By Thu Hiền
The first thing that springs to mind when people mention Đà Lạt is a 'city of flowers', but it's also home to a wealth of local delicacies created from the various animals, fruits and vegetables which live and grow in the cool mountainous region.
For me, every time I visit the Central Highland city, I always eat at Nhật Ly Restaurant in the city’s downtown, which offers a wide range of dishes made from simple local ingredients.
Nhật Ly Restaurant seen from the outside. VNS Photo Thu Hiền
The restaurant has been running for 25 years, and is the first stop recommended to both tourists and locals.
On my last trip to the city a few months ago, my friend and I had a dinner there, which consisted of gân nai hấp (steamed deer's tendon), lươn rán (fried eel) and canh atiso hầm chân giò (pork shank stewed with artichoke flower), which are among the most popular delicacies at the restaurant.
The restaurant is a popular eating spot for both locals and tourists. VNS Photo Thu Hiền
All were served hot with steamed rice and some cà pháo (pickled aubergine).
After a long day trekking up Lang Biang Mountain, our legs were tired, so the tendon was the obvious choice to overcome our fatigue.
Steam deer's tendon is a delicacy of the restaurant. VNS Photo Thu Hiền
According to Lê Thị Nhị Hà, the owner, the dish is quite time-consuming.
“The dried tendon should be soaked in water used to wash rice overnight so that it turns soft,” she told Việt Nam News.
“Then, the tendon is stewed on a coal cooker for at least 12 hours,” she said. “When the water inside the pot has boiled, the temperature should be turned down to a simmer, just to keep it hot enough to stew the tendon.”
Then the chef washes the tendon in clean water, and cuts it into small pieces ready to be stewed with other ingredients. The tendon that is not used immediately is frozen for another day.
The washed tendon is then marinated in spices and steamed with other ingredients, which may include mushrooms, cauliflower and onion.
The final dish should offer a soft, elastic and sweet tendon, while the soup should be thick and rich.
“That’s among our most time-consuming dishes but our most frequent customers order it again and again,” she said.
The soup of artichoke flower and pork shank, in contrast, is fairly easy to prepare, according to Hà.
Soup of pork shank and artichoke. VNS Photo Thu Hiền
I know the dish can be found at any restaurant in Đà Lạt as artichokes grow well in the cool climate.
Fat from the pork shank mingles with the artichoke flowers, creating a cool flavour rich in vitamin C, kali and other anti-oxidising substances that may help prevent cancer.
The soup is said to help cool the body and may treat diseases caused by internal heat like liver problems, ulcers and acne.
“It is fairly easy to make,” Hà said. “You just cut the flowers into small pieces after rinsing well. Remember to take the flower’s pistil, because there's a chance it could get stuck in your throat.
“The pistil is put in a separate paper bag to dip in hot water to drink after the meal,” she said.
The artichoke flower and the pork shank (which can be replaced by pork ribs or chicken) should be stewed in separate cookers.
Only salt should be added to the meat.
Then mix the two together and heat for a while, before finishing with some more onion.
Hà said the flower should not be stewed for too long with the pork as the flavour could get too strong to digest while the soup would become dark and sticky, making it hard to eat.
Mai Văn Bảy, a driver, also a frequent customer from HCM City, admitted that the restaurant offered the best artichoke and pork shank soup in the city.
“Whenever I visit the city, I have the dish here,” he said. “I cannot forget the flavour of the artichoke blended so well with the fatty pork.
“My wife is a good cook, but she's not as good as this,” he said. “Maybe because of the fresh artichokes available in Đà Lạt, I guess.”
Fried eel served hot with roasted peanuts and herbs. VNS Photo Thu Hiền
The fried eel was both crispy and elastic, as the eel we had chosen was fat. It cost us VNĐ180,000 (US$7.8).
I paid VNĐ200,000 ($8.6) for the artichoke soup, VNĐ350,000 ($15) for the deer tendon, while the whole meal cost us VNĐ772,000 ($33), including rice and drinks.
Pointing at her menu which features various dishes made from fish, chicken, pork, beef and vegetables, Hà said she recently added grilled beef with pepper sauce, grilled pork rib with honey and grilled pork rib with garlic to the menu.
Leaving the restaurant, I would like to return to try the grilled pork leg in salt as suggested by the owner, but I will have to wait for my next trip to Đà Lạt. VNS
Nhật Ly Restaurant
88 Phan Đình Phùng Street, Đà Lạt City
Tel: 0263 382 1651
Comment: Clean, tasty food with delicate way of cooking, quick service, and family-like atmosphere, sometimes a little crowded and noisy during peak hours.
Open hours: 11am-9pm
Price: on average from VNĐ50,000-300,000/pax