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Chicken rice for the soul

What you might remember most about a trip to central Vietnam is the ubiquitous flavor of savory chicken rice

A chef at Ba Luan Tam Ky Chicken Rice Restaurant prepares to carve a boiled chicken in Ho Chi Minh City.

It seems like every other eatery in the central province of Quang Nam serves chicken rice.

The spicy dish might burn your tongue a little bit, but it's an essential part of the cultural experience in central Vietnam. The culinary style in this region is different than the sweeter tastes in the south and saltier dishes in the north. Chicken rice can be found in Saigon too, but it's usually of the Chinese-influenced variety.

Quang Nam chicken rice is very simple: in it's most bare form, the recipe includes only rice, chicken, sauce and pickled carrots. But it is not easy to cook an exemplary chicken rice plate. You've got to visit the master chefs in Quang Nam's street-side eateries.

The best cooks use free-range chickens raised in countryside gardens, not the industrial factory-style birds.

Customers can find Quang Nam chicken rice cooked at the following restaurants:

Ba Luan Tam Ky Chicken Rice
707 Phan Chu Trinh St., Tam Ky Town, Quang Nam Province
120 Nguyen Thai Binh St., District 1, HCMC
58 Cao Thang St., District 3, HCMC
82/1 Chu Van An St., Ward 26, Binh Thanh District, HCMC

Ba Buoi Chicken Rice
22 Phan Chu Trinh St., Hoi An Town

Vi Quang
189/2A Hoang Van Thu St., Phu Nhuan District, HCMC

Poultry raised in the gardens is stronger and more springy, with a far richer flavor than the soggy stuff produced in "industrial agriculture" facilities. While westerners often prefer fattier, more tender chicken meat, Vietnamese birds considered the best for eating are often smaller with dense, muscular meat.

Quang Nam chicken rice houses tear their chicken meat into small pieces and then mash the pieces with crushed onions, Vietnamese coriander and the other spices to the best absorb their flavors.

The trick of the recipe is to skillfully make the chicken pieces smell fragrant and spicy without loosening the meat.

After the marinated chicken is boiled, the chicken broth is used to cook the rice, which turns yellow, tastes sweet and has the scent of chicken.

The springy chicken pieces and fragrant rice is decorated with peppermint, papaya, and salted onions. The dish is then served up with very spicy chili sauce.

The saltiness mingles with sweetness from the chicken and rice, sourness from papaya and salted onion, and the spiciness of the Vietnamese coriander, peppermint and chilies.

All of the tastes are enough to make any eater satisfied. It is these flavors that Quang Nam locals miss most when they leave their hometowns.

The towns of Hoi An and Tam Ky are two of the best places to try the dish. Hoi An even has its own cooking style that varies slightly from other central-region styles.

A restaurant called Ba Buoi is famous with local and foreign visitors alike in Hoi An, a historical town in Quang Nam that was one of Southeast Asia's most bustling international seaports centuries ago.

Ba Buoi's genuine flavor is hard to find at many other eateries. Some other restaurants don't tear their chicken and cut it instead.

In Tam Ky, the flavor is localized with garlic chili, ginger, Vietnamese coriander and shallots. But this recipe is no less authentic or delicious than those found in other Quang Nam locales.

Tam Ky is known for garlic, ginger and coriander that is more pungent than the rest of Vietnam. Regular chicken rice eaters in Tam Ky say they never tire of the dish because it's flavors are so strong in Tam Ky. Some restaurants even top the dish with lime leaves.

So, if you're a chicken lover, don't get so lost in Quang Nam's historical and cultural sites that you forget to sit down and enjoy the local cuisine.