On my travels to Vietnam’s northern mountainous provinces in previous years, I have been lucky enough to sample different dishes of different ethnic groups – some that I had never tried, some strange, and some fantastic for their distinctive flavours that is still etched in my mind.
For any city-dweller who has been seduced by unique ethnic cuisine, especially from those groups living in the northwest, he or she no longer needs to travel far to enjoy the food. A new restaurant in Hanoi’s Ba Dinh district can satisfy a longing for these special, unique ethnic dishes.
Run by sister and brother Pham Kieu Duyen and Pham Viet, A Ban Mountain Dew restaurant showcases the best of ethnic cuisine using authentic ingredients available only in the mountainous region. They do not hesitate to show their ambition to make the restaurant a place to present the rich culture of the region as well as the gastronomy.
They named their restaurant “A Ban” as the Mong ethnic people always put the name of a man with the letter A first, while “Ban” literally means “ethnic village”. The pronunciation of “A Ban” sounds like a joyful cheer.
“Wow, we have arrived at the mountainous village,” said Viet, who is also the restaurant’s executive chef and research and development director.
Stepping through its entrance, guests immerse themselves in a space replicating the atmosphere of a mountainous village with stone walls and a small stream.
The interior was designed with a strong inspiration from popular images of the mountainous region such as terraced fields, streams and floating clouds embracing mountain peaks.
The decorative colourful ethnic patterns have been used to adorn the restaurant’s second-floor venue, while the private rooms on the third floor have been named after the four famous passes in the northwestern region: Ma Pi Leng, Pha Din, Khau Pha, and O Quy Ho.
Our lunch started with Nom bi trau (Buffalo skin salad, 195,000 dong, $8.60) – a popular dish for Thai people living in the northwestern region.
The salad consisted of banana flowers, different kinds of aromatic herbs and, of course, as its name states – thin slices of buffalo skin, which, without being told otherwise, I thought might be jellyfish.
According to CEO Duyen, the processing of the buffalo skin is the most elaborate and time-consuming. The skin needs to burn until all the hair is gone and the skin is cooked. The skin then needs to soak in water for 2-3 days until it looks like a large piece of jelly.
“You need to change the soaking water continuously,” Duyen said.
Another must-have ingredient that creates the special taste of the salad is sour bamboo shoot water.
To get the sour water, the fresh bamboo shoots are soaked in water with vinegar for at least one year. Similar to lime juice, the bamboo water brings a mild sour taste while granting the distinctive flavour of sour bamboo shoots.
Duyen said that unlike other salad dishes made by the Kinh people using sugar, vinegar (or lime juice), and fish sauce, the buffalo skin salad used only salt and sour bamboo water.
The two main ingredients for our salad were supplied by locals in Phong Lai Village in Thuan Chau District in Son La province.
Our tasting journey continued with a Western-styled offering – pizza topped with bamboo worms (220,000 dong). Instead of the popular toppings you get in Italian restaurants such as chorizo, pepperoni and mushrooms, the A Ban version features the invertebrate creatures.
Julienned lime leaves and mac mat leaves, used as an indispensable ingredient for several dishes made by Tay and Nung ethnic groups, were also found in this fusion dish. It’s the aromatic flavour of the leaves, together with the buttery taste of the bamboo worms that creates the unique taste.
Like many others, I had never sampled the hedgehog meat until our lunch at A Ban. However, the taste of the appetizer Nhim gac bep (Smoked hedgehog meat, 720,000 dong) is exactly the same as the smoked buffalo and pork that I had tried before, as the chef used the same marinating ingredients and wood-smoking method to flavour and cook the food.
My taste buds were truly conquered by the beetroot cured salmon (390,000 dong). The appetiser was fresh yet aromatic as the chef uses extra virgin tao meo (a local apple species) juice and cham cheo, a condiment popular among the Thái living in the northwestern region, to marinate the fish.
Every dish in A Ban restaurant is a slice of ethnic cuisines. The tender steamed veal (285,000 dong) has been enhanced by mam hen sauce, made from the invertebrate hen that lives mainly in streams in the northwest.
We also had a chance to taste stream fish soup and pickled young cassava leaves (265,000 dong) – a dish of the Muong in Hoa Binh province.
The lunch also featured the Mong ethnic dish Khau nhuc (170,000 dong) – slow-cooked pork belly served together with Xoi ngu sac (Five-colour sticky rice, 85,000 dong). A Ban founder Duyen said that this melting, tender yet savoury dish used meat of free-range pigs.
Com lam, sticky rice cooked in a bamboo tube, a very popular dish in the mountainous region, was also present on the menu. However, the simple dish has been upgraded by a truffle dipping sauce.
The drink list features some nice cocktails using ingredients that are available only in mountainous areas such as mac khen (wild pepper), wild apricot and tao meo.
VIET NAM NEWS/ASIA NEWS NETWORK