is Nguyễn Thị Cúc, a native of Biên Hòa City, which neighbours HCM City. And the dish that has fetched her some well deserved fame is the shrimp hotpot, already identified as a Biên Hòa delicacy.

Cúc, known popularly to the locals as cô Năm (Aunt Năm), was born into a very poor family and had to work as a kitchen assistant for local restaurants since she was very small.

“She had an aptitude for cooking. This, along with the experience of working for many eateries has now made her a famous cook in the area, even though she has never attended any cooking class,” said Lê Thị Thanh Nguyệt, Cúc’s daughter.

Now here: Once a particularly southern delicacy, people in Hà Nội and HCM City can enjoy the shrimp hotpot in a few eateries . –Photo Courtesy of Quán Ăn Ngon

The shrimp hotpot created by Cúc comprises broth made by boiling pork bones; different kinds of local vegetables and shrimp, which is boiled before being added to the broth.

A sip of the broth is by itself a delight. A light, pleasantly sour taste turns spicy on the tongue, followed by the sweetness of shrimp.

Cúc is very particular about what makes for an authentic shrimp hotpot. The sourness has to come from tamarind, nothing else.

“Without tamarind, it is no longer a real shrimp hotpot. And the tamarind used must be the ones that have a yellowish brown colour,” said Nguyệt.

Culinary expert Lê Thị Kim Chi is a Biên Hòa native famous for her association with the Quán Ăn Ngon chain of restaurants. She said: “The shrimp hotpot is very popular in the south. It may have been modified from canh chua (sour soup - vegetable broth with tamarind).”

In the south, the ingredients to create a sour taste for the are plentiful and easy to get. If not in their own garden, people can get them from the local market - tamarind, starfruit or green, sour mango. Adding any of these fruits to a vegetable broth makes a canh chua, a daily accompaniment to meals.

Said Kim Chi: “Shrimp hotpot is one of the delights in Đồng Nai Province (Biên Hòa is the provincial capital).”

“The regional feature can be seen in vegetables used in this hotpot, like water lilies and kèo néo, yellow burrhead. When I introduced the shrimp hotpot in Hà Nội, I had to import these two ingredients from the south, because they are not available locally.”

Her touch: Nguyễn Thị Cúc, well known as a pioneering shrimp hotpot cook, is still the man chef in three restaurants set up by her family. –Photo

Fish sauce is an important ingredient in a quality shrimp hotpot. “For this dish, cooks often choose fish sauce 40N to boost the aroma,” said Kim Chi.

N indicates the nitrogen level of the fish sauce. Between 25N and 30N is considered the high-grade type, and that over 30N is seen as the optimal fish sauce.

“As small children, we do not remember exactly when my mother first made this hotpot, but it may be decades ago,” said Nguyệt.

“It was only in 1992 that my family opened the very first restaurant serving shrimp hotpot in Biên Hòa City. It was named after my mother and father, Lẩu Tôm Năm Ri (Năm Ri Shrimp Hotpot) restaurant.”

“As there was only one restaurant this in the old days, the restaurant became so well-known that this type of hotpot is also known as Lẩu Tôm Năm Ri now,” said Kim Chi.

Nowadays, people in HCM City and Hà Nội can also enjoy this dish. Cúc’s family has expanded their business with two more restaurants.

Nguyệt, who manages the three shrimp hotpot restaurants along with other siblings, said: “Since it opened in 1992, the restaurant was always crowded. So, some years ago, we decided to open another two. Many people from other regions also come here to enjoy this dish and learn to make it at home.

“My mother, who is in her sixties now, is still the one who prepare the ingredients and the main cook at the restaurants. My siblings and I only look after the management side.”  

Crustacean crunch: Chạo tôm, grilled minced shrimp wrapped around a sugarcane stick, originated in the upper Huế region, but is popular nation-wide, now. –Photo

Other shrimp delights

Chạo tôm, grilled minced shrimp, originating from the upper Huế region, is another dish that has gained in popularity across the country.

This is dish yet another one that has moved from royal realms to the common man.

To have a good chạo tôm, which has a somewhat crunchy taste, the cook has to pound shrimp with a mortar and pestle by hand. The minced shrimp is then mixed with minced fish and pork fat. The mixture of shrimp, fish and pork fat is then rolled into a paste. The cook then sticks the mixture to a thin piece of sugarcane which then serves as the skewer when grilling.

The finished chạo tôm looks very much like nem lụi, a dish also part of the erstwhile royal cuisine. While nem lụi delights fans with an intriguing aroma of grilled minced pork and lemongrass, chạo tôm has a sweeter taste of seafood because the shrimp absorbs the additional sweetness and fragrance from the grilled sugarcane stick.

Chạo tôm, like other meat dishes, is served with rice-based food like bánh tráng, rice wrapper or bánh hỏi, rice vermicelli bundles topped with scallions or garlic and dipping sauce served with fresh herbs. VNS

Shrimp hotpot is served at:

Quán Ăn Ngon Restaurants

§ 18 Phan Bội Châu Street, Hà Nội. Phone: 04 3942 8162

§ 34 Phan Đình Phùng Street, Hà Nội. Phone: 04 3734 9777

§ Floor 1, 25T2 Hoàng Đạo Thúy Street, Hà Nội. Phone: 04 3556 0866

§ B2 Vincom Royal City, 72A Nguyễn Trãi Street, Hà Nội. Phone: 04 6664 0066

Lẩu tôm Năm Ri Restaurant

§ 121 Võ Thị Sáu Street, Biên Hòa City. Phone: 061 3822 283

§ 20/3B Cách Mạng Tháng 8 Street, Biên Hòa city. Phone: 061 3842 107

142 Trần Nhân Tôn Street, 2, District 10, Hồ Chí Minh city. Phone: 08 6660 5999

Chạo tôm is served at:

Quán Ăn Ngon Restaurant

§ 18 Phan Bội Châu Street, Hà Nội. Phone: 04 3942 8162

§ 34 Phan Đình Phùng Street, Hà Nội. Phone: 04 3734 9777

Cố Đô Restaurant

§ 367 An Dương Vương Street, District 5, HCM City. Phone: 08 38350 442 

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