Before I flew to Vietnam, I did some research on places I didn’t want to miss and top of my list of sources was of course Anthony Bourdain. I’m a big fan of his – some of my foodie friends find him sexist but I have actually found him to be pretty aware of the gender politics of growing, cooking and selling food – and his love for Vietnam is well known. So, I watched his Vietnam episodes of
again and made some notes in the bible of my travels, a little black moleskine notebook. I marked out several places that Tony recommended in Saigon for my attention, a couple of which also came up on food blogs. Great, all very organised. When we arrived in Saigon, I noted that I had starred Côm Niêu as especially interesting. The trouble was, I didn’t at all remember why! Thus began one of our more perplexing evenings…
First, we had to find the damn place. Google maps is a wonderful thing but it kind of gave the impression that the restaurant was at the start of a street when, in fact, it turned out to be about ten blocks further down. The neighbourhood was by no means sketchy – you know you’re ok when you pass several international schools – but we were the only white people to be seen and we were getting a lot of stares. It was hot and we had no idea at this point if we were even going the right way, but we eventually found the name of the restaurant on a sign leading down an alley. Down we went, but clearly no restaurant, just a residential square with some people washing a dog. We were getting a little downcast but happily on walking back out the alley we saw the restaurant, a bright and warm oasis appearing before us. Hurrah!
It looked fancier than I expected – Bourdain places are usually the awesome hole in the wall type and I couldn’t at all remember this restaurant from his show. Then we were given menus and the real confusion began. For one thing, the menu was enormous. I don’t remember ever seeing a longer menu. We read pages and pages of dishes in multiple sections, only to find somewhere around page 15 the beginning of the main course section. For a good five minutes, we’d just been reading starters. Better than the sheer volume of dishes was the translation issue. Whenever they didn’t know the English word for an ingredient, they wrote it in Latin!!! Thus, we spent a goodly amount of time dredging our Latin knowledge to try and work out what trionix* or macropodus** might be. It felt like we were taking the bar exam.
We decided on sour soup, which we had tried before on our Mekong travels and loved. It comes with fish and of course this menu had several different fish options, all in untranslated Vietnamese. We decided on the most expensive one, keo, since they were all pretty affordable. This may not actually have been the best idea I’ve ever had: the fish particularly prized by Vietnamese diners might in fact not correlate with the fish most prized by me.
The soup was utterly delicious. It has a light but deeply flavoured broth studded with pineapple, tomato, okra, and a vegetable I don’t recognise that adds some of the sourness. It is topped with herbs and chilies and, of course, filled with fish. It really is tasty – I’m not a big fan of soup as a rule but this soup is unbelievably good. Mr Lemur is also very leery of Asian soups, having been put off by the dishwatery noodle soups you get in New York Chinatown, and even he is converted by Viet soups. However, there is no getting past the alarming quality of that fish. They look snaky and a little disturbing, coiled in there. They also have substantial backbones although they are thin enough that I strongly suspect local diners woud eat them whole. We were not going to eat them whole, and thus eating our soup became the new practical section of the bar exam: how to fillet small fish, with chopsticks, in soup? It was an exercise in hilarity but I do insist the soup was worth it. I’d have been happier with catfish though…
Meanwhile, I still couldn’t remember why Bourdain had come here. The we heard it: the unmistakeable sound of smashing pottery. Oh riiigghht…this was the place where they make things in clay pots and smash them. On cue, we saw something flying through the air behind us, expertly caught by a waiter. The mystery food was taken to the table next to us, doused with toppings and sliced. It looked amazing, so we called the waiter over. We want that please! It was all coming back to me. Côm Niêu is known for its broken rice, cooked in a clay pot, then literally broken out of the pot. In a nice bit of stage business, the waiter who breaks the pot then throws the rice cake across the room to be caught on a serving plate by another waiter.
These fantastic rice cakes are hot and crusty on the bottom, and sizzle as they are finished tableside with a light nuoc mam sauce and a generous toppling of sesame seeds, chives and, er, some other delicious seeds. I have no idea what those are in any language. If this menu were the bar exam I would have failed horribly, but I finally figured out what Tony had come here for and it was totally worth the expedition.
*soft-shelled turtle – eek!
** paradise fish