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Ben Ninh Kieu offers taste of the south

Update: May, 18/2014 - 21:26
Roll it yourself: Banh trang cuon gio heo, a classic combination of thinly sliced pork, rice vermicelli, pineapple and herbs that diners wrap in rice paper.

No time to fly down to the Mekong Delta?Step into this new restaurant in Hai Ba Trung District, which serves fresh spring rolls, herb-laden hotpot and other typical southern fare. Elisabeth Rosen reports.

Heaps of basil and shiso leaves covered wicker serving platters, interspersed with herbs I never knew could be eaten. Teardrop-shaped sweet potato leaves curled around thick stems; leathery mango leaves imported from the south tangled with lemon-scented rau coc, an intriguing herb that bursts with a curious citrus flavour.

Eating at Ben Ninh Kieu offers a lesson in such ingredients, which form the heart of southern cuisine. The restaurant's name refers to Ninh Kieu Wharf, located in the Mekong city of Can Tho, and the decor conjures up the Delta's easygoing vibe. Large photographs of floating markets and sprawling beaches line whitewashed walls. On the ceiling, bare bulbs dangle from a grid of acacia trunks knotted together with ropes.

Architect Du Thanh Trung fell in love with this colourful cuisine on a business trip to the south. When he came back to the capital, he opened Ben Ninh Kieu. It wasn't just a personal project, but a business opportunity. Although Hue-style food has already made inroads in Ha Noi, there are few places to eat authentic southern fare.

Southbound: Ben Ninh Kieu conjures up the Mekong Delta's easygoing vibe, with light, airy decor. — VNS Photos Hoang Trung Hieu

Perhaps this is because previous generations of Hanoians saw no need to stray from traditional food, especially when scarcity made it difficult for them to do so. Today's young people, however, have embraced the novelty of regional cuisine. The crowd here is all local Vietnamese; as soon as each new plate arrives, out come the tablet-sized mobile phones and DSLRs.

This new breed of consumer has spurred the creation of mid-range restaurants, such as Ben Ninh Kieu. It's a clear step up from street food, with light, airy decor and an emphasis on cleanliness and service. Prices are a bit higher, too - for the cost of one appetiser, you could have three bowls of pho or bun cha - but dishes are still far more affordable than in more high-end restaurants. This is especially true if you come in a big group, Vietnamese-style, as these dishes are meant to be enjoyed.

After all, individual diners would miss out on all the fun of group dishes like do-it-yourself spring rolls - an English translation that, as usual, does little justice to the product. Unlike pan-fried northern spring rolls, those in the south are eaten raw, utilizing rice paper wrappers and generous heaps of fresh herbs. These wrappers vary considerably depending on the filling. The paper for banh trang has a rough, sandpaper-like texture, while the one for banh xeo has the smooth sheen of plastic (it's far more appetising than it sounds).

Grainy: Com chay (baked rice), a cracker made from the rice that sticks to the bottom of the pot.

Without English translations, the menu can be daunting for non-Vietnamese speakers. A good beginner's roll is banh trang cuon gio heo (VND98,000 or US$4.6), a classic combination of thinly sliced pork, rice vermicelli, pineapple and herbs. Banh xeo, thin, crispy rice flour crepes that originated in the central city of Hue but are also a typical dish in the south, also come in a few variations: you pick up a strip of crepe and wrap it in one of the smooth wrappers along with the obligatory herbs. Traditionally, they're filled with shrimp, pork and bean sprouts (tom thit gia, VND68,000), though you can also get mushroom or coconut. It's also worth trying banh khot tom (VND78,000), airy deep-fried cakes flecked with tiny shrimp that you wrap in crunchy lettuce leaves.

There is far more to southern food than spring rolls, of course. One of the most revelatory dishes is goi cu hu dua (VND78,000), a salad of coconut meat and pork shreds that you eat with crunchy rice crackers: The juiciness of the coconut brings out the meatiness of the pork, intertwined with sprigs of cilantro and pickled carrot and slivered shrimp. For a warm starter, try bo nuong nuoc mam (VND98,000), beef and okra immersed in a flavourful fish sauce marinade and grilled until just tender.

Ben Ninh Kieu

Address: 78 Mai Hac De

Tel.: 043 974 9955/ 091 234 5579

Price range: VND100,000-400,000

Comment: Southern Vietnamese food in a casual setting

Dishes to try: Banh trang, banh xeo, lau cu lao 

Save room for hotpot. The one you should get is lau cu lao (VND348,000). Cu lao literally means island, and the arrangement is indeed reminiscent of an island of sorts: beef, squid and massive shrimp lie in a ring around a pot of simmering broth and are immersed as soon as it boils. Filled with vibrant colour, the broth has an addictive sweet-sour flavour from the tamarind base; pulling out bites feels like discovering treasures, one after another. There's a tender green stalk; there's cha ca, a delicate sausage made from the unlikely combination of pork and fish. The fish balls might be the best part: stained a grassy hue from an herb called rau cu neo, they emerge sweet and tender, unlike the tough white spheres often used in other cuisines. After walking outside, you might be tempted to book a flight south. — VNS

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