New restaurant presents signature dishes from five countries
Ground floor of Monsoon Saigon restaurant in Ho Chi Minh City's District 1.
Necessity is the mother of invention, they say. It is also the mother of entrepreneurship.
Naya Ehrlich-Adam, a Thai national married to an Austrian who works in the tourism industry, moved to Yangon, Myanmar nearly 10 years ago.
"We liked eating out very much, but there were few good international standard restaurants in Yangon then," she recalled.
She and her husband also liked food from different countries in the region, including her own, but were finding it difficult to get them in Yangon.
Thus, the idea for Monsoon Yangon, a multi-cuisine restaurant serving food from neighboring countries, was born.
"So we decided to open a restaurant serving food from Myanmar, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Thailand."
That happened seven years ago. The couple, who have traveled a lot, then moved to Ho Chi Minh City, four years ago.
For the first three years in Vietnam, Naya took care of her second child.
Last year, she had the opportunity to join the international food and beverage fair in Vung Tau Town, where she put up a stall and had three chefs from Myanmar make Mohinga, a traditional Burmese fish soup.
The response she received from Vietnamese patrons of the fare gave her the confidence to open Monsoon Saigon last month.
Monsoon Vietnam is probably the only restaurant in the country that serves food from the erstwhile Indochinese countries and its neighbors Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Myanmar.
"It is very interesting to taste traditional food from five Asian countries. Japanese food leans more toward fish, soy bean and freshness of main ingredients. While these foods (from Myanmar, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Thailand) have many herb, spices and are also very fresh," said Chicaco, a Japanese customer.
Naya said her idea was to create one place where she promotes a selection of foods that she herself loves.
Talking to Vietweek about how she created the menu for Monsoon, Naya said: "I visit the local markets and try the food from the street stalls. I collect cookbooks from the region and pick the dishes that I am interested in."
Later, she has a sure-proof way of testing her dishes. "Let the people from that country taste your food, they can tell if it is good or not."
Asked about the difference between Monsoon Yangon and Monsoon Saigon, Naya said: "Very similar. Monsoon Yangon has more Burmese dishes than Vietnamese dishes, but Monsoon Saigon has more Vietnamese dishes than Burmese dishes. Also, Monsoon Saigon does not serve European dishes as Monsoon Yangon does."
Naya said she found Vietnamese food very healthy and light. "It is a challenge (to cook Vietnamese food for Vietnamese customers) but not a big one because we have a Vietnamese team here," she said.
Authentic and affordable
Naya likes the idea of authentic food in a contemporary atmosphere, she said.
Monsoon Saigon has a menu with 70 national signature dishes such as cha gio (fried spring roll), Phat Thai Goong Sod (Thai fried rice noodles with prawn), Mohinga (Burmese rice noodles in rich fish soup) and Gaeng Juet (clear mushroom and pumpkin soup).
"When it comes to food, I like sincere, good food at an affordable price. I think it is too much to sell Asian food (at similar prices) like French food. "
Prices on the Monsoon menu range from VND25,000 (US$1.20) for assorted Vietnamese desserts with coconut milk (che) and VND300,000 for steamed seabass in fresh lime and chilli.
Monsoon offers authentic, not fusion food, Naya stressed.
Monsoon is located on Cao Ba Nha Street in District 1. It has a small garden in front. The atmosphere inside the restaurant is laid back, and diners have a view of old houses on the opposite side of the street through glass doors and windows.
In the late afternoon, a vendor sells local snacks right in front of the restaurant.
Inside, photos and paintings featuring Asian culture adorn the walls. On the ground floor, opposite to a bar, stands a big, ancient style bed of dark wood with colorful cushions. Wall paintings of Buddha, wooden Buddhist statues and paintings depicting life in Saigon give the place the feel of an art gallery.
At Naya's suggestion, I tried Mohinga, a Burmese dish with rice noodles in rich fish soup, served with boiled eggs, lime, gourd fritters and coriander.
It had a warm, strong flavor of curry, onion, grilled fish and chilli powder. It was delicious.
"Everybody here knows Vietnamese dishes and Thai dishes. Many people know dishes from Laos and Cambodia as many of them travel there, but Myanmar is not well-known. It is challenging to introduce Myanmar cuisine to the customers as it has a different taste than the rest of the dishes from several countries that we serve at Monsoon. The guests who are more adventurous find it interesting and some just love it.
Naya does not pay much attention to advertising. She said she likes the fact that some customers discover the restaurant when passing by. And they feel at home and come often, she said.
"That's how I made friends in Yangon," Naya said, smiling.
She is going to make a lot of friends in Ho Chi Minh City too.