Pleiku picks

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This spring, head for this highland town to sample tender wild veggies and fish fit for a king

A dish of rau rung luoc (boiled wild forest vegetable) served with mam cua (crab paste sauce) at Thien Thanh Restaurant in Pleiku

Pleiku, the wind-swept highland capital of the Central Highland province of Gia Lai, is renowned for its sloping valleys, dreamlike waterfalls, and lovely springs.

The town has always served as a gateway to Vietnam's rugged mountainous region and all of its rich natural resources.

At the same time, the town is a wonderful place to explore some of Vietnam's simplest and most robust flavors.

Indeed, Pleiku's dishes taste best as the tropical pseudo-spring flushes fish from their hiding places and sends delicate wild shoots out of the forest floor.

The region's signature dishes are beginning to trickle into the country's big towns and cities, but purists argue that you have to take a trip to taste the real thing.

"Maybe there are many places selling these dishes but if you've ever passed through Pleiku and enjoyed them here, you won't be able to forget the flavor of the highland forests and streams," says Nguyen Van Quoc, owner of Thien Thanh Restaurant.

Wild greens

While Westerners think of their forests as a place to find tart berries and sweet fruits, Vietnamese favor their forests' hearty greens.

For generations, poor families throughout the central region all sat down to eat rau rung (wild forest vegetables). The term refers to shoots and leafy veggies that are harvested in the surrounding woods.

The following restaurants in Pleiku offer choice selections of their star dishes:

Thien Thanh 1
Alley 58, Pham Van Dong Street

Com Viet Nam Ngoc Lam
127 Phan Dinh Phung Street

Loc Vung
3 Bui Du Street

More and more restaurants are now including rau rung on their menus.

Naturally, this dish is best ordered at the beginning of the rainy season (April-May) when the leaves and shoots are most tender and sweet.

As the season progresses, it's not uncommon for these veggies to be boiled or fried in garlic for a long, long time.

If they're boiled, you can bet the wild veggies will be served up with a salty dipping sauce "” an age-old peasant dish that is now starting to become a chic choice of weight-conscious urbanites.

Pleiku's most famous accompaniment for rau rung is known as mam kho quet a gooey, salty, fatty fish sauce reduction that's hard to resist.

The sauce is typically prepared by simmering fish sauce, shallots, pepper and chilis in pork fat. The sauce is cooked until it becomes a thick brownish goo.

You'll know it's good when it clings, deliciously, to the boiled veggies.

Mountain fish

Man cannot live on vegetables alone "” even if they are dipped in savory fat.

Lucky for you, Pleiku is home to a pair of rare and wonderful fish that are just coming into season.

Semilabeo notabilis is so elusive, it was said to once be served to Vietnam's emperors.

The cave-dwelling species survives throughout the year on moss and aquatic plants. When the water cools in the late winter, the fish leaves its cavernous hideaway to search for food.

Naturally, it's not easy to catch.

Traditionally, the savory fish is rubbed with chili salt and roasted over hot coals. It can also be steamed or fried in ginger.

Another great highland option is the region's notoriously hefty catfish. These fish get so huge, it's said that the most desirable part of hemibagrus are their lips.

They're best enjoyed stewed in a tamarind broth along with tart slices of star fruit and bamboo shoot.

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