Take a sweet tasting fish, add some sour and bitter herbs, and presto, you have lẩu cá kèo (spiny goby hot pot)
Go around Ho Chi Minh City and you will discover some small streets in District 3 that are very busy at night.
They are Su Thien Chieu and Ba Huyen Thanh Quan where restaurants overflow with customers and are filled with laughter and beer toasts thanks to delicious dishes made from cá kèo (spiny goby fish).
The spiny goby lives only in brackish waters, particularly in the Mekong Delta. It can grow to around 15 centimeters and the thickness of a thumb.
Its meat tastes delicious and smells good, and its liver is a little bitter, but all of these combine to make some typical southern delicacies.
The restaurants here are popular thanks to three specialties – grilled spiny goby with salt and chili, deep fried spiny goby, and spiny goby hot pot.
But since they taste distinct from each other, customers often order all three at the same time.
Grilled spiny goby with salt and chili has a soft texture and a slightly spicy aftertaste on the tip of the tongue. Deep fried spiny goby smells good and is crispy and crunchy.
They are dipped into a mixture of fish sauce and tamarind, which is made by adding some water to tamarind, crushed garlic, chili and sugar to reduce the sourness of tamarind.
But most patrons’ favorite is lẩu cá kèo (spiny goby hot pot).
Spiny goby hot pot
It is not clear why people began to make the sour hot pot with lá giang(Aganonerion polymorphum or sour-soup leaf), since tamarind is the common ingredient in sour soups.
But it has turned out to be for the good. Sour-soup creepers were a wild plant in the past, but are now farmed and sold in bunches at markets.
The fish makes the soup opaque, but the leaves infuse a little green and a gentle sourness.
When enjoying the hot pot or other dishes with sour soup, a big attraction is the aroma of the herbs and vegetables that waft around.
A sour hot pot requires lots of seasoning like cilantro, basil, and rice paddy herb which are chopped into small pieces.
Some vegetables are also served along with the hot pot – such as split water spinach, water mimosa, and rau đắng (bacopa monnieri).
Rau đắng is a distinctive vegetable that grows in the southern region. It is bitter but without it the spiny goby hot pot will barely be half as tasty.
The sour soup is slurped up by adding some rice vermicelli and fish sauce. The fish is dipped in fish sauce containing a few thin slices of pungent chili.
Most of the restaurants in District 3 are spacious and airy, and have both low plastic stools and normal tables and chairs to serve all manner of clients. Groups of friends have a tendency to sit down at the smaller tables to make their get-together more informal, while families prefer to be seated in comfort.
The restaurants open from 10 a.m. until night. While it is not unusual to see them busy in the day, the most crowded hours are in the evening when people come to talk, laugh, toast, and enjoy music and the food. By Nguyet Anh, Thanh Nien News (The story can be found in the October 12th issue of our print edition, Vietweek
Herbs and vegetables served along side lẩu cá kèo: split water spinach, water mimosa, andrau đắng