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Scuttling delicacies are crawling with flavour

Update: October, 02/2012 - 19:13

 

Round of a-claws: The tamarind-glazed fried field crabs are a ‘genius creation.'

No bugbears: Any concerns about sampling the ‘crunchy and nutty' locusts can easily be washed away with a few shots of daisy petal liquor.

Quan Kien

Address: 143 Nghi Tam

Tel: 0983.430.136

Price: 100,000 - 300,000

Comment: A rustic spot that offers a rare opportunity to sample dishes from several ethnic minority groups.

Dishes to try: roasted locusts with lime leaves (chau chau rang la chanh), VND80,000; stir-fried crabs with tamarind (cua rang me), VND85,000.

Offering traditional treats in convivial surroundings, Tay Ho's Quan Kien is ideal for dinner with friends, while the menu has the potential to enliven the party with some unexpected guests. Elisabeth Rosen reports.

Locust is the ideal gateway bug. Roasted with lime leaves, crunchy and nutty, the insect tastes less like a grasshopper than a particularly creative bar snack. There are no gruesome spindles of antennae, no soggy innards to contend with. If you look very closely, you may see tiny eyes, but after a few shots of daisy petal liquor, these can easily be overlooked.

Insects occupy only a small section of the menu at Quan Kien, a warm, rustic restaurant in Tay Ho. But there are countless other reasons to make the drive. Quan Kien's owners are passionate about preserving the cooking traditions of ethnic minority groups like the Mong and Thai. From their travels around the country, they have culled a vast collection of ethnic minority specialties that have rarely, if ever, been tasted outside their native regions.

It's not quite the same as visiting a minority village. But the owners have made a concerted effort to give the place a rustic feel. Diners perch on the floor, surrounded by furniture woven from straw and bamboo. The room even contains a tree, its bare branches strewn with red blossoms.

Traversing the menu can feel almost as daunting as planning a trip to the remote areas where the dishes originate. The best strategy may be to start small. Those roasted locusts (châu chấu rang lá chanh, VND 80,000) make an excellent aperitif, accompanied by one of the restaurant's homemade liquors, which are more potent than they look. One bottle (VND62,000-98,000) provides plenty for a small group to begin the meal on a good note.

Thai dishes get their own menu, a double-sided page with glossy photos. You have seen these ingredients before, but you have never seen them cooked like this. Fish grilled in dong leaves (ca nuong la dong, VND105,000) emerges from the wrapper dense and flaky, permeated with a complex blend of spices: fenugreek, chili, black pepper. In com nuong mo ga (VND28,000), clumps of rice are coated in chicken fat and toasted on the grill until light brown and crispy. The inside stays pleasurably gooey - a grown-up marshmallow.

.Even more familiar preparations lead to unexpected delights. Slices of buffalo meat as tender as the barely-cooked beef that tops a bowl of pho are thrown into the wok with generous heaps of water spinach, redolent with garlic (trau xao rau muong, VND105,000). Robust curls of grilled squid tangle in a zesty marinade (muc nuong sa te kieu Quan Kien, VND115,000).

Here, the chef doesn't shy away from cuts of meat that would send Western cooks scrambling for a trimming knife. A thick layer of fat seals off generous slabs of salt-crusted pork ribs (suon nuong muoi sa, VND 125,000). The succulent result, perfumed with lemongrass, holds all the sumptuous pleasure of a beignet.

After all this gluttony, everyone at your table will be grateful for an enormous plate of banana flower salad (nom hoa chuoi, VNd 67,000). As in green papaya salad, banana flowers are cut into crisp shreds and mixed with crunchy accoutrements: deceptively thin rings of fiery pepper, bracing cucumber, crumbled bits of peanut. Cang cua leaves with garlic (rau cang cua xao toi, VND 52,000) are a tougher sell. This is no beginner's vegetable. The greens have a natural bitterness as pleasurable to some as it is off-putting to others. Five pairs of chopsticks attacked the pile; after a few bites, only one or two were left.

But the bitter greens also offer a sobering reminder that these dishes were born out of necessity. Many of Viet Nam's ethnic minority groups live in remote, inhospitable areas, where food is scarce and survival means finding ways to turn even the smallest insects into a meal.

 

Down to earth: The seating may be low, but the food at Quan Kien is pretty high class. — Photos courtersy of Truong Vi
 

This often means coming up with crafty preparations. Some of Quan Kien's best dishes seem to have emerged from desperate circumstances. What else but the need to survive could have motivated some culinary genius to coat field crabs in a tart-sweet tamarind glaze and stir-fry them until crisp (cua rang me, VND85,000), or to roast crickets and stink bugs with slivers of lime leaf?

This fact, ultimately, is what makes eating here such a memorable experience. In the city, locusts seem like an exotic delicacy. But for the ethnic minority people who came up with this dish, roasting insects might have been the only way to survive. — VNS

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