Mangrove worm a staple in Saigon's beloved porridge
A 40-year-old Chinese-style porridge shop in Saigon is well-known for its unique topping: mangrove worms.
The unnamed porridge shop in Tan Phu District sells porridge cooked in the style of the Teochew people, who originated in southeast China, which is served with shrimp, fish, pork intestines, and trung bien -mangrove sea worms.
Tang Khanh Toan, the shop owner, said that the business started in 1983, and was passed down by his father. The eatery first started selling porridge on Au Co Street, which is one kilometer away from the current location at 104/22B Trinh Dinh Trong Street, Phu Trung Ward. The current location has also been the family's home since the 1990s.
The porridge is quite popular among the Chinese community in Saigon. Mangrove worms are used in traditional Chinese medicine to raise testosterone levels and enhance health. According to the owner of the restaurant, many people confuse trung bien with sa sung, or peanut worms, because of the similar shape.
Porridge is made at the store starting at 4 a.m., and sales begin two hours later. Every day, early in the morning, fresh mangrove sea worms are brought from Can Gio District in Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) or Vung Tau City. This species has a body that is as long as an adult finger, and is covered in long striped patterns. It takes a long time and a lot of work to clean. Mangrove worms will be turned inside out and have two ends cut off before cleaning. Since the intestine is full of sand, the worms need to be washed six times in water to remove the fishy smell before being preserved in ice.
According to Town, choosing the right worms is what determines the taste of the dish. It must be fresh, with thick meat, and he does not use the dry type to ensure the naturally sweet flavor of the porridge. He said: "We just buy around three kilograms of worms each time, enough to cook for a day."
The restaurant also serves snakehead fish fillet, pork intestines, pork, and shrimp in addition to the worms. The toppings are all pre-cut, however they are not cooked or seasoned.
When ordered, the porridge is transferred from the huge pot to a smaller one by the cook, who then cooks it over a high flame. He adds additional ingredients when the porridge comes to a boil, cooks this together for about three minutes, and then pours the mixture into a bowl. To prevent the worms from becoming chewy and to maintain the crunchy texture, Toan adds them to the pot last. The toppings will be marinated with a little soy sauce and secret spices before being cooked with the porridge. "This is the Teochew people's traditional method of making porridge," said Toan.
The cooked porridge is poured into a bowl with already added crown daisy, and then finely chopped green onions are added. The hot porridge helps cook the vegetables with no need to blanch first.
A bowl of porridge is served with fresh or pickled ginger, black pepper, and fried dough sticks. Guests can add fresh pepper or chili. The pickled ginger is homemade by the family according to its own recipe to reduce the fishy taste and enhance the flavor of the porridge. "This dish must be eaten while it is still hot, and the worms especially should be eaten immediately. If you leave it there for a long time, it will become chewy," said the owner.
A portion of porridge costs VND60,000 ($2.53), with intestines, pork, fish and six pieces of worms. You can get peeled fresh shrimp for an extra VND10,000. Each fried dough stick costs VND8,000. Guests can order different types of toppings without ordering the porridge. In the evening, the shop also sells silkie (black chicken), pork heart, and bull's pizzle braised with traditional herbs.
For nearly 30 years, Luong Kien and his wife have come from Binh Tan District to the eatery for breakfast once a week. They usually order the bowl with all the toppings. Kien, 48, said that his house was once close to the restaurant, so he frequently came here to eat with his family.
According to Kien, the porridge here is cooked in the correct Chinese style. Fresh mangrove worms are sweet and crunchy because they are properly processed. "Even though I've moved away, I can't get the taste out of my head," he said. "I still come here to eat when I get the chance. A bowl of porridge contains just enough shrimp and meat to keep me from feeling bloated."
The eatery is about 70 square meters can accommodate up to 50 guests. It is open daily from 6 a.m. to 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. to 9 p.m., and it is frequently crowded in the early morning.
The shop is about 150 meters from the entrance of the alley. Because there is no name on the sign, first-time visitors may get lost. As the alley is only about seven meters wide, and one can park their car at the beginning of the alley for free.