CULINARY SNIPPETS: Sâm Bổ Lượng Dessert Cart- Saigon

My mind turns to the refreshing delights of my days in Saigon…and how I thirst for just a sip of that goodiness right now.

Now, you may have heard of or be like me, have many times over, in your life, turned into an utter fool for “Chè”, not the tea, but the dessert. It could be anything from well-cooked green beans soaked in sugar to a blend of syrup-drowned fruits, nuts and jelly,served either hot or iced. The topic of this much loved dessert would take countless days to cover, since it could be practically any number of combinations of sugar-related dishes in Vietnam.

Sam Bo Luong – this combination does not include all the available ingredients
The Sam Bo Luong Cart on Nguyen Thai Binh Str, Dist1

In Saigon, however, amidst the culinary adventure on which I and my palate fully and ever so often engage and yet fail to fully report on, I discover a genre of ‘chè’  known as ‘sâm bổ lượng”  – Pardon my Vietnamese, linguists out there, but my rough understanding after enjoying this once or twice, is that it’s a ginseng drink that is absolutely scrumptious and healthy, and it gives you a boost on metabolism.

No, it’s not “Redbull” in disguise. From my conversation with the vendor who happens to be of Chinese ancestry, this type of dessert is a Chinese treat brought to the southern metropolis by communities moving southward to settle. Beyond simply cooking different types of fruits and jelly, and letting it candy up and soak in sugar syrup in the case of many types of typical Vietnamese “Chè”, this ginseng refreshment uses ingredients that would be more known to Vietnamese people in a mixture of Chinese traditional medicine such as: ginseng, dried seaweed, ginko nuts pearl  barley, dried dates, dried longans…etc (Below is a sample of some ingredients) .

This makes it all sound so healthy…and my so far-done research of this drink is way too scattered to affirm this…yet my palate and I will attest, the ginseng flavored syrupy broth, coupled with the subtle differences in texture and taste of the ingredients involved, makes this drink definitely a worthwhile delight to try out. I find that it doesn’t have the ‘heaviness’ or ‘overwhelming sugary’ feel of some other types of Chè that includes further extraction of the fruits and beans into the broth. In contrast, it’s light, only slightly sweet, savory in texture, and refreshing in taste. It’d become nothing short of a culinary enigma if I attempt to describe any more.

Some ingredients (*Courtesy of Food For Four)

But, if you ever head over to district 1 in HCMC, a block or two away from Ben Thanh Market, down to Nguyen Thai Binh street during late night….it’s completely deserted, with the exception of this cart. It’s a very eye-catching cart indeed…plastered with what I see as stained-glass paintings (I could be completely off)…

These carts, the owner, in his 50s and a 3rd generation Chinese expat, says are typical for vending desserts and other goodies back in the heyday of the “Cho Lon” – Chinese-populated era of Saigon. His cart dates back to the 1930s, I believe and his family has been in the business since he can barely remember. After the passing of his wife, my friend shares, he had been fully dedicated to perfecting the trade, all from the comforts of this cute little cart, amidst the bustling chaos that is Saigon life.

He’s a journalism story in the making and I have plans to learn more about this man and his cart, of which I’ll share, and yet I digress, as this post is about FOOD…Anyhoo, it’s roughly around 175 Nguyen Thai Binh I think, a cart with aluminum cylinders of brewed delights ready to be mixed in with a range of different ginseng and sugar syrup. I’ve only had the drink several times, not nearly quite enough,  but what I can definitely notice is the clarity and lightness of the broth here compared to the place I tried in District 5 – Chinatown. How I would fly to Saigon just for a glass right now…!!!

PS: updates will be given to fill apparently huge gaps in the knowledge that I have about this delight. From what I know, Sam Bo Luong is but one…as this cart alone features many other types of ‘che” known through names that I fail to register in my head…ones that even include full eggs boiled in sugar (sounds weird yet enticing). For now, just take it from me that Sam Bo Luong is amazingly the best summer refreshment I’ve enjoyed so far, and you should go try it! Enjoy!


