Thinking about Central Vietnam food, people often have the impression of the spicy and salty taste, but what I miss is the SAVORY taste. Yes, in the land of “Laos wind and white sand” where there is severe weather with only two seasons: dry season and rainy season, of which the dry one lasts up to 2/3 of the year, human skin would be all dried up, let alone the plants. There is no way they can grow up and be so delicately fresh and mild! That is why everything there is savory!
But only after enjoying a lot of Tam Ky delicacies could we recognize the uniqueness in Tam Ky food is the delicate taste. I kept joking with my husband “What a city! How can every dish be so elegant, even the salty taste in the fish sauce is so delicate!”. That is enough to make me eat so passionately as to forget the way home.
Looking closer, I thought, the elegant nature taste of each ingredient is just one part, but the elegant taste of the dish is made by the cook. Tam Ky people in general and the food vendors I met in particular are all kind, gentle, charming, lovely, and skillful. The discretion in their daily talks and behaviors is a deeply ingrained trait, inherited from one life to another, just like a pergola with strong roots constantly growing up. The “skillful” pergola radiates a “subtle” shade, so that Tam Ky people always know how to refine the most quintessential to put into their cuisine. They know how much is enough. And in cuisine, “knowing how much is enough” of ingredients from processing, cooking, tasting to food decoration is extremely important.
For example, a tiny grilled patty at Ngoc Grilled Patty store is not as big as patties of other food stores but is as small as the index finger, just enough to be put into a piece of rice paper. The green bean-stuffed jackfruit bulbs in Mrs. Nam store have sour, sweet, salty, fatty favors, and fit to be eaten in 1 bite. Or a bowl of Quang noodle in Cay Mit food store with a sufficient amount of noodles just enough vegetable, just enough meat, enough seasoning to make enough feeling of both visual and taste, which is enough to make people remember it forever!
Essence of Tam Ky cuisine is preserved by the simplification, humility and full of identity. This city has some long-aged restaurants which are up to 50 years old. The dishes are not only made with local ingredients with their own taste and meticulous care of the small details of the owners but also with the strong emotional attachment to their origins, with the mother land, with a constant flow of history, culture, with childhood memories and family love through generations.
Mrs. Nam’s steamed jackfruit (“hông” jackfruit) – 25 Hoang Dieu
“Hông” means “steaming”. Jackfruit seeds and green beans are steamed, pureed, seasoned, stuffed into jackfruit bulbs and steamed again, served with roasted peanuts and grated coconut rice. That is a very exotic dish. Mrs. Nhan, the food store owner said that, “Mrs. Nam – the name of the food store is my husband’s name. Back then, I saw people making this dish on the street, but the taste was not good, so I tried to make it better, then I have been selling it for about 40 years now. Now, I am weak and old, thus my two daughters are the main cook for the food store.”
The store opens from about 8am until 3pm when all steamed jackfruits are sold. In addition to the jackfruit, there is another dish here called Vietnamese popiah, but it is actually papaya salad with dried beef. This is a popular snack address for Tam Ky people.
Quang noodle in Cay Mit food store – Le Thanh Tong Street
The store has opened for 50 years but it has no clear address. The way of locating is to find the crossroad of Le Thanh Tong and Tran Quoc Toan in the early morning, look for the house with the small sign noting “Quang noodle” on Le Thanh Tong Street, opposite of Bo Tung groceries shop and opposite way of Mother Thu statue. The name Cay Mit is named for the store because there is a huge jackfruit tree on the yard. Only local gourmets know this place.
This store’s noodle has a unique trait in comparison with other stores which is noodle is made by hand and by wood stove. Noodle is only made once customers come. Ms. Lang said the original Quang noodle is white, and here she still makes that original white Quang noodle. Nowadays, many stores put turmeric to make noodle have yellow color to attract the customers.
The noodle is steamed till done, soft but still chewy. The toppings are still shrimp and meat, not many other toppings. The broth has magical delicious taste.
Ms. Luan chicken rice – 707 Phan Chau Trinh
Ms. Luan – the 2nd generation of Ms. Luan chicken rice store, has brightly fair skin, freshly red lips, eventhough she is over 70 years old. She held my hand and told me: “My store’s price is more expensive than others, because the ingredients are more expensive. I carefully selected the igredients, from chicken, to every grain of rice, garlic cloves, stalks of vegetables, all must be delicious. In the past, the shop was shabby. It was the main road the the truck travels often went, so the guests were mainly long-distance drivers, Republic of Vietnam soldiers, and some local people who go to collect agarwoods in the mountains.” Perhaps thanks to the unchanged quality for so many years, her shop is famous everywhere. People whispered to each other, “If you don’t go and try Ms. Luan’s chicken rice, it is assumed that you haven’t been to Tam Ky”. A meal of chicken rice at Mrs. Luan’s shop often has: boiled chicken, fried chicken with fish sauce, sauteed gizzard with turmeric, sauteed vegetables, vegetable soup, served with fragrant rice with turmeric yellow color. Indeed, compared to a few other chicken rice restaurants also famous in Tam Ky, Ms. Luan chicken rice is more expensive, but it’s worthy. You will remember each bite you do.
