People often asked me what my Local Eats columns is about, besides introducing local cuisine that people eat on daily basis. Well that is the idea, but it’s also about finding the best comfort food.
In every country I visit, I always make a point of tracking down the local comfort food.
According to Urban Dictionary, comfort food is “food that gives emotional comfort to the one eating it, these tend to be favorite foods of childhood, or linked to a person, place or time with which the food has a positive association”.
This is so true because we all have a our own comfort food, no matter who we are, what language we speak and where we are from.
I have two very vivid memories of comfort food.
One is of one of the best meals I’ve ever had, in Shizuoka in Japan, back in the early 90s, at a simple family shack. The mother cooked while the dad prepared the dish and their children washed dishes and served drinks to customers. They cooked the simple yet famous Fujinomiya yakisoba, which is noodles stir-fried with pork and cabbage and steamed with beer. It was amazing.
My other strong comfort food memory is from a road trip during my very first trip back to Vietnam. I was traveling on a local bus from Saigon to Soc Trang to visit relatives. We had stopped for petrol and lunch. The trip was quite long back then, requiring two long awful ferries to cross the rivers because the My Thuan and Can Tho bridges had not yet been built.
My lunch that day was a plate of steamed rice with chopped roasted pork, just out of the oven, sides of cucumber, chilli and soy sauce w and a bottle of Coke. I may have just been because I was tired and very hungry, but that thick crispy skin and sweet succulent meat was so good that I swear it is still the best roast pork I have ever had.
So what are my best comfort food? I have a few but in Vietnam for me the big one is the combination of canh chua (sour soup) and ca kho to (caramelised catfish in clay pot). Why catfish? Well there are probably about 20 different versions of the sour soup, and just as many caramelised claypot dishes, with shrimp, eel, squid, spare ribs, tofu and various types of fish.
However, catfish it is probably the most popular and best fish for these two dishes. Let’s start with the sweet and sour soup (canh chua), as it’s synonymous and indigenous to the southern region of Vietnam, especially the Mekong Delta. This makes sense since most catfish –and the herbs and spices used in this dish — are from the Mekong Delta River.
To make canh chua you need to assembled all the ingredients. Prep takes about an hour, and the dish requires a further 30 minutes of cooking.
You’ll need catfish head, steak and tail, garlic, tomato, tamarind or lime juice, okra, pineapple, bean sprouts, sawtooth herb (ngo gai), rice paddy herb (ngo om), sweet basil, fish sauce, palm sugar and onion. When done the sweet and sour soup will help balance out the braised clay pot due to the tangy, salty, sweet yet light and fresh taste.
Next is ca kho to (caramelized catfish in clay pot), arguably one of the most popular yet authentic Vietnamese dishes cooked in clay pot. To make this dish you will need lots of brown sugar, garlic, shallots, fish sauce, ginger, pepper, chili pepper and a steak-sized catfish.
So what’s the difference between fish steak and fish fillet, you might ask? The answer is the cut. A fish steak is cut crosswise through the bone, while a fillet is cut whole to separate it from the bone. So what is the better cut? Well that depends on the dish. For example, fillet for fish and chips, steak for ca kho to.
By the way, next time when you order ca kho to, ask for extra thin slices of pork belly to be added the clay pot. You can thank me later.
1. Hoang Yen Restaurant
07-09 Ngo Duc Ke Street, District 1. Telephone 028 323 1101, Open Monday to Sunday 10am to 10pm
2. Cuc Gach Quan
10 Dang Tat Street, District 1. Telephone 028 3848 0144
Open Monday to Sunday 9am to 11pm
3. SH Garden
98 Nguyen Hue Street, District 1. Telephone 028 6680 0188
Open Monday to Sunday 11am to 11pm.