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Like sushi, dim sum has really taken off in Saigon over the last few years. And, like sushi, many dim sum places are aimed at high-end diners: fancy exteriors and interiors, and relatively high prices. And, like sushi, there’s now a growing number of dim sum joints that cater to the city’s burgeoning youth, who have a thirst for new, foreign dining experiences, but haven’t the cash to go high-end. I love dim sum, so this is all good news for me. But my favourite place for dumplings in this city is an old-timer. Reasonably priced, great quality and variety, and the only one that comes close to the bustling atmosphere of the dumpling houses I’ve visited in Hong Kong, it’s called Tân Nguyên Thái.
GUIDE: DIM SUM IN SAIGON
Address: 102D An Duong Vuong, District 5 [MAP] | Open: 6am-2pm | Price: 40,000vnd/dish
Located on An Duong Vuong street in Saigon’s Chinatown (naturally), Tân Nguyên Thái is run by a Chinese-Vietnamese family. In operation for 19 years, the service staff consist of three generations of the family. Many of Saigon’s dim sum restaurants are rather pompous: palatial halls with tables and chairs covered in white cloth, and faux chandeliers hanging from the ceilings. Not so at Tân Nguyên Thái, where the double-fronted, classic four-storey Saigon townhouse, hides a reassuringly confused interior. Temporary-looking metal tables and chairs stand next to solid-looking wooden ones; wavy-patterned wallpaper is pasted next to floral-patterned wallpaper; Chinese-style calendars and ‘lucky’ posters adorn the walls next to laminated images of menu items, electrical cables and air-con units. It’s a great, comforting and messy medley; one which I’ve come to associate with good dining.
The menu is a dim sum bible: ten pages of delicious-looking dumplings, rolls, cakes, soups, and drinks. The range and variety has me jumping in my seat every time I visit. Classics, such as há cảo Hồng Kông (Hong Kong dumplings filled with whole shrimp) and bánh xếp tôm hẹ (steamed dumplings filled with shrimp and chives), sit alongside some more creative ones, like xíu mại hải sản hột vịt muối (seafood dumplings with salted duck egg yolk). It’s also worth noting that there’s a good range of vegetarian dumplings and dishes available too, which is something I’ve rarely seen at other dim sum restaurants. Make sure you come here hungry (and with friends), because you’ll want to try as many of these bite-sized bits of culinary perfection as you can. Most dishes cost a couple of dollars each (between 30,000-50,000vnd). Depending on your appetite, you can expect to pay between 100,000-200,000vnd per person for a very satisfying (and very filling) dim sum feast.
And don’t forget the tea. A fundamental part of dim sum, there are several choices of brew to accompany your food: jasmine, oolong, chrysanthemum, and Pu-erh. I prefer the latter, which is an aged, fermented black tea, with earthy, grassy, fungous tones. One of the many appealing things about dim sum is that (like sushi) it looks great. The little tea cups, porcelain saucers for vinegar and soy sauce, the beautiful steamer bowls on which the dumplings are cooked and served, and the dumplings themselves – like little cumulus clouds floating on the dishes – all look fabulous.
Dim sum is often transliterated into Vietnamese as tỉm sấm or other similar variations, which is odd, because the Chinese-Vietnamese word for breakfast, điểm tâm, is a direct translation of the Chinese characters for dim sum. There is some debate about the etymology and origins of dim sum, but, for students of Vietnamese, it’s easy to tell what the words mean: điểm means point or place; tâm means heart, soul, or centre. So dim sum means, roughly, ‘point of the heart’. The idea is that dumplings were originally served as an accompaniment to tea; a small snack to go with a hot drink, like tea and biscuits in the U.K, for example. Because the dumplings were small and light, they were said to only reach the ‘heart’ not the stomach; hence ‘point of the heart’. However, at least when I eat dim sum, it’s definitely a meal, not a snack, and the quantity is such that it definitely reaches my stomach.
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Dim Sum Tân Nguyên Thái is opposite a branch of VUS language centre. I used to teach English here when I arrived in Vietnam 10 years ago, and this is how I first came to frequent this dumpling house. Early mornings, before my first Saturday or Sunday class, I would drop in for a plate of dumplings while going over my lesson plans. There’s downstairs and upstairs seating, which is a good thing because it can get very busy, especially on weekends. However, during the week there’s just a steady flow of customers coming and going; if you get here early it can be very (too) quiet. Tân Nguyên Thái is open daily from 6am to 2pm. It’s best to treat dim sum as brunch: a long, lingering meal with some friends, between 10am and 12noon; riding the caffeine high from the tea while talking and picking at the beautiful spread of food that keeps arriving at your table. My advice is to skip the soups: although they are good, the real stars here are the dumplings.
MAP: Dim Sum Tân Nguyên Thái: 102D An Duong Vuong, District 5
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