Currying flavor in District 5

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The real champions in this bowl of curry are the rich, pillowy chunks of blood pudding. Photo: Cavin Godfrey

No one knows exactly when curry became a hit in southern Vietnam.

Some assume it came here by way of Thailand. Others believe it was a dish picked up as the Kinh expanded southward and absorbed the Indic Cham communities.

When the French arrived, they disdained the Vietnamese as "rice eaters" and turned up their noses at nearly everything but curry. The English had already brought the dish to Europe. Even still, while curry was considered one of the few acceptable Vietnamese dishes for a Frenchman to eat with rice, many insisted on sopping up their meal with a baguette.

Perhaps for this reason, Vietnamese curry is a thing all its own.

In his book Vietnamese Food, celebrity chef and Hanoi restaurateur Bobby Chinn notes that curry here combines the Thai use of a fresh spice paste and the Indian tendency to create a base by adding dried spices to fried onions.

"Although I love the ghee-enriched curries of the Punjab, as well as the coconut-rich curries of Malaysia and Thailand, the Vietnamese curry is light and sweet, yet retains the fine spicing characteristics of a curry," he wrote.

THE CURRY CORNER

Address: 418/4L Tran Phu Street, Ward 7, Dist.5

Directions: Make a right into the wide hẻm (alley) that opens up as you take the Tran Phu Street that forms the Tran Hung Dao Triangle, near the Nguyen Tri Phuong Bridge to District 8. Once inside the alleyway, make your first right and continue all the way to the curry corner.

Hours: 1p.m. - whenever they run out

Price: VND35,000 per bowl

For Chinn, the dish provided an easy escape from the summer heat. For me, it's a wonderful way to forget how little money I have.

There's no greater comrade to curry than the duck"”an animal that remains out of my price range everywhere but Vietnam. Bún cà ri vịt (rice noodles with curry and duck) is sold from street carts and modest restaurants all over town.

I prefer to eat it in a corrugated tin courtyard at the end of a District 5 alleyway where a big family has operated a booming curry stand for the past 22 years.

"It's a family place," said Tho, a second-generation currier, as she whacked away at my duck leg with a heavy cleaver. The ancestors are not forgotten in this place. The kitchen (a stationary tin pushcart) contains a statue of a fat man holding an extinguished cigarette.

Choose between thighs or breast meat. The big winner in the bowl, however, are the soft, pillowy chunks of blood pudding. For a few extra cents, you can get a small bowl of crisp innards.

Those feeling French can buy bread from an unrelated woman selling them at the courtyard's threshold. You may want to. The sour rice noodles can sap some of the punch from the relatively mild broth.

Bun lovers, however, will not be disappointed. A few spoonfuls of chili paste, sliced lime and some fresh basil really get things going and the noodles are fresh as can be.

Beyond the food, it's a great place to hang out and take in a neighborhood.

Laundry hangs from windows in every direction and kids zip around on toy vehicles. From the moment it opens, the tin tables never seem to empty.

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