We weren’t let down.

You could detect the exquisite decor from outside: a single-storey house with a red-tiled roof, one side facing posh Ly Thuong Kiet Street. A narrow glass window ran along the width of the wall, with the restaurant’s logo featuring a graceful leaf on top of its name: Ầu Ơ.

In Vietnamese, people from different regions use different tunes and words to lull their babies to sleep. Upon hearing these two words, everyone knows right away that it comes from someone who grew up in the south of Vietnam.

“Ầu ơ ... ví dầu cầu ván đóng đinh

Cầu tre lắt lẻo gập ghềnh khó đi

Khó đi mẹ dắt con đi

Con đi trường học, mẹ đi trường đời.”

(Ầu ơ ... be it a wooden bridge with safe steel nails

Or a perching bamboo bridge hard to walk on

Though hard to walk on, Mama takes you to pass

You go to school, baby, and your mama learns the lessons of life!)

Ầu Ơ Kitchen,a special dinner date,countryside dishes,bamboo chicken,longan,lotus seed
MAGIC MIX: Juicy watermelon salad with shrimp and julienned pork belly contains all five spices on one plate, according to the Vietnamese culinary rule of thumb.

Lullabies sung by a mother are the earliest music in a child’s ears. They’re so innate, soulful, and close to people who grew up with them.

And so is the food people grow up on.

Ầu Ơ Kitchen specialises in countryside dishes, cooked at a fine-dining level in a rustic home setting with a garden. The interior decor, the table wear, and the china plates and dishes all reflect the country theme of the place, with great attention to detail.

As we were in a group, we decided to share everything, from appetisers to dessert. Some of us had recently gone through a nerve-wracking health crisis, sharing so many things for a couple of weeks, and it was both a challenging and supportive time.

We used to say good morning every day, check on each other, and then mind our own business until later in the day, when we had to compare health indicators.

 

Our friend suggested we start with a watermelon salad with shrimp and pork (VND310,000). The dish’s name raised our eyebrows: watermelons are in season but are normally served last, for dessert! Shrimp and pork are standard in many salads, with the most well-known being the southern lotus root salad, the northern banana flower salad, and the central green fig salad.

All the veggies in these salads either taste bitter or waxy and starchy, while the watermelon has its own place for tasting sweet. After the first bite, everyone raised their eyebrows again and nodded their heads in approval.

It was deliciously balanced in taste because the chef scooped not only the red juicy part of the watermelon, he also sliced the white flesh after peeling away the hard-green outer layer.

Normally no one eats the white flesh of a watermelon, except for mothers in Hue, who make it into delicious sweets for the Lunar New Year holiday. We’ll definitely be having this salad again on our next visit.

Someone ordered bamboo chicken dry-cooked in lemongrass rock salt (VND510,000). Bamboo chicken is a special breed, small in size but with extremely lean and chewy meat and a taste much richer than boiled chicken or honey-marinated roast chicken. The tiny chicken was indeed quite small, so only the women tried it.

The men waited for yet another special four-course pork highlight (VNDD560,000) of steamed pork, galanga-marinated roast pork chops, deep-fried blood sausages, and pork stew.

The pork comes from the mountains, carried to the market under the arms of people who live there. This breed of pig is domesticated but raised in the garden, where it can run free and get some 'exercise'.

Ầu Ơ Kitchen,a special dinner date,countryside dishes,bamboo chicken,longan,lotus seed
FINE FARE: Marinated pork with finely-pounded galanga and deep-fried lemon leaves on a bamboo plate lined with fresh banana leaves.

Each dish is a delicacy on its own and it would take a day to go to the countryside to taste just one. Village chefs, who cook for weddings and anniversaries of death, are best at making these traditional dishes. And it seemed like one of them was working here at Ầu Ơ Kitchen.

While the name Ầu Ơ conjures up images of the south, the dishes actually reminded us of the north. The pork may be from the mountains but the other ingredients and spices, even the bamboo-knittea Nam provinces in the Red River Delta.

To top it all off, rice with a sour soup was the perfect carb intake for everyone. The sour clam soup (VND85,000) and the signature southern snakehead fish soup (VND135,000) were both good with white rice, but not as astonishing as the others we had.

The best drink to accompany these dishes is home-brew sticky rice alcohol. But it was lunch-time, and we still had to work, so we opted for juices and healthy drinks like green lime, watermelon, mango, or lemongrass tea (VND58,000 - VND78,000).

Ầu Ơ Kitchen,a special dinner date,countryside dishes,bamboo chicken,longan,lotus seed
PERFECT SETTING: The country-style decor at Ầu Ơ Kitchen makes the food taste even better. - VNS Photos My Ha

After such a big meal, it can sometimes be wise to skip the dessert. But it’s summer, aka lotus season. So we couldn’t leave such a cool place without trying heavenly lotus seed in dried longan (VND55,000). The lotus seed is soft and tender with just a dash of rock sugar, and goes together so well with longan.

And us friends also go together so well. We experienced hard times but maintained our bond. Cheers to our tried and true friendship! We’ve learned our life lessons, and we’re not alone.  VNS

Nguyen My Ha

Home-style restaurant offers authentic taste of Hanoi

Home-style restaurant offers authentic taste of Hanoi

Just two weeks since our first visit to Tam Vi – a restaurant dedicated to the authentic home-cooked style of Northern Vietnam, especially old Hanoi – we came back for the second time.

No space? No problem. Anywhere can be a restaurant in Hanoi

No space? No problem. Anywhere can be a restaurant in Hanoi

The criteria needed to open a restaurant in downtown Hanoi are thin at best. Location, well anywhere will do. Space doesn’t necessarily need to be plentiful and as far as furniture goes, a few plastic chairs will suffice.