Little crabs, big flavors

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There's no need to look at the atmospheric wooden menus.

The only thing to order here is lau rieu cua, and no matter how you order it, the first thing thrust in front of you (after the beer) is a big bamboo met (flat round bamboo basket) full of the colorful foods you're about to cook yourself and eat.

The basket contains a bowl of brown rieu cua (crab cake made of cua dong or field crabs) in the middle, fried tofu and yellow fried ram (another kind of small crab), leafy herbs, red uncooked beef, two trung vit lon (fertilized duck eggs), cha (Vietnamese grilled pork roll), cha ca (fried grilled fish), a dish of rice noodles and a bowl of nuoc mam (fish sauce).

The rieu cua has been made the old fashioned way, the way my mother did it when we were kids: by first smashing and pulverizing the tiny crabs with a mallet and then grinding them up with a mortar and pestle.

This is Ngo 8, a crowded and noisy restaurant in Phu Nhuan District, where the spongy rieu cua floating in everyone's soup is what all the hubbub is about.

Rieu cua is more famous for its use in bun rieu cua (rice vermicelli and sour crab soup), a common dish popular across from Vietnam.

But it's only recently that our northern brothers and sisters in Hanoi invented the new dish that Ngo 8 specializes in: lau rieu cua, or sour crab hotpot. There are only a few places to eat this in Saigon.

My favorite time to go sit at Ngo 8's tiny wooden tables and chairs is on cold rainy evenings.

Normally, the service is quite quick, but on weekend and the peek hour, between 7 p.m. to 9 p.m., customers usually have to wait a while for their lau rieu cua.

So, now, back to your wonderful, colorful basket filled with cold food that you're about to make steaming, piping hot, bursting with all those delicious flavors (spicy, sweet, sour, salty, bitter, chewy, and crunchy and everything else).

Apart from the eggs and the beef, all the other ingredients have already been cooked. You'll be told to break the duck eggs and put them in the boiling bouillon you've just been brought. But you can use regular chicken eggs instead, if you want.

Next comes the fried ram, my favorite ingredient. It is well-fried, super crunchy and has its own natural sweetness. But don't let it sit in the hotpot too long, or it will lose that crunchiness.

Everything goes into hotpot except the rieu cua, otherwise it will break into small pieces as it boils.

Once all the other ingredients have cooked together a little, fill your rice bowl with them and a little broth and place a nice chunk of rieu cua on top.

NGO 8 RESTAURANT

8 Cu Lao Street,

Phu Nhuan District 7, HCMC

The dish is typical of Northern Vietnamese cuisine: not very sweet and a bit sour but not very salty with hints of tomato and tamarind.

The heat brings out the fatty flavor and enticing scent of the rieu cua.

The pot suits the three moderate eaters, but you can also order fried chicken feet with nuoc mam. The chicken is crunchy, fragrant and easily devoured in mere seconds.

A cup of home-made yogurt with sweet cocoa powder for dessert is another specialty at Ngo 8. The yogurt is soft enough but very sour, and just perfect when combined with the sweet cocoa.

Opened daily from 3 p.m. 11 p.m., Ngo 8 is great for groups and families. Reservations recommended. A lau rieu cua at the place costs VND180,000.

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