Update: 09:59 | 30/12/2022
When you need a hot meal on a cold night, a hearty bowl of Saigon's herby soup hits the spot.
On a late-night motorbike ride through Saigon, you can smell the aroma a block away.
It's the scent of satisfaction: there's nothing like filing an empty belly with warm food on a cool night. There's nothing like a bowl of dumplings with tender braised duck thigh floating in a fragrant herbal broth. For some Saigonese, this is what nightlife is all about.
A bowl of dumplings with duck thigh costs nearly VND100,000, in District 5, Ho Chi Minh City.
Dumplings are one of the most popular Chinese foods in Saigon, and they come in many different forms. But dumplings in herbal duck soup seems to be Saigon's favorite at the moment.
The soup, called "Sủi cảo nước tiềm" in Vietnamese, is known for its rich flavor and affordable price. The soup and dumplings without a duck thigh is usually around VND40,000 to 60,000 (US$1.70 - 2.54). Who can resist food that's both delicious and inexpensive? But bolder, bigger bellies add a large duck thigh to the mix, which often raises the cost to about VND100,000. Still not a bad deal for a dinner that will keep you full till late the next morning.
You can find some of Saigon's best dumpling spots in District 5, 6 and 11. Chinese eateries have thrived in these neighborhoods for generations, and soup makers here still sell handmade dumplings whipped up from scratch.
The dumplings – made of wheat and egg flour – are large, thick and soft, unlike store-bought, ready-made dumplings.
Each exquisite creation is filled with marinated ground pork meat and a whole peeled shrimp.
Sitting at one of these traditional Saigonese stalls, carts or restaurants, you can watch the cooks wrap the dumplings deftly with skillful hands before placing them gently in pots of boiling water.
The best part of the dish is the herbal soup. Each eatery uses a unique recipe, and the result is a rare combination of pungent aromas unlike other soups found around town.
The duck meat is cleaned with Vietnamese rice wine and ginger, then it’s marinated in soy sauce, the chef’s proprietary blend of seasonings, sugar, and pepper.
Even though each place has its own style, they all follow one rule: the duck must be fried until golden before adding it to the soup.
Pork bones are used to make the broth, then the fried duck is cooked again in the boiling broth along with herbs until it becomes super tender – the meat falls off the bone and melts in your mouth.
Finally, shiitake mushrooms are added to the mixture, increasing its umami flavor. The last capstone to the dish is one final dash of seasoning – a short, sharp, shot – across the top of the now-heaping bowl of soup for a bit of extra kick that hits your nose first as you begin to dig in. Then it hits your tongue. Then it hits your belly.
When customers order, dumplings will be cooked with the broth to absorb all the attractive aroma of the soup. Diners can order for a side of duck meat for a more complete experience. A bowl of dumpling is often served with bok choy, creating a balanced and full meal.
Soy sauce, homemade satay, pepper and vinegar is provided for diners to customize their own sour, spicy and sweet dipping sauce that suit the best with their taste. If you're not a fan of the herbal soup, you can order the regular dumpling soup with clear broth.