Prior to this I had never associated Vietnam with its curries — that was the realm of other Southeast Asian nations. And I’d certainly never seen this coconut milk-dependent dish elsewhere in Vietnam. But stranger still was the lack of spice. Yes, mashed chilli was sat in a bowl on the table, but the actual sauce itself was chilli-free.
How is it that Vietnam has one of the only non-spicy curries in the known world? Hit one of the handful of Vietnamese curry restaurants in Saigon, and the sauce is served up with chilli on the side. Is this because it is treated more as a stew or a broth, a dish that is spiced to taste? Or could it be due to the dish’s origin?
A Short History of Ca Ri
Ca ri ga, or chicken curry, is only found in Ho Chi Minh City and the Mekong Delta — areas that were formerly part of Cambodia. But check online and except for the unsubstantiated, none-too-sensational revelation that it was brought in from Thailand or Cambodia, nothing is written about the origin of Vietnamese curry. So, here’s my theory — also, unsubstantiated.
Chilli made its way to Asia in the late 16th century, when it was brought over by the Portuguese and the Spanish. In 1623, Vietnamese were allowed to settle in Prey Nokor, the village that was to transform itself into Saigon and then Ho Chi Minh City. Yet by the end of the 17th century, most of the Mekong Delta was under Vietnamese rule.
So could it be that ca ri ga is in fact a Khmer dish, a coconut milk-flavoured soup left over from before the arrival of chilli and the transformation of the Mekong Delta into the most southerly section of Vietnam?
The key signs, of course, come with the ingredients. And between Cambodia and Vietnam they are almost identical. Lemongrass and lime are key components together with coconut milk. Both versions contain chicken legs, thighs and bones, as well as potatoes — sometimes replaced by sweet potatoes or taro. While the modern day Khmer version comes slightly spiced, with fermented fish paste and shrimp paste thrown in for flavour — the Vietnamese version often uses fish sauce — the tastes and cooking method are almost identical. Even the curry powder is made up of almost identical spices.
This is pure conjecture — there is still no evidence that Vietnamese curry is a leftover from the Khmer dominance of the Mekong Delta. But try the ca ri ga at Cari Deli (101 Nguyen Cu Trinh, Q1), and you may get my point.
Of that new breed of street food restaurants — surely a misnomer — that have taken a well-known dish and put it in a contemporary Saigonese setting, instead of falling into the aircon, chrome-plated tabletop trap, here there is a sense of tradition. Old reproduction French era adverts and a blackboard hang on the walls, which themselves are part bare brick, part camouflage green. The floor is brushed grey concrete, while the typical low tables and chairs are all fashioned out of dark wood. The restaurant specialises in the flavours and spices of Mien Tay, the Mekong Delta — thus the curry — and the photo-heavy menu comes in both English and Vietnamese.
I like the bun version of the curry here, with the white rice noodles, standard fresh herbs and salad bowl on the side. Served in traditional, Subsidy Era crockery, the presentation also works. Asian basil, a key ingredient, decorates the curry, while the sauce itself is wholesome and rich — the globules of unmixed oils spread evenly through the soup.
But key, though, is that this dish is described as having the traditional flavour of the Mekong Delta. If Vietnamese curry was truly brought in from overseas, then why, of all places, would it end up being a speciality of the area where the Mekong River splits into nine tributaries before feeding out into the sea?