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Hẻm Gems: Can Deep-Fried Hột Vịt Lộn Dethrone the Classic?

Has your luck taken a turn for the worse lately? Perhaps it’s high-time for a hột vịt lộn (or three) to reverse your fortune.

Compared to other snacks from the streets of Vietnam, hột vịt lộn is among the better-known in the global knowledge, partly thanks to our Filipino friends, who’ve helped introduce their own version of the developing duck egg, balut, to any community abroad with a large Filipino population.

Being well-known, however, is not always equivalent to being well-loved. If in Southeast Asia, vịt lộn is not much different from fried bananas or bánh mì in its casual manner of existence and ubiquity, while elsewhere, mentions of the eggs are often anchored by grisly descriptors reserved for things that inspire shudders and pouty lips. I am not writing this today, however, to convince anyone to consume anything they feel queasy about, because the enjoyment of food should come from a place of open hearts and, most ideally, genuine eagerness to explore.

Enjoying hột vịt lộn on the street is a classic Saigon pastime.

In its most literal translation, hột vịt lộn means "upside-down duck egg," and folk beliefs dictate that eating them can turn one’s luck 180 degrees for the better. Our Vietnamese ancestors, being the mathematically-inclined souls that they were, also warned against consuming vịt lộn in even numbers, because that just means a 360-degree turn back to where one started. Sometimes, I wonder what folk wisdom would say about the way their descendants today eat these eggs — caramelized in tamarind sauce, grilled in tiny bowls on charcoal, or even deep-fried for a particularly greasy turn of luck. What does slurping up the tamarind sauce mean to my fortune today?

I believe there’s an ancient morsel of American folk wisdom that claims “deep-frying makes everything better.” While I highly doubt that the proprietors of this week’s Hẻm Gem spot are devout followers of this generalist maxim, my curiosity is definitely piqued when “deep-fry” goes together with “hột vịt lộn” in a sentence.

The cherubic, warm-to-the-touch, freshly cooked hột vịt lộn on a bed of emerald green rau răm is a Vietnamese institution. It warms your hands and, at times, your soul, the same way a cup of hot tea or a crackling fireplace does on a drizzling day. It fuels animated conversations with friends on the pavement. Lightly crack open the curvy end of the egg, peel away just enough shell pieces to slurp up the broth inside, and a mouthful of umami goodness beckons. This is all to say that hột vịt lộn as a snack is, by natural design, a close-to-perfect product of thousands of years of culinary fine-tuning. Will deep-frying improve upon the simple but sensibly-conceptualized snack?

Hang's deep-fried duck eggs.

We make inroads into the neighborhood surrounding Van Kiep Street in Binh Thanh one late afternoon to hunt down some deep-fried hột vịt lộn, just to realize that this street is a riot of street food. From left to right, on the sidewalk to inside fluorescent-lit dining halls, the street is packed with places serving snacks that look good enough to abandon one’s diet restrictions for.

The vịt lộn place, run by Hang and her husband, does not stand out from the sea of red-and-yellow menus plastered all over both sides of the street. Four-and-a-half plastic tables (one half is occupied by a basket of herbs) fill the shopfront. A food cart. Blue and red plastic stools. It’s easy to miss if one’s distracted by the sounds, sights and smells of this foodie heaven of a street. While the internet only highlights Hang’s fried duck and quail eggs, the menu also presents súp cua bắc thảo (egg white soup with century egg and crab meat) and a tamarind stir-fried version of hột vịt lộn (duck) and cút lộn (quail). Naturally, we decide to sample all of them.

Súp cua bắc thảo.

Admittedly, I am not too crazy about hột vịt lộn. I like it enough to eat when available, but not too enamored to crave it after an egg-free period. Some Vietnamese, however, are passionate enough about the developing duck eggs to face the scrutiny of customs agents for them. In 2018, 63-year-old Le Thi Ung was caught and fined SG$7,000 by Singaporean authorities for attempting to smuggle 490 hột vịt lộn into the island nation. We’ll never know if the poor woman is really an egg aficionado or just a misguided entrepreneur, sadly.

After five minutes of chit-chatting, our deep-fried hột vịt lộn lands on the table looking like the most sinful golden contraband. On a plastic plate, two eggs coated in batter sit on top of rau răm, peppered with fried shallot and peanuts. The cút lộn versions, on the other hand, are adorable little nuggets. It’s VND18,000 for two fried duck eggs and VND15,000 for a plate of fried quail eggs. The accompanying condiment for both is a small bowl of diluted nước măm hành, with options to add kumquat juice and chili oil.

Cút lộn chiên mắm hành.

After taking a bite from each fried egg dish, I am sad to declare that the old American adage is not true, though it’s an unsurprising conclusion. Deep-frying doesn’t always improve things, and in the case of hột vịt lộn, the long exposure to hot oil has actually done the duck eggs a disservice: the batter is doughy, the duck embryo is dry, and the whole thing gets too rich to continue after a few bites. Once the battered egg gets lukewarm, it’s game over.

Still, the cút lộn turns out to be a rising star that saves the show following its headliner’s floundering. Dip the adorable nuggets into the sauce, add in some rau răm pieces — a pleasant experience for everyone involved. The second dish, súp cua bắc thảo (VND17,000), is another street food classic. Here, Hang follows the traditional formula of making the egg white soup and drops in two century egg halves per serving. With the right viscosity and an unctuous finish, it’s a blast. Last but not least, the vịt lộn xào me (VND18,000 for two eggs), another household name, ends the meal on a mediocre note. It’s not as overcooked as the deep-fried version, but the sauce is a let-down. Where it should swirl with tartness from the tamarind paste, it instead gets weighed down by overzealous margarine use. When life gives you margarine, you make bắp xào — not hột vịt lộn xào me.

Hột vịt lộn xào me rau muống.

If there’s anything I’ve learned from our brush with deep-fried vịt lộn, it’s that sometimes a classic earns its reputation for a reason. Attempts to deviate from the old ways may sound exciting at first, but can be hard to pull off in practice. Those deep-fried cút lộn though; get on that train.

To sum up:

Taste: 2/5 for hột vịt lộn and 4/5 for cút lộn.

Price: 5/5

Atmosphere: 4/5

Friendliness: 4/5

Location: 4/5

Khoi loves eggs, is a raging millennial and will write for food.

Deep-fried vịt lộn and cút lộn, súp cua bắc thảo

37A Vạn Kiếp, Bình Thạnh

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