Friday, 02/09/2022 08:30

Kậu Ba offers seafood with a Cajun touch

GLITTERING LIGHTS: District 1 by night seen from across the Sài Gòn River, where the Thủ Thiêm peninsula is growing to become the next urban centre. VNS Photos Mỹ Hà

by Nguyễn Mỹ Hà

My dining companions said, "Come, we'll take you to this restaurant with great food overlooking a small canal to get some fresh air." And so we did.

There's no city in the country that's as open and inviting, challenging yet comforting as the bustling Hồ Chí Minh City, where the old and new merge into a spectacular thriving modern metropolis.

CAJUN CLASSIC: Shrimp sauteeed with sweet corn.

Conveniently located in the downtown city's District 1, Kậu Ba restaurant overlooks a canal, which used to be part of the city's drainage system.

A recent clean-up and embankment of the city's canals mean they are now more breathable, and food stalls and cafes have sprung up along them to give this part of the city a refreshing and lively look. 

Kậu Ba serves seafood in a world-fusion style. The restaurant uses the twisted syllable "K" in its name, as the word "Cậu" in Vietnamese means" Little Boy" or "Uncle", which sounds the same as when it's written with a "C".

Owner Nickie Tran used to live in Texas, the US, and still has a restaurant in the Lone Star State. Staff at his restaurant in HCM City said he spent time between the restaurant in Texas and two others in Việt Nam. 

Before our trip to Kậu Ba, I had no idea what Cajun food was or tasted like. A quick internet search told me that it's a rustic and robust food, popular in Louisiana, a blend of French and Southern American cuisines, with flavours of Native American, African American, and Spanish cuisines. 

Tran has added new localised touches to the cuisine, creating Việt-Cajun.

GOING GREEN: Sauteed asparagus with fresh garlic.

The US is the third largest seafood consumer globally, after China and Japan, and it's also the top destination of Vietnamese seafood exports.

According to the Vietnam Association of Seafood Exporters and Producers, after a two-year suspension due to COVID, a large-scale Seafood Expo North America brought Việt Nam's biggest seafood companies to the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center last March. In 2021, Vietnamese seafood exports to the US reached a record turnover of over US$2 billion. 

Seafood restaurants credit the large consumption of seafood in the US in large part to the Cajun culinary tradition.

Cajun food, mostly known for its thick heartiness and spicy touches, was brought to the US by Acadian immigrants from Canada in the 18th century. Originating from French rural cooking, it was adapted by the people who brought it to Canada, then the southern US, with adapted Native, African American, and Spanish flavours. 

The immigrants were driven to change their cooking from seafood off the Canadian coast like lobster, cod and salmon to what was available from the Gulf of Mexico, such as oysters, crabs, alligator, shrimp, crawfish, catfish and redfish. 

Along with seafood, the conventional vegetables of potatoes were changed for rice, and carrots were soon replaced by bell peppers. Other hot-climate ingredients, including cayenne or black pepper, were also added. 

In Cajun cuisine, the holy trinity of onion, celery and green bell peppers is the base of almost every dish. 

At Kậu Ba, we ordered the shrimp cajun-style, which was delicious with plump shrimp, sweet corn and sausages (VNĐ177,000). The dish was great, and the soft white bread that went with it was divine and not what I expected, like a traditional French country bread. 

Next, we ate baked oysters with cheese (VNĐ32,000 per piece). We also ordered sauteed asparagus with garlic (VNĐ110,000), but the vegetables were not at their peak, so we complained and were given more tender buds as a replacement. 

We also had the special Kậu Ba fried tofu in salted eggs sauce (VNĐ99,000) and a fruit salad with special house sauce (VNĐ120,000). My dining companion was so fond of the sauce he could not stop praising it. 

I would certainly come back to try other food listed on the menu out of curiosity, such as the Ôm phản xông ra biển, literally translated as "Hugging a wooden board to surf on the sea", which is a seared salmon steak with special sauce.

After a full meal by the canal, we ventured further into distant corners of the city. One of our party was a part-time photographer, so he knows every nook and cranny as he has been there to take photos.

The Sài Gòn River at night has a glowing skyline full of buildings, both groovy and quirky and hard to beat for an evening stroll. VNS

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