Mam a Mia

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Leap into a bowl of lau mam, fermented fish hot pot of Vietnam's southern region

A bowl of bun mam with pork, eggplant, chives and noodles

"Lau mam is the specialty of the south; so when I'm in the market for a new chef, I always go with a southerner," says Mr. Tuan, owner of An La Khen - a famous Ho Chi Minh City destination for the pungent lau mam (fermented fish hot pot).

"Only a true southerner can understand all of the subtle and special flavors of the dish and produce a pure broth with the signature smell," says Tuan. Lau mam derives its notorious aroma from a paste made out of fermented snakehead fish the fearsome freshwater species that's known to walk on land and lay up to 15,000 eggs at a squat.

To some Westerners, the odor can be a bit overwhelming. To the initiated, however, lau mam is a flavor altogether sublime one that takes on a nearly magical complexity as it simmers, with a host of piquant ingredients, in a bubbling hot pot. The distinctly salty punch of the fermented fish paste is married, in the slow boil, with citronella, chili, garlic, onion, and pork bone.

Like all hot pot experiences, diners of lau mam are left to choose their own adventure.

Restaurants usually accompany the orders with plates of between ten and 24 varieties of fresh Vietnamese roughage. The selections include mint, basil, water mimosa, lotus stem, water lily, chive, eggplant, straw mushroom, bitter melon, and on and on.

Lau mam An La Khen
11 Ho Bieu Chanh St., Phu Nhuan Dist.
Tel: (08) 3 507 4678

Lau mam 140
140/13 Tran Huy Lieu St., Phu Nhuan Dist.
Tel: (08) 3 844 4484

On top of that, diners are presented with platters of raw shrimp, eel, fish and squid to simmer in the stew.

As the meal wears on you and your friends will continue to add and subtract from the dish. As this continues, the flavors of the various ingredients compound into an incalculable richness; the broth gets better and better. The hardest thing about eating lau mam is stopping.

The dish can be found everywhere in this country - from corner shops to grand and expensive restaurants.

A large party can expect to pay around VND180,000 for a lau mam experience.

Smaller parties or couples who are looking for a quiet meal should consider ordering a simple bowl of bun mam - vermicelli noodles in a lau mam broth. The flavors of the two dishes are similar, though bun mam lacks the experiential overload and range of fresh ingredients offered by a hot pot. A bowl of the noodles usually runs around VND35,000-40,000.

If you have the people and the time for lau mam, consider Lau mam 140 in Phu Nhuan District, a city institution with over 30 years under its belt.

Those seeking a single bowl of bun mam should head to Ben Thanh Market in District 1 and follow their nose. The pungent broth permeates the market and the noodles can be found at a variety of stalls.

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