By Thúy Hằng
Whenever I travel, visiting a local market to gain a glimpse of local life and sampling the food are a must.
Days before my flight to Cần Thơ – the metropolis of Việt Nam’s Mekong Delta, I was already excited about a ‘flavoury journey’ during which I would have a chance to enjoy several yummy dishes. I even made my own 'food guide' with a list of famous dishes and where to find them.
The elegant-setting at The Café is dedicated to Vietnamese cuisine, especially from the Mekong Delta. VNS Photo Thúy Hằng
However, after checking in, pouring rain that lasted for hours turned our schedule upside down. Instead of taking the shuttle boat (our resort was on a small islet on the Hậu River and accessible only by boat) to embark on a food adventure, we had no choice but to dine at the resort.
The Grill offers European food and The Café is dedicated to Vietnamese cuisine, especially Mekong Delta fare, so we decided to choose the second option to satisfy my longing for local food.
Located by a large swimming pool when all the lights are on at night, the elegant setting with floor-to-ceiling glass walls is gorgeous thanks to the warm yellow glow and stunning reflections from the pool.
You can select a table by a white lotus lake, where you can wallow in the scent of blooming flowers while enjoying your dinner. It is not a bad idea if the weather is good. However, it was a rainy evening, so we opted for a table inside.
From left, lotus stem salad, bồn bồn stem salad, and Vietnamese noodles in coconut cream sauce. VNS Photo Thúy Hằng
Although the menu is not expansive, it brings features most local delicacies that can satisfy your tastebuds such as gỏi cổ hũ dừa (coconut core salad), gỏi cuốn tôm thịt (shrimp and pork rolls), bò lá lốt (beef in wild betel leaf), bánh xèo (sizzling crepe), and bò kho (braised beef).
We decided to try the Mekong Tasting Set (VNĐ750,000++/person) as it featured most of the menu’s highlights.
The dinner started with a plate of three starters – gỏi ngó sen (lotus root salad with pork and shrimp), gỏi bồn bồn (bồn bồn stem salad) and bánh tằm (Vietnamese noodles in coconut cream sauce).
The salads were very good and full of flavour – sour, spicy, sweet and salty – all in harmony. The main ingredients – lotus root and bồn bồn [a kind of water grass] were very fresh as they can be found anywhere in the Mekong Delta region.
For me, bánh tằm was a really nice surprise as I’d never tried it before. Bathed in creamy coconut sauce, the soft noodles served together with cucumber and lettuce, diced yam bean and roasted peanuts, was delectable.
Stir-fried thiên lý flowers and caramelized fish. VNS Photo Thúy Hằng
Followed the concept of a Vietnamese home-style meal, all the main courses were presented on our table at the same time and served with steamed rice. The dishes included bò xào lá cách (stir-fried beef with cách leaf), cá kho tộ (caramelized fish stew), bông thiên lý xào (stir-fried thiên lý flowers) and chicken chilli soup.
I had no idea what a cách leaf was, but my questions were cleared up by a waitress. Cách is a kind of wild vegetable commonly believed to support liver function and digestion. It is also used to treat diarrhea and hypertension.
Like the cách leaf, thiên lý flowers are widely used as an ingredient, and is supposed to have medicinal properties for insomnia and dizziness.
I had nothing to complain about the stir-fried dishes, but they didn't quite have the ‘WOW’ factor. Nevertheless, being offered a 'supplement' food even boosted my appetite.
The Mekong Delta is all about rivers, canals and rice paddies. It’s no wonder that fish play a huge part in the lives of the locals. Although there are thousands of ways to cook fish, cá kho tộ (caramelized fish stewed in a clay pot) seems to be the most popular. It’s understandable why the Mekong Menu also features this dish.
Once the lid was opened, the pot pervades a slight scent of caramel, pepper, chilli, garlic and fish sauce. The caramel-coloured fish was braised resulting in firm flesh as well as the perfect and addictive sweet and salty combination. The chicken chilli soup was unlike any other chicken soup I’ve tried before. The clear soup featured the slight sourness of tamarind, which is used widely in the Mekong Delta's cuisine, and the slim pungency of chilli. I was also impressed by the aromatic flavour of the soup which was added too by Vietnamese basil leaves.
Stewed duck with fermented tofu.VNS Photo Thúy Hằng
The set menu also included vịt nấu chao (stewed duck with fermented tofu) served with fresh rice vermicelli.
Although the texture of this dish was similar to curry dishes, the flavour was completely different. It was the fermented tofu creating the strong creamy flavour as well as the taste of this dish. However, after having several previous dishes, the stewed dish containing duck, taro, and tofu got a bit heavy for my stomach. Anyway, I still gave it a try because I didn’t want to miss out. The duck was very tender, and the taro and tofu were soft, melting in my mouth.
The dinner turned out to be most pleasant, especially when dessert arrived – yogurt with fermented purple sticky rice. Like a happy song, the satisfying dessert wrapped up our dinner.
The Café – All Day Dining Restaurant, Azerai Resort Can Tho
Address: Ấu Islet, Cái Răng District, Cần Thơ City
Price: From VNĐ120,000++/dish.
Comment: Set menu and à la carte menu. Traditional local food served in an elegant setting with a pleasant and relaxing ambience.
To get there: Take the 24/24 shuttle boat from the pier at Azerai Resort Can Tho on Sông Hậu Road. It takes only three minutes to get to this oasis of calm.