Ngon Restaurant in Ho Chi Minh City offers delicacies from three culinary regions in Vietnam
In the past, a typical market in the Vietnamese countryside started in the early morning and could last at noon or even until late in the evening. What was it that drew the crowds?
A market has many material, cultural and spiritual functions in Vietnamese life. Traditionally, ordinary people visit the market not just to shop but to travel beyond their village gate for a change of scene, to meet their friends and catch up, sitting outdoors and eating the crab noodle soup known as bún riêu cua or the fried pancakes called bánh xèo.
Long ago, most every village had its own small market. The action is at the much bigger and diverse district and provincial markets held on certain days like the first or fifteenth of every lunar month.
Besides farm produce and daily consumer goods, a rural market houses tiny, simple eating places where old friends sit next to each other around a small open wood fire. Hot cooking pans simmer and are filled with light, tasty treats, such as the hot rice pancakes called bánh cuá»‘n nóng and the nutty rice savories known as bánh Ä‘úc.
Women especially love these cafés as they are ideal for meeting old friends, exchanging news and gossip. It's a place to treat each other to delicious food and generally have a good, relaxing break from the daily grind.
After shopping for the family and buying something for the kids, a country woman may think about treating herself to a simple yet tasty meal. It is her little holiday from the daily routine and responsibility of a wife and mother.
Realizing that women don't have much money to splurge on eating out, the food stalls in a village market serve simple dishes to suit the average budget. These are light meals usually made from local ingredients such as rice flour, spring onions, nuts, green beans and coconut milk. Countryside cuisine is cheap, simple and yet unique. Many of their hot dishes are cooked by women in front of their customers' eyes.
The cooking style in a village market reflects regional culinary habits. In the north, they pay more attention to the Yin and Yang, so they balance their dishes with herbs and vegetables. Not so along the central strip of Vietnam, where the preference is for strong and spicy flavors. And in the south, endowed with the wealth of the Mekong Delta, market folk add more fish and fruit to their café meals.
Despite the culinary differences in Vietnam's diverse geographical regions, most villagers of old sit down in a tiny, very low wooden or bamboo chair, or even no chair at all, and share a light meal with good friends they hadn't seen for a long time.
Nowadays, after trying the Western fare at an expensive restaurant in town, many Vietnamese people go back to the country flavors of a Vietnamese restaurant where they can eat every week, or even every day. And it is not taste alone that draws them back; they are returning to themselves, to where they feel comfortable, to a rural memory that persists for life.
With a menu of a hundred dishes, Nha Hang Ngon (Ngon Restaurant) in midtown Ho Chi Minh City is a special eatery for aficionados of Vietnam's three culinary regions. Inspired by a lively village market, the restaurant's outdoor area is always busy with people cooking, ordering, observing what others have ordered, or simply tucking in with gusto. Starting from around two dollars, the prices can be considered reasonable.
There are open kitchens with small cooking stalls next to the dining tables. For anyone keen to pick up a new recipe, it is a good place to observe the staff making sweet and sour sauce from fish sauce, sugar, lime and garlic, or cooking bánh xèo or bún riêu cua under the banana trees.
On special occasions, Vietnamese people want a change from the ubiquitous rice. No problem as Ngon Restaurant serves bún, phá»Ÿ, bánh canh and hủ tiếu, a different noodle soup with grilled pork, sweet and sour sauce (to make bún chả) or beef, spring onion in a stock made from cow's bone, star flower and other herbs and spices (to make phá»Ÿ).
There are a dozen different styles of noodle, porridge, rice cake, pancake and chè, the last named being a sort of sweet porridge of beans, coconut milk, sugar and a few other ingredients.
Besides the outdoor area, there is a dining room inside a French villa that is perfect for a cozy birthday party.
Ngon Restaurant is usually packed so it's common to wait half an hour for a table if one has not been booked already. Since there are hundreds of customers at the same time, it can happen that an order takes a little while to reach the table, though that is the exception rather than the rule.
At Ngon Restaurant, traditional Vietnamese food is elevated to gourmet class. It's the place to go for that good old country taste in fancy surroundings.
160 Pasteur Street, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City