Crabby yet sweet

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Miến cua (crab with clear noodles), canh cua khoai sọ rau rút (crab and vegetable soup with taro stems) and other countryside style dishes at Lang Cua Dong restaurant

After sampling international food at the fanciest restaurants in Ho Chi Minh City, for a change we visited the comparatively humble Lang Cua Dong on Nguyen Thi Minh Khai Street.

The restaurant, whose name means "Freshwater Crab Village", serves simple food with the emphasis on, you guessed it, freshwater or ricefield crab.

My Italian friend called me last week after her scrumptious dinner at Lang Cua Dong to rave about the sort of food that I could remember from my childhood. I couldn't wait to see if she was right.

Considering what my friend had said, I was a bit disappointed upon reaching Lang Cua Dong as it was small and pokey, and the lighting on the ground floor was harsh and glaring.

The first floor with its softer lighting felt more comfortable. It was around 7 p.m. and there were several groups sitting on the floor around the low bamboo tables called chõng tre and sharing their food.

As elsewhere in Asia, for hundreds of years Vietnamese cooks have been adventurous in their choice of ingredients.

For example, they can create marvelous meals out of small creatures from the field, river or lake that Western cooks tend to ignore, such as snails, eels and freshwater crabs.

Besides the mouth-watering list of crab soups, what made Lang Cua Dong's menu especially appealing was the inclusion of many vegetable dishes.

After much perusal and discussion, we ordered miến cua, or crab with clear noodles, and canh cua khoai sọ rau rút, crab and neptunia plant soup with taro stems.

To go with our crab, we asked for steamed rice and cà muối (pickled eggplants), rau lang luá»™c (boiled sweet potato buds) and hoa thiên lý xào tỏi (Tonkin jasmine stir-fried with garlic). We also considered a Vietnamese hotpot, or lẩu.

LANG CUA DONG RESTAURANT

18A/3/A3 Nguyen Thi Minh Khai, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City

The crab dishes were light and tasty, full of crabby fragrance and fresh vegetables done in the country style.

They were reminiscent of those days in the countryside when the heat almost kills the appetite and the only appealing meal is a big bowl of sweet water crab soup like canh cua rau rút, miến cua or canh cua khoai sọ, enhanced by seasonal vegetables and herbs.

About the only complaint with our dinner at Lang Cua Dong, and a minor one at that, was the slightly overcooked noodles in the miến cua.

That aside, the crab component was delicious, as was the canh cua khoai sọ rau rút with the juxtaposition of the crunchiness of the rau rút (neptunia plant) and the softness of the taro.

The menu prices were more than reasonable. We paid only VND70,000 each for our tasty and healthy ethnic dinner, plus a generous tip for our helpful and polite waiter.

While freshwater crab dishes are cheaper than fish or shrimp, they take a long time to prepare.

First the cook chooses live crabs with meaty legs, washes them thoroughly and separates the crabs into two parts, one of them consisting of the legs, body and the covered sac that contains the yellow fluid known as gạch cua (crab-roe).

The fluid is poured into a small bowl while the body of the crab is ground and minced finely, and some water added to make the soup base.

The crab water is then cooked with vegetables, herbs or tomato, depending on the type of soup desired. Then, as per tradition, the gạch cua is fried in oil with some onion to create a fragrant yellow topping for the soup.

These days, busy homemakers normally buy ground crab and gạch cua at the market but the only way to guarantee that the crabs are fresh is to buy them live and get the vendor to separate and grind them on the spot.

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