|CHEF: Nguyễn Thị Ánh demonstrates how to serve paddy field crab roe the right way.
by Nguyễn Mỹ Hà
Rice field crabs, as their name suggests, are the small crabs living in the wet rice fields, popularly dotting the landscape of Việt Nam. They used to provide a daily intake of calcium to farmers, and for a long time used to be a rare source of rich protein.
Many country style dishes were made from the crabs, which are not only small, but have no chewable or meaty claws. In size, it's maybe one 20th of a sea crab, though 500g of rice field crabs can make a bountiful hot pot of soup that serves at least a family of four.
The body of the crab must be washed, and the hard shell torn off, but do not throw them away. As the tiny amount of fresh roe in the shell shall be taken out with a toothpick, then later sautéed with chopped shallots and green onion for dressing on top of the soup bowl or hot pot.
The crab body, about the size of a thumb and its eight little legs get all pounded with a mortar and pestle, or ground in a meat mixer to make a sticky brownish paste, which later be rinsed with clean water.
The crab soup used to be an everyday meal for everyone, but today, with delicacy food shops mushrooming on every street corner, rice field crabs have become more expensive and harder to get, as restaurants purchase in bulk to satisfy their large group of customers.
|CHEEKY: One of the signature dishes is grilled pork cheek, or 'Má Đào' (Pink Cheek). VNS Photos Bảo Ngọc
Nguyễn Thị Ánh, a known name on Hà Nội's culinary scene, is an active member of the Hà Nội Association of Chefs as well as a much-loved guest on national TV. Besides her current job at a 5-star hotel in town, she has recently opened a restaurant that can serve 80 guests at a time in the suburban district of Thanh Trì.
Her expertise is east Asian food, mostly Chinese and Vietnamese dishes, which offer a well blend of local delicacies with international food standards.
She has the delicacy Má đào (VNĐ120,000) or pig's cheeks on the menu, which she marinates with Chinese ingredients in the Hong Kong style, resulting in tender slices of meat that melt on your palate. This is great to go with beer, or for children to have with white rice.
|MEAT MEDLEY: Bình Phát's crab hot pot is prepared using the restaurant's special recipe of five assorted meat cuts and seven vegetables, which are hand-picked.
Ánh married a native of Hải Phòng port city, which has the best squid nuggets, fish cakes and crab noodle soup with fresh flat brown rice noodles, like fettuccine. The delicacy Bánh đa cua Hải Phòng (VNĐ40,000) is served for breakfast, with the fish cakes and fresh rice noodles shipped from the city to her shop in Hà Nội.
The restaurant's signature dish is the hot pot, which comes in different sizes at VNĐ300,000, VNĐ500,000 and a special at VNĐ650,000.
Assorted options, including beef heel muscle, soft bone ribs slices, shrimps and pork slices range from VNĐ100,000 to VNĐ150,000 a plate and other side dishes such as tofu, veggies or fresh vermicelli, and more come in at VNĐ30,000 each.
As we were a big group, we ordered a special hot pot with all the meat dishes and vegetables available.
Unless you're a very picky eater, or allergic to crab or seafood, sharing a meal with your friends or family can be both heart-warming and fulfilling. If you don't like sharing or having others sticking their chopsticks into the common pot, use a spare ladle and larger chopsticks for the pot, and use your own set for yourself.
No matter how delicious food can be, having food from a joint pot requires some small courtesies to make it safe and joyful. If you only enjoy the cheerful atmosphere, and cannot stand having others eating your food, then get yourself a dish from the menu and enjoy in others' presence.
A ride from downtown Hà Nội to the restaurant in Tứ Hiệp Commune takes about half an hour, so it's quite troubling to go during work time. But for weekends, it's a great area to visit, as it's not too far away, and close to some beautiful serene pagodas and rice fields. A large flower and bonsai company named Thăng Long is located nearby, and a small market square can be visited in the village.
After a brief visit or bicycle ride to the local temple and pagoda, a late lunch at Bình Phát can definitely provide you with some energy for the trip back to town. Despite its modest appearance, you can be sure that you're dining on a sophisticated delicacy carefully concocted with local ingredients, with a 5-star hotel level of accuracy and attention. VNS