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The Vietnamese porridge that eats up everything

By Vi Vu   April 6, 2017 | 12:42 pm GMT+7

The dish once again proves that in Vietnamese cuisine, nothing actually goes to waste.

The rainy season has arrived early in Saigon, so it's probably time to start planning that special date.

I’m not talking about a romantic night in a cozy café with a piano, but this one could be just as good if you don't mind the sound of pork intestines being munched upon.

Chao long, which literally means intestine porridge, is cooked in a brown broth made from braising a pig's bones, head and innards.

It is served with pieces of tongue, heart, liver, chitterlings and cooked blood pudding. The highlight is the doi, which looks like a Western sausage, but is filled with a mixture of cooked blood pudding, mung beans and herbs. Some shops also serve fried doi and chitterlings.

A perfect bowl is topped with chopped onions, ground pepper and extra herbs.

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Chao long served at a restaurant on Co Giang Street in downtown Saigon. Photo by VnExpress/Duc Thanh

The porridge serves as a typical Vietnamese dish because it stays true to the country’s culinary tradition of wasting next to nothing.

It also confirms the Vietnamese culinary philosophy of combining the senses. It is a dish that brings out the best taste, smell, look and the sound made from slurping the porridge and crunching through the tough innards, and even the tactile aspect if one wants to eat with bare hands.

Late author and journalist Vu Bang wrote in his 1960 book, Mieng ngon Ha Noi (Hanoi Delicacies), that chao long is something uniquely Vietnamese, since westerners do not know how to eat pig’s innards while a Chinese only eats innards stuffed in a baguette or with rice wine.

“Eating like that cannot be tasty at all,” he wrote.

The high-cholesterol porridge started off as a farmers’ dish, serving as an antidote to those working hard from dawn to dusk.

But over time, it now reflects the country’s urban atmosphere.

A bowl of chao long does not have a place in luxury restaurants. It is not simple enough to be prepared at home either. It is perfectly suited to sidewalk eateries where diners sit on plastic stools where no table manners are required so they can have their fill of fatty bites and the occasional slurp.

It’s not clear where the porridge first came from, as it is equally loved all across Vietnam, although it is served a little bit differently in the north than in central and southern Vietnam.

In Hanoi and other northern locations, the dish is a favorite breakfast dish paired with a bowl of raw blood pudding (tiet canh) and some rice wine, but southerners treat it more like an evening snack.

The Hanoi porridge is thicker than the ones found in Hue and Saigon and served with fermented fish paste, while the southern bowl comes with ginger fish sauce and fresh bean sprouts.

There are quite many popular chao long shops in the southern city, and you can find a steaming bowl early on a chilly morning or late a rainy night.

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This chao long restaurant at 193A Co Giang Street in downtown Saigon has been serving customers for 80 years. Photo by VnExpress/Duc Thanh

One shop at 193A Co Giang Street in District 1 has been serving customers for more than 80 years from 6 a.m. until noon. A bowl costs VND27,000 ($1.20), and another VND5,000 if you want fried rice breadsticks.

Another old shop at 144 Phan Dang Luu Street in Phu Nhuan District opens from 2 p.m. through the next morning, charging less than a dollar a bowl.

Several Saigon shops also play perfectly well with Vu Bang’s testimony that a bowl of chao long is “a game of colors”. One shop on Cao Thang Street adds pig eyes to the bowl, calling them “headlights”, and another in Chinatown serves extra cabbage pickles to reduce the fatty taste.