Going the whole hog when it rains in Saigon

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Porridge with pig innards at a shop in Ho Chi Minh City. Photo by Giang Vu

It's starting to rain in Ho Chi Minh City.

And when it begins to rain, city residents begin to think"¦ romantic thoughts? That too, maybe, but their hearts and stomachs begin to yearn for a steamy bowl of porridge at the end of the day.

And it is not just any bowl of porridge. It has to be a bowl of porridge with tough and crunchy pork innards cháo lòng.

Though it is more of a northern dish, many believe the porridge reflects excellently the atmosphere of Ho Chi Minh City.

The porridge does not have a place at luxury restaurants. It is not a simple dish to be prepared at home either. It is perfectly suited to sidewalk eateries where diners sit on plastic tools with no table manner obligations and have their fill of fatty bites and the occasional slurp even as their eyes and ears are kept busy with the going-ons around them.

For Westerners, innards are stuff to throw away, not to mention too fatty and high in cholesterol, but, traditionally, Vietnamese have been too skinny to worry about such things. The dish was actually a favorite of farmers at the beginning. For these hard-working souls that toiled from dawn to dusk, this dish was a great antidote.

So, for one thing, the dish stays true to the Vietnamese culinary tradition of wasting next to nothing.

For another, it confirms to the Vietnamese culinary philosophy of a dish bringing out the best taste, smell, look and the sound made in slurping the porridge and crunching the tough innards. And those who want to go further back and eat the way farmers used to, with bare hands, the tactile aspect can also be met.

The porridge is cooked in a brown broth which is the result of braising the pork bones, head and innards.

It is served with pieces of tongue, heart, liver, chitterlings, and cooked blood pudding. The most special part dồi looks like Western sausages tubes of thinned chitterlings filled with a mixture of cooked blood pudding, mung beans, and small pieces of aromatic leaves. Shops these days fry parts of the dồi and chitterlings.

Chopped onions, ground pepper and aromatic leaves are added on top.

Late author and journalist Vu Bang wrote in his 1960 book Mieng ngon Ha Noi (Hanoi delicious foods) that cháo lòng is something uniquely Vietnamese. A Westerner "definitely cannot eat pig's innards" while a Chinese only eats innards dry with bread or wine, he said.

The porridge is a night snack in HCMC, but in Hanoi and other northern locations, it is served as breakfast, usually with a bowl of raw blood pudding and some rice wine. 

A shop in HCMC's Cao Thang Street also adds pig eyes to the bowl, calling them "headlights."

A Chinese shop on Hong Bang Street in the city's Chinatown area serves extra cabbage pickles to reduce the fat taste.

Some popular cháo lòng shops in the city include Lang Cha Ca (priest tomb) near the roundabout between Le Van Sy, Cong Hoa and Hoang Van Thu streets in Tan Binh District. It is so named because the shop is located near the tomb of French Catholic priest Pierre Joseph Georges Pigneau who was sent to Vietnam in the 1760s as a missionary.

Another shop at 144 Phan Dang Luu Street, Phu Nhuan District has been serving the porridge for around 20 years at VND15,000, less than a dollar a bowl, opening from 2 p.m. through the next morning.

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