Ngoc grilled patty – 19 Ton Duc Thang
It is not strange that the store owner’s name is Ngoc. Her store is long-standing and famous in this land with only two types of patties which are pork and beef. I especially liked beef patties with a strong flavor and delicious irresistible smell. The most uniqueness besides spring rolls was probably “ram” (rice paper rolled into small long sticks, fried to make it crispy). If ram at other restaurants is crunchy, the ram here is also porous, feeling like it will absorb a lot of oil but the ram here is extremely dry. Grilled patties are wrapped into a slightly thick rectangular rice paper with small transparent checked patterns, served with raw vegetables, pickled onions, and a rich aromatic fatty sauce of peanut and seasame flavor. Oh, writing about this makes me drool again! Huhuhu…
Ms. Hai steamed rice flour cake – lane 265 Tran Cao Van
The tiny steamed rice flour cake shop is located deep in this alley has a life of nearly 40 years. We had to turn left, turn right several times to reach the shop. At around 6 am, the yard is full of people having breakfast.
The dough was immersed and grinded with a stone mill by herself. After being steamed with wood stove, the cakes will be soft and smooth. Quang Nam steamed rice flour cake is served with a thick sauce made from crab-roe so it has a nice orange red color. Ms. Hai carefully put sauce onto each cup of rice flour cake. When eating, the guests shall put a little salty fish sauce and then use the “xeo” (a small long bar made of bamboo) to cut around the top of the cup to take the cake out, and put it in the mouth. The type of fish sauce served with Ms. Hai rice flour cake is Tam Thanh fish sauce, which can enhance the taste of this very simple dish.
Thanh Thuy fish ball noodle – 108 Huynh Thuc Khang
Living in the coastal area, but people there do not have many typical dishes from seafood. So strange! While searching for delicious food, we found a uniquely delicious fish ball vermicelli restaurant in this area. The type of fish used to make fish ball is pineapple fish. The broth is made from fish bones and pumpkin. Side dishes are cabbage and bamboo shoots so the broth is so delicious. Balanced with the sweetness is the mild sour taste from pineapple and a little pickled vegetable; the light sweetness of raw vegetables; and the salty taste of shrimp paste.
“Rom” cake & “chap” cake – corner of Nguyen Truong To street & Tran Dinh Tri
“Chap” cake is beating cake, consisting of 1 layer of crispy rice paper and a thick layer of steamed thin rice pancake “sticking” together. “Rom” cake is another version of chap cake with steamed thin rice pancake rolling over rice paper. It is served with fish sauce so the smell is so delicious. This dish is a very pleasant afternoon snack.
Ms. Ha semolina powder – located on Thanh Hoa street, near Phan Chu Trinh street
We think semolina is only used to cook all kinds of sweet soup, but in Tam Ky there is a special dish which is semolina soup with the broth from pork bones and crab broth, served with beef rolls, crab rolls, quail eggs, pork, and boiled blood. The shop opens from 3-4pm. I was recommended by a friend that when going to Tam Ky, remember to eat semolina. When I searched, I thought this dish was really strange, but after eating it, I must say this dish was strangely delicious.
Plain rice flan – 594 Phan Chu Trinh
This is the street vendor of a middle-aged woman who sells steam rice flour cake and plain rice flan at noon and afternoon. She has been selling here for about 20 years. Tam Ky plain rice flans are specially made from brown rice so they are red. Plain rice flan is elastic, so when we eat that, we feel like we are eating jelly. We feel cool in the mouth eating that. The plain rice flan is prinkled with crushed cloves, green onions, and peanuts on the surface. It is served with anchovy dipping sauce and has great aroma.
In addition to those typical dishes, there are other old and new addresses that you can refer to:
- Hong Linh Sweet Soup – 155 Huynh Thuc Khang
- Duck porridge – 464 Hung Vuong (open in the evening)
- Grandfather’s House Coffee Shop – 61 Phan Dinh Phung
- Byla Cafe – 519 Phan Boi Chau
- Sandwich (baked rice paper) – 46 Nguyen Dinh Chieu
- Fresh seafood at Thu Thao restaurant – along the coastline – Tam Thanh village
- Up cafe – 25 Tran Hung Dao
- Tam Ky cafe – 24/3 square Tran Hung Dao