EMERGING EATS

The specialties found in Phu Yen province are becoming more known nationally as local tourism grows in popularity.

By Le Diem on February 07,2018 10:16 AM

EMERGING EATS

Photos: Ngoc Anh, Ba Tam Restaurant, A Thanh Restaurant & Du Lich Song Cau

Becoming an emerging destination in recent years, Phu Yen province on the south-central coast and its capital Tuy Hoa has won favour among visitors not only for its charming, quiet beaches and islands, which are sunny all-year around, but also for its unusual but yummy seafood. The Guide is pleased to introduce some of the must-try dishes the local cuisine boasts.

Mắt cá ngừ đại dương (Tuna eyeballs)

EMERGING EATS

If you’ve not been in Asia long, you may question how fish eyeballs could be considered specialty.

They’re actually quite big, sometimes as big as tennis balls, and are used by the fish to see far into the distance. The dish is also known as ‘headlights of the sea’ among local people, who recommend it as the most famous dish in the province.

Rich in Omega 3 and DHA, tuna eyeballs are also good for your eyes and also your brain. After this was discovered in the early 1990s, Japanese and Koreans began eating tuna eyeballs instead of just throwing them away, as was previously the practice. But each country has a different way of consuming them. In South Korea, the eyeballs are put into a shot of Soju wine and drunk/eaten, while the eyeballs can be found in many stores in Japan for less than a dollar. They may be boiled, fried, stewed or lightly steamed.

In Vietnam, tuna eyeballs remain largely unknown, but as Phu Yen grows as a destination they’re gaining more acceptance. Tuna fishing began in Vietnam in 1994, in Phu Yen, and local people have eaten tuna eyeballs ever since. While the flesh of the fish is sold to wholesalers or retailers, the eyeballs are sold to local residents and restaurants. Phu Yen has become the ‘kingdom’ of the dish.

There are different ways to cook tuna eyeballs but the most popular method to is to mix them with traditional Chinese herbs and spices before braising them in an earthenware pot. The herbs help deodorise the fishy smell while the earthenware pot keeps all the taste and the heat of the dish for diners to enjoy.

EMERGING EATS

Those perhaps wary of the somewhat scary-looking dish are likely to be pleasantly surprised. Not because of some improvement to their eyesight (which takes a lot of time) but because of the taste. The texture is soft and fatty, with a taste reminiscent of squid and, surprisingly, a hard-boiled egg, in combination with the herbs and spices.

Tuna eyeballs were listed as among Vietnam’s Top 10 seafood dishes by Vietkings, the Vietnam Record Association. The eyeballs are often selected in local cooking contests, to challenge the talent and creativity of the chefs. The ‘headlight of the sea’ is available at most restaurants in Phu Yen, from street to five-star, at roughly VND30,000 a pot with one eyeball. The most famous place to try the dish is Ba Tam, 293C Le Duan, Ward 7, Tuy Hoa.

Bánh canh Hẹ (Hẹ thick noodles)

EMERGING EATS

A species of onion, Hẹ, is the star of bánh canh hẹ.

Many mistake it for a vegetarian dish, given the layers of green hẹ placed on top. But this is just the ‘tip of the iceberg’. Dig deeper into the soup and you’ll discover thick, soft, and slightly chewy noodles as well as fresh fish balls. The fish balls are steamed or fried from minced fish, primarily mackerel. Every restaurant may have a slightly different dish, as it very much depends on what fish happens to be available.

Different from regular noodle soup cooked with pork bones, bánh canh hẹ is simmered with small fish and fish bones, resulting in a unique and fresh sweet soup from the sea.

As street food, bánh canh hẹ is available on many footpaths in Tuy Hoa, with a popular spot being along Tran Hung Dao Street in Ward 1. Prices average VND25,000 a bowl.

Chả Dông (Dông spring rolls)

EMERGING EATS

Looking like any spring roll you might find around Vietnam, chả dông feels different from the first mouthful, thanks to the creativity of Phu Yen people in using dông meat instead of minced pork as the key ingredient.

The dông is a type of reptile that looks like a lizard and lives in sand dunes by the sea, and so is mostly found in sandy areas along Vietnam’s south-central coast such Phu Yen, Ninh Thuan, Binh Thuan, and Ba Ria Vung Tau province. Summer, which is also known as dông season, as they appear in larger numbers to mate, is the only time chả dông is available.

The word dông in Vietnamese means strong wind and storm, which reflect the speed at which the reptile gets around. There are two common ways to catch them. One is to dig deep into their hole in the sand, while the other involves placing a trap at the front of the hole’s entrance and waiting for them to emerge.

Similar to the way spring rolls are made, minced dông meat is mixed with cloud ear mushrooms, onions, garlic, pepper, and chili and then rolled in a rice sheet and fried. They have a crunchy coating and a unique savoury taste, given the protein.

Chả Dông can be found at Cha Dong, 92 Nguyen Cong Tru, Ward 3, Tuy Hoa, for about VND30,000 a dish.

Gà nước mặn (Sea chicken)

EMERGING EATS

Despite lacking wings, bearing fins, and living in water, gà nước mặn is regarded as the chicken of the sea by local people for its unusual chicken-tasting flesh.

Its real name is ostraciidae boxfish, or cá bò hòm, which literally means cow-box fish, for its cow-like head and box-like body, according to local fishermen. It lives in calm seas off the coast of Phu Yen and the neighbouring provinces of Khanh Hoa, Ninh Thuan, and Binh Thuan. Due to limited reproduction and slow growth, it’s considered among the best and rarest of seafood.

It’s also rare because it’s quite difficult to catch. It usually hides in rocks if it notices something unusual. Fishermen previously used fishing spears or spear guns, but the effect on the fish virtually made it inedible. Now they use oars to splash around the water surface, which forces the fish to seek better shelter to avoid the noise created. The fishermen then dive into the water and catch them with a net.

With only a spine and no small bones, the sea chicken is cooked and enjoyed in a simple manner scarcely changed for millennia. After being grilled and broken open, the flesh comes with a sweet, fatty, firm and delicious taste that’s really not unlike chicken breast.

Most seafood restaurants in Tuy Hoa serve cá bò hòm.

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