[Munch Spot] Snails for Lunch? – Ốc Đào Sài Gòn

So we all might have heard of the typical stereotypes of the French eating their grimy frog legs and more frequently are escargots (snails), and the mention of those “slimey molluscs” on any dinner menu immediately triggers a ‘yuck’ or two from a good number of my American friends. But mind you, they’re part of the street food specialties in Vietnam.

Aside from a tiny bias here that it is perhaps one of my favorite pastime munchies that I’m literally almost always up for at any particular given time, snails here are diverse in the myriad of breeds living across Vietnam and they become much more than just, as infamously accused, “rubbery pieces of blandness” through the plenty of ways in which you can marinate/cook/grill/stir-fry/a la carte/’younameit’ them.

Anyhow, just when my palate thought it was quite, very much, satisfied with the ‘Quán Cay’ (Spicy Resto) alongside the Giang Vo lake _renowned as the snails foodie row here in Hanoi, I find myself completely stupefied at the abundance of scrumptious snail possibilities in Saigon. There are perks in having to go on business trips down to the southern metropolis every so often, you start to discover the greener, well another color completely of the culinary grass. The collection of southern snails are for a great part, very different from those you could find here in Hanoi. My newfound snail haven in HCMC is ‘Ốc Đào’.

Well tucked away in a typically-Vietnamese-winding alley of Nguyễn Trãi Street, the resto’s headquarters, all under 2 umbrellas, consist of baskets full of different types of shell-fish, 1 or 2 cooks stir-frying on-spot, and a host of finger-pointing employees as to where you should sit. Behind the umbrellas, are two small rooms but the main eating area is across the alley, into a tent-covered yard with around 30 to 40 small plastic tables, and those tiny street food chairs that anyone above 1.8 metres tall who sits on them will immediately find his knees kissing his nose.

The thing that sets Ốc Đào (not sure if Đào (peach) is the name of the owner) apart is the fact that it is an exclusively lunch-spot. This is very odd considering most Vietnamese people look to snails as a night treat. Nevertheless, as I had mentioned my ‘timeless’ love for these shell delights, this fact, for me and I’m guessing also for the amount of people flocking into the place over lunchtime, the fact didn’t matter. The matter at hands were the SNAILS! They are around 25 different types of shellfish on the menu (shrimps and crabs included)…some of the stuff I have never even heard of, everything ranging from tiny-looking snails ironically named ‘ốc ngựa’ (horse snails) to oddities like ‘sò lông’ (hairy clams) . There are  some 13 different ways of cooking almost any particular snails, most scrumptious of which include, grilled with shallots and peanuts, stir-fried with tamarind, or  deep-fried in butter and garlic. From 25,000 VND to 100,000 VND per full plates, depending on the luxuriousness of the snails,  it’s definitely quite a budget yet sure-to-please street delight.

Ốc Mỡ Stirfried with Tamarind, Shallots and Fatty chips

In the middle of the seemingly commencing unbearable summer heat of Saigon, hiding below a tent, watching conical-hat covered employees hoisting tray-full of a multitude of shells on their shoulders, huddled to your knees amidst about 100 others,
sipping ice-cold sugarcane juice, twisting delectably marinated snails out of their shells, dipping them anxiously into crazily spicy fish sauce, and then easing those  lovelies into your palate , one by one …. it’s an experience beyond any preconceptions you might have about eating snails! Enjoy photos taken on my second visit to the resto!

Sò Lông Grilled with buttered shallots and peanuts
Sò Dương Grilled with Garlic and Peanuts

[Travel] Sprint into May – Vũng Tàu & Sài Gòn

May began gloriously with me getting my cell phone swindled at the Ha Long Carnival…tis the joy of being a reporter, squeezing your way through 5,000 bodies, and expecting to come out somehow intact. I’ve lost all the contacts I’ve had in 2 years, the disappointment of which, I have thankfully come to terms with.

By the 5th of May, I was well away from Hanoi, from the depressing cold-war atmosphere that was slowly seeping its eeriness into me, and back to the sun-shine-filled, free-to-be-who-you-are city of Saigon. On the 6th, Miranda, a friend of mine back from Moho, also an 09’er, arrived from Hong Kong, where she’s now based. She is the first Moho (aside from the Vietnamese gals, of course), I have seen since graduation almost 2 years ago. It definitely brings up a lot of nostalgia, and reminds me of how much I miss the “shadley” girl hub. Anyhooo, Miranda’s 4 days in Vietnam began and I believe, resonated with FOOD. With the help of Y, our local guide, we made our way scrumptiously through Chinese-influenced night goodies like duck’s tongue (weird but tasty) through the more traditional Vietnam-is-known-for-food like banh xeo, or pho, to infamous-to-foreigners dishes such as the vast diversity of snails, ending it with what Miranda thought she would never eat again in her life: a premature duck’s egg marinated with basil and fish sauce. This is of course well under-told, because seriously, on the 2nd day, we had a record 8 meals throughout the day, basically eating anything that was edible and interesting-looking to the eyes.

On the 8th, we grabbed a couple of Vietnamese sandwiches, banh mi <3, and 2 coconuts filled with jelly for lunch, took a boat, 1.5 hours to Vung Tau, a coastal city nearby, rented ourselves right off the port some motorbikes and basically was either eating, sleeping or riding the motorbike for the next 24 hours after that. Vung Tau is gorgeous when you make your spiraling way up the mountain to the lighthouse , locals hike up there on a daily basis, but with the heat, having the wind in your hair on the motorbike, as the sea just gleams right off the side of the cliffs, is an adventurously satisfying experience. Food, of course, can not be left untouched here…we had the famous banh khot, little circles of dough fried golden in molds topped with shrimp, scallion, beansprouts, sprinkled with minced dried shrimp…according to preference, can be rolled with fresh herbs into a roll and then dipped tactfully into fish sauce …tastes absolutely heavenly. Do try if you’re ever in Vung Tau. After that first dinner, we got on our bike again, rode 5 minutes next door to a seafood joint, literally had half a kilo of grilled snails, a plateful of shallots/butter stir-fried mussels, 3 tamarind-marinated crabs, and a thoi-loi fish hotpot ( thoiloi is a fish quite widespread in appearance in the region). You could imagine after all of that food, sun and moving, we would have gone home and snoozed it off…but no, a craving for durians was up in the air…and so we scoured the city for 2 durians, settled down right on the streets bordering the coast, and devoured them like they were the last 2 of their kind in the world. Absolutely an amazing sleep after that!

The 9th was a sore-butt day with intense motor-bike riding, we rode for about 35km under the sun, towards Long Son, a town still in Ba Ria Vung Tau province. Here, after having amazing banh canh – cylindrical noodles with pig’s feet all in gorgeously sweet pork broth and then spotting a Vietnamese music ‘star’ of the sort, Le Cat Trong Ly, right across from us, we would visit a fishing community, the Big House, known for being the biggest wooden house structure in Vietnam – originally set up manually by a fisherman back in the beginning of the 20th century. Here we saw Le Cat Trong Ly too…and then at lunch, when we went to this restaurant on stilts, in the middle of a river with oyster farms spread sporadically all over, we once again met with the music ‘star’. We secretly convinced ourselves that she was following us or at least, whoever set up her itinerary was ‘cool’ like us. It’s the second time I’ve been to the resto, absolutely love it for the quiet, set-apart ambiance, water flowing right under you, a wooden boat that takes you out there, and then a wooden-framed collection of seafood still alive and fresh in water as your menu. The best part, besides the food of course, is the hammocks hung randomly across the wooden structure on stilts, giving us an awesome reason to nap after 5 types of snails, grilled fish and then another hotpot….I’m getting full just retelling all of this

We got back to Saigon the same afternoon, absolutely covered in dirt, after all of that motorbike traveling, but anxious to get out in the southern hub as Miranda would be leaving in less than 12 hours. All the details of the food will def. become exhaustive, but it was such a memorable trip and has reminded me that I need to get into culinary blogging, share with you guys and gals all of the possibilities that you could offer to your palate. Miranda went back to Hong Kong at 5 am on the 10th, and we’re hoping to catch up with each other soon again in the near future, with another trip, either in Vietnam or elsewhere in the region 😀 Can’t wait :). Enjoy some of the pics! Food pics will come later, unfortunately *_*