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Hẻm Gems: A Vietnamese Curry That Makes the Case for Coconut Milk

If you’re not usually a fan of Vietnamese curry, Cà Ri Gà 3T’s signature dish is a surprisingly well-balanced offering. And If you are indeed a fan, then you’re in luck.

The word “curry” should inspire fear. Not the chilling fright of tiptoeing down the basement at midnight in a blackout, but a heady mix of visceral anticipation and dread before one parachutes out of a plane or goes bungee jumping. Your sweat glands shore up an ample supply of cooling liquid, your taste buds brace for a thorough wash of capsaicin, and your brain gets ready to be thoroughly excited by an intense hit of eclectic spices.

All of these bold sensations are the foundation of my long-standing adoration for Indian, Thai and Japanese curries. In Indian cuisine, the word “curry” is less a dish than a genre of dishes, each with its own ingredient combination, cooking technique and local flair. As different as they are across the three major national cuisines, they share a steadfast resolve to highlight the brightness of local spices and herbs.

Then there’s Vietnamese curry, commonly a one-ingredient show dominated by the unctuous, aggressively rich reign of coconut milk. At the risk of being deemed un-nationalistic, I have to admit that our rendition of curry is my least favorite, because local cooks tend to err on the side of overly rich and sweet notes when it comes to cