by Nguyễn Mỹ Hà
We had a special dinner date at Ầu Ơ Kitchen, at the suggestion of a friend because it’s in downtown Hà Nội. We trusted her taste, not just in a culinary sense but also her choice of setting, and above all the first-class service.
We weren’t let down.
You could detect the exquisite decor from outside: a single-storey house with a red-tiled roof, one side facing posh Lý Thường Kiệt Street. A narrow glass window ran along the width of the wall, with the restaurant’s logo featuring a graceful leaf on top of its name: Ầu Ơ.
In Vietnamese, people from different regions use different tunes and words to lull their babies to sleep. Upon hearing these two words, everyone knows right away that it comes from someone who grew up in the south of Việt Nam.
“Ầu ơ ... ví dầu cầu ván đóng đinh
Cầu tre lắt lẻo gập ghềnh khó đi
Khó đi mẹ dắt con đi
Con đi trường học, mẹ đi trường đời.”
(Ầu ơ ... be it a wooden bridge with safe steel nails
Or a perching bamboo bridge hard to walk on
Though hard to walk on, Mama takes you to pass
You go to school, baby, and your mama learns the lessons of life!)
MAGIC MIX: Juicy watermelon salad with shrimp and julienned pork belly contains all five spices on one plate, according to the Vietnamese culinary rule of thumb. - VNS Photo Mỹ Hà
Lullabies sung by a mother are the earliest music in a child’s ears. They’re so innate, soulful, and close to people who grew up with them.
And so is the food people grow up on.
Ầu Ơ Kitchen specialises in countryside dishes, cooked at a fine-dining level in a rustic home setting with a garden. The interior decor, the table wear, and the china plates and dishes all reflect the country theme of the place, with great attention to detail.
As we were in a group, we decided to share everything, from appetisers to dessert. Some of us had recently gone through a nerve-wracking health crisis, sharing so many things for a couple of weeks, and it was both a challenging and supportive time.
We used to say good morning every day, check on each other, and then mind our own business until later in the day, when we had to compare health indicators.
Our friend suggested we start with a watermelon salad with shrimp and pork (VNĐ310,000). The dish’s name raised our eyebrows: watermelons are in season but are normally served last, for dessert! Shrimp and pork are standard in many salads, with the most well-known being the southern lotus root salad, the northern banana flower salad, and the central green fig salad.
All the veggies in these salads either taste bitter or waxy and starchy, while the watermelon has its own place for tasting sweet. After the first bite, everyone raised their eyebrows again and nodded their heads in approval.
It was deliciously balanced in taste because the chef scooped not only the red juicy part of the watermelon, he also sliced the white flesh after peeling away the hard-green outer layer.
Normally no one eats the white flesh of a watermelon, except for mothers in Huế, who make it into delicious sweets for the Lunar New Year holiday. We’ll definitely be having this salad again on our next visit.
Someone ordered bamboo chicken dry-cooked in lemongrass rock salt (VNĐ510,000). Bamboo chicken is a special breed, small in size but with extremely lean and chewy meat and a taste much richer than boiled chicken or honey-marinated roast chicken. The tiny chicken was indeed quite small, so only the women tried it.
The men waited for yet another special four-course pork highlight (VNDD560,000) of steamed pork, galanga-marinated roast pork chops, deep-fried blood sausages, and pork stew.
The pork comes from the mountains, carried to the market under the arms of people who live there. This breed of pig is domesticated but raised in the garden, where it can run free and get some 'exercise'.
FINE FARE: Marinated pork with finely-pounded galanga and deep-fried lemon leaves on a bamboo plate lined with fresh banana leaves. - VNS Photo Mỹ Hà
Each dish is a delicacy on its own and it would take a day to go to the countryside to taste just one. Village chefs, who cook for weddings and anniversaries of death, are best at making these traditional dishes. And it seemed like one of them was working here at Ầu Ơ Kitchen.
While the name Ầu Ơ conjures up images of the south, the dishes actually reminded us of the north. The pork may be from the mountains but the other ingredients and spices, even the bamboo-knitted placemat, clearly belong to Thái Bình, Hưng Yên, and Hà Nam provinces in the Red River Delta.
To top it all off, rice with a sour soup was the perfect carb intake for everyone. The sour clam soup (VNĐ85,000) and the signature southern snakehead fish soup (VNĐ135,000) were both good with white rice, but not as astonishing as the others we had.
The best drink to accompany these dishes is home-brew sticky rice alcohol. But it was lunch-time, and we still had to work, so we opted for juices and healthy drinks like green lime, watermelon, mango, or lemongrass tea (VNĐ58,000 - VNĐ78,000).
PERFECT SETTING: The country-style decor at Ầu Ơ Kitchen makes the food taste even better. - VNS Photo Mỹ Hà
After such a big meal, it can sometimes be wise to skip the dessert. But it’s summer, aka lotus season. So we couldn’t leave such a cool place without trying heavenly lotus seed in dried longan (VNĐ55,000). The lotus seed is soft and tender with just a dash of rock sugar, and goes together so well with longan.
And us friends also go together so well. We experienced hard times but maintained our bond. Cheers to our tried and true friendship! We’ve learned our life lessons, and we’re not alone. VNS