by Vo Le Hong
|Two worlds: A countryside market in a luxurious setting. Small field crabs with three dashes - salty and pungent. — VNS Photos
|Lovely legs: Blue swimmer crabs make a wonderful dish fried with garlic, chili and ginger.
|Straight from the garden: Medium-sized edible snails with ginger fish sauce.
Buffet Ganh Palace Restaurant
Palace Hotel Saigon
5th Floor, 56-66 Nguyen Hue, District 1, HCM City
Tel: (08) 38.292.860 Ext:1501-8614
Opening hours: 11am - 14pm and 18pm00 - 21pm00
Comments: Good food, plenty of choice
One of my friends hails from the southernmost province in the country - Ca Mau. Knowing that I've never had a chance to visit that corner of the Mekong Delta, she invited me recently for a meal to enjoy the "flavours of my native place".
Expecting to be taken to a hole-in-the-wall joint un-known to most except Ca Mau natives and their friends, I was surprised that our rendezvous was in a restaurant occupying the entire fifth floor of a busy luxury hotel in downtown HCM City.
There was another pleasant, quaint surprise in store even as we were settling ourselves in. I took my seat and looked down through the glass at the busy traffic on the corner of Nguyen Hue Avenue and Mac Thi Buoi Street. But when I turned my head in the other direction, life took on a completely different look. I was looking at a countryside market. In a thatched house, people were selling various kinds of Vietnamese cakes, including banh beo, banh nam and banh bot loc.
Buffet Ganh, as the name suggests, offers an all-that-you-can eat lunch for VND199,000++/person and dinner for VND399,000++ per person).
We needed no second invitation and reached out for the bamboo baskets that the dishes were tastefully arranged in.
With the imperious manner of an unabashed expert and gourmet, my friend suggested (firmly directed, actually) that I try the bun mam or fish paste vermicelli. It is better than the famed bun than from Ha Noi, she asserted.
Let me warn you. You might steer clear of this dish because it has an off-putting odour and strong taste. But if you overcome the initial hesitation and take the plunge, you are very likely to find a very tasty dish. Its flavour comes from braised prahok - a fermented Cambodian style salted fish paste that is usually made from mud fish. Diners may also add fish, prawns, squid or roasted pork to this dish.
The broth is made of linh or sac fish and served with broad vermicelli strands and distinctive herbs including water lilies, bitter vegetables, banana bulbs, water poppies, nhut vegetable, bean sprouts and lettuce.
"At home, we add many kinds of vegetables we find in the field to bun mam," my friend told.
Under her benign guidance and approval, I enjoyed the dish thoroughly, thinking, "Here I am, having a good experience, tasting food from a part of a country I have never been to and learning something about it."
We moved on to her second favourite dish. Suffice it to say it will not rank high in my list of favourites. She tucked into the goi mam ba khia tron voi dau rong with evident relish, but my culinary senses were not up to it.
The "three-dash crab" was too hard and too salty for me. Ba khia is a kind of small field crab with three dashes in the shell that is only found at Mui Ca Mau, my friend's hometown. This crab is preserved with a lot of salt and the dish is a mixture of the salted crab, dragon-shaped beans, red pepper, garlic and sugar.
Thankfully, it was a buffet and I was spoiled for choice. There were about 60 dishes displayed. I settled for chicken grilled with honey and shrimp with XO (congac or brandy, I am not sure which, but it worked). I was back in business, matching my friend in the relishing department.
"The food here is good. I just enjoy the popular dishes without particularly caring for the "specials", one foreign diner told me.
Chef Tran Thuy Bao Tram helped me sign off a great meal with yet another surprise, one of her own making.
She served me a tropical fruit spring roll, explaining she was inspired to make it because "our country has many kinds of fruit."
I smiled as I smacked my lips, happy and proud at the abundance of good fruits and good food in my native place, Viet Nam. — VNS