My piece for CNN:
Pigs’ trotters, congealed blood cubes, clawed chicken feet and duck fetuses were once more common in Saigon than Sydney.
But Cabramatta, a western suburbs enclave of all things Asian, is home to 40 per cent of New South Wales’ Vietnamese population. And where Vietnamese tread, the country’s fragrant, subtle, poignant flavours are sure to follow: The area is bursting with restaurants, markets, street traders and hawkers peddling everything from freshly-made noodles to sugar cane juice.
There’s something about Vietnamese food that brings out the addict within. Its heady, sweet spices and grassy, fresh herbs are thrown in with off-kilter texture combinations and punches of chili. The likes of pho and banh mi have converted even some of the staunchest Aussies; but what about some less common –- and more challenging — flavors of Vietnam?
Cabramatta expert, Thang Ngo of Noodlies.com, shows us where the locals eat.
It would be churlish to omit Vietnam’s most famous dish from the proceedings and where else to head to but local hero, Pho Tau Bay. To stay as true to “real Vietnam” as possible, the essential ingredient is pho tai — noodles with raw blood-red beef that’s gently cooked in hot, fragrant soup.
A pho is a subjective dish and there are two schools of thought – salty and meaty versus floral and spicy. For proponents of salty meat, this pho is manna from heaven. Torn basil leaves and fresh chili at the table perk it up.
Pho tai ($10) at Pho Tau Bay, 12/117 John St., Cabramatta, +61 (0)2 9726 4583, Open 7 days 8 a.m.-7 p.m.
Com Tam (broken rice)
Com tam was originally a pauper’s dish, originating from the days when broken grains of rice sold for rock-bottom prices at market. Humble as its origins may be, broken rice is now a delicacy.
A mound of al dente vermicelli with pork skin sits beside the rice, which is topped with a softly fried egg and accompanied by a pork chop, egg and vermicelli cake and cucumber slices. The gamy pork skin flavors the rice and runny egg yolk boosts the richness of the chop, which is heady and smoky with five-spice and chili.
Spoon over some nuoc mam (fish sauce) for sweetness, chili and salt and it’s easy to see why broken rice is the rags-to-riches story of Cabramatta.
Com tam (broken rice) $12.50 at Pho Tau Bay, 12/117 John St., Cabramatta, +61 (0)2 9726 4583, Open 7 days 8 a.m.-7 p.m.
If there’s one dish that exemplifies the counter-intuitive, shouldn’t-work-but-it-somehow-does pairing of Vietnamese textures, it’s this. Starchy folds of wide rice noodles stuffed with spicy pork mince and Chinese mushrooms sit next to slices of peppery devon and vermicelli, chili and cured pork sausage.
Cucumber and herb salad blast the palate with freshness and chunks of deep-fried prawn and soybean cake add a fatty depth. To top it all off, crunchy fried shallot delivers a hit of sweetness. The contrasting textures and flavours of this traditional, work-intensive breakfast dish are washed down by free tea.
Banh cuon ($10.50) at Phu Quoc, 11/117 John St., Cabramatta, +61 (0)2 9724 2188, Open 7 days 9 a.m.-9 p.m.
Bun Bo Hue
Pho’s unruly cousin, bun bo hue, is a fiery bowl of lemongrass-edged porkiness. From the jelly-like cubes of congealed blood to the cloudy-skinned trotter lurking beneath the oily, red surface, this is not one for the faint-hearted.
But meaty noodles carry the big flavours and punches of chili cut through the fatty meat. The trotter can even be chewed and sucked with wild abandon.
Bun bo hue $10 at Dong Ba, 5-6/40 Park Road, Cabramatta, +61 (0)2 9755 0727, Open 7 days 8.30 a.m.-8 p.m.
Goi Ga Chay Bo
A chicken salad with clawed chicken feet is, well, a little unnerving. Especially when the chicken in question is goi ga chay bo, or ‘running chicken’, which can only mean well-travelled feet.
But, nothing ventured, nothing gained, and if chicken skin is your thing, then these bony, sabre-like appendages are worth a try. Sinews aside, the salad provides the perfect foil to the chewy free-range flesh and fatty skin –- slivers of pink and green cabbage sparkle with lime and fish sauce.
Goi ga chay bo $15 at Diem Hen, 205 Canley Vale Road, Canley Heights, +61 (0)2 9724 9800, Open 7 days 8 a.m.-11 p.m.
Hot Vit Lon
Even Anthony Bourdain, master of the gastronomic challenge, calls hot vit lon a “difficult dining experience.” Yes, foetal duck eggs, known more sympathetically as “half-hatched eggs”.
So, crack the shell, add salt, pepper and lemon, drink the foetal fluid, scoop out the mix of feathers, flesh, egg white and yolk and intersperse with leaves of Vietnamese mint to cut through the richness.
Easy? Not really –- it was fiddly, smelly, warm and furry. The intensely sweet, umami-heavy fluid had a pungent funky stink and there was an odd disk of crunchy, alien albumen that beat me. Not one I’ll be adding to my breakfast routine anytime soon, but a good route to a Saigon street market without leaving the city of Sydney.
And, just to prove it, a vid of me eating the duck foetus in question. Mmmm.
Hot vit lon ($3) at Diem Hen, 205 Canley Vale Road, Canley Heights, +61 (0)2 9724 9800, Open 7 days 8 a.m.-11 p.m.