Mountain goat offers a gastronomic high

Nga Do
It has now become common knowledge that the best one-day getaway from Ha Noi is Ninh Binh Province. About 100km from the capital city, the place has numerous historical sites and scenic places, like the ancient capital of Hoa Lu, Bich Dong Tam Coc, the Trang An tourism complex, and the Bai Dinh Pagoda. From a culinary standpoint, mountain goat specialties and com chay (fried rice crisp with various toppings) are the attractions that stand out.

It was a very nice Sunday when we set out for the province. After enjoying a two-hour sightseeing tour on boat on the  Sao Khe River we made our way to the Thang Long Restaurant, which is about 3.5km from the Bai Dinh Pagoda and 4km from the Trang An Complex. When we arrived at the restaurant on the banks of the Hoang Long River with its imposingly high limestone mountains and immense green fields, it was already full of travellers.

However, several waiters enthusiastically welcomed us and led us to a table that already had various goat dishes and com chay. A beautiful waitress named Mẫn told us there were almost 20 different goat dishes that the restaurant serves, but recommended that we try the tai de (VND150,000), half-done goat meat (briefly dipped in boiling water) and seasoned with lime fruit juice, ginger, garlic, chillies, peppers and julienned lime leaves. I’d heard of the dish, but was trying it for the first time. Man showed me how to wrap the soft meat with raw banana slices and qua sung (figs - Ficus racemosa) in rice paper and dip it in soyabean sauce.

The dish’s mixed flavours won the approval of all our palettes. It was followed by de nuong ngu vi ( goat meat marinated with garlic, condiments and sugar, and roasted on wood charcoal); and de xao lan (stir-fried goat meat marinated with pineapple juice, curry powder and several other ingredients and served with fried, dry shallots and peanuts). The de nuong ngu vi (VND200,000) smelt good and was delicious, having just right amount of smoky flavour, but the piece was rather big and a bit tough. My friend Le Hang also found it tough and said she preferred the other dish. “I like the de xao lan (VND150,000). It is soft and peppery and goes well with the peanuts,” she said.

Restaurant manager Nguyen Thi Nguyet said the most popular dish among her customers was nam de nuong (goat breast cut into thin pieces and marinated with pepper, oyster sauce, chili sauce, minced citronella, garlic, salt, and sugar for about 30 minutes before being roasted.) I liked the goat meat pieces (VND180,000) steamed with perilla and citronella and dipped in Ban soyabean sauce mixed with sugar and eaten with raw plantain slices, pineapple and other herbs. “This dish is very nutritious. It cools down the human body during summer,” Nguyet said. Nguyet said she ordered goats from a man named Truong Van Vinh in the mountainous Gia Hoa Commune in Hoa Lu District. “Vinh’s goat herd is left to graze on their own in the mountains, but he still takes very good care of them to prevent them from falling ill.”

Nguyet said she typically bought a goat weighing between 15-20kg to make her dishes. If it was too small or too big, the meat would not be as tasty, she explained. I also enjoyed the popular dish, com chay (VND60,000/three pieces). Com chay, or rice crisp, is typically fried in oil until golden brown, then topped with pork floss or dried shrimp and chopped scallions, cooked by pouring boiling oil over them. Com chay cha bong or com chay tom kho are popular versions of this dish. But Nguyet said she cooks her handmade com chay with the most fragrant rice. I liked her com chay so much that I ordered more despite my friends’ advice that I will suffer indigestion from overeating. Nguyet said: “ I protect my com chay ’copyright’ by selling it at my restaurant only, not in the market.” “If you want my com chay, you should call me. I’ll send it to you.”

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