First published July 2020 | Words and photos by Vietnam Coracle
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Serving up a mild, thick, and fragrant curry with chicken or shrimp, Ngọc Hân is a small, informal, well-organized, family-run soup house on Phan Xich Long Street, in Phu Nhuan District, Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City). Vietnamese curry (cà ri) is a smooth, creamy and comforting dish; mildly spiced but richly aromatic. At Ngọc Hân you can choose between chicken (gà) or shrimp (tôm) with noodles, rice, or baguette, as well as many sides, condiments and accoutrements. Phan Xich Long is one of Ho Chi Minh City’s best-known dining streets, packed with places to eat. However, small, family-run joints like Ngọc Hân, which serve delicious home-cooked food with pride and passion, are being pushed aside as regional and international food and drink chains move in. Cà ri at Ngọc Hân is cheap, filling, satisfying, and, best of all, local.
*Dedicated to the memory of Yusef, who ate at Ngọc Hân regularly & introduced it to me. On weekends, as I walked past after teaching classes nearby, I wouldn’t even need to look inside to know that Yusef was there, sitting at a table with a bowl of chicken curry in front of him, staring out at the traffic, with his warm, wide, handsome smile. Yusef Tahiru: 9th May, 1991 to 5th July, 2020
CHICKEN & SHRIMP CURRY IN SAIGON
By the standards of its regional neighbours, Vietnamese cuisine is ‘lacking’ in curries. Broadly speaking, the spicy curries to the south and west of Vietnam – in Malay, Indonesian, Thai, Burmese, Indian and Sri Lankan cuisine – don’t really have an equivalent in Vietnamese food. Spices are used in many, if not most, Vietnamese dishes and there’s certainly lots of heat (usually in the form of tiny red chillies) if you choose to add it as a condiment (as most people do). But there are few identifiable curries on Vietnamese menus (although bò kho comes close). Cà ri, however, is curry. And this makes it a fairly unique dish in Vietnam. In fact, cà ri is seldom seen on Vietnamese streets, at least compared with the likes of phở, bún bò Huế or hủ tiếu, for example. Even rarer is to find a place specializing in cà ri and serving only curry, as Ngọc Hân does.
Cà Ri Gà Ngọc Hân: 384 Phan Xich Long Street, Phu Nhuan District
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A very clean, organized and well-run soup house, Ngọc Hân occupies a small shopfront on the busy boulevard of Phan Xich Long. Inside, there are only two rows of seating. The dining area and the kitchen occupy the same small space, opening onto the pavement. A small tree immediately outside, further obscures Ngọc Hân, so that it’s easy to pass by without noticing it. Diminutive but cosy and well-kept, Ngọc Hân is open from 7am to 9pm every day of the week (as long as the curry lasts that long: on busy days, they may run out way before the official closing time). Despite being close to the traffic and the heat, Ngọc Hân is perfect in the cool mornings or a late afternoon in the rainy season: as dusk approaches, the rains start falling, the temperature drops, the street lights and the car lights and the motorbike lights come on – reflected in the puddles in the road; there’s a relative chill in the air, and in front of you arrives a warm and comforting bowl of aromatic curry.
The menu at Ngọc Hân is reassuringly simple. Although there are a couple of other main dishes to choose from, the real decision is which curry you want: cà ri gà (chicken curry) or cà ri tôm (shrimp curry). Both are good, both are slow-cooked in their own separate cauldron, both are served with chunks of sweet potato, both are available over rice (cơm), noodles (bún) or with baguettes (bánh mì). If you order the chicken, there’s a further choice between ức, đùi, or lòng (boneless breast, leg, or organs). Each bowl of curry comes with condiments to add, including small red chillies, sprigs of herbs, bean sprouts, and calamansi. The curry itself is mild, subtle, creamy and smooth. But despite its lack of heat, this is still a complex curry with hints of cardamom, star anise, ginger, turmeric, cloves, and coconut all coming through. If you wish to make it spicier, there are plenty of chilli-based condiments to add. Interestingly, Ngọc Hân also make their own drinks and desserts, including nước trái mơ and nước trái sấu (quite simliar sweet and sour apricot and plum drinks served over ice), and a variety of chè, the ever-popular sub-genre of Vietnamese sweets. Prices for anything on the menu is rarely more than 20,000-60,000vnd ($1-$3).
Formerly a red-light district, Phan Xich Long Street and the surrounding area is now a trendy dining and drinking spot. But, as the area has become more popular, rent has gone up to the extent that only large F&B chains can now afford to open up and sustain themselves here. Phan Xich Long Street is now home to Pizza Hut, Swensen’s, Starbucks and the like. In the process, many small, family-run food and drink outlets have been priced-out, closed-down, or moved-on to cheaper locations off the high-street. But there are still a handful of excellent local, independently-run eateries and cafes clinging-on and standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the F&B giants. Ngọc Hân is one of them. It’s only been operating for two years, but I hope it will last for a long time to come. Personally, I’ll take a bowl of home-cooked cà ri gà at Ngọc Hân over a generic burger and fries at Lotteria, just down the street, any day.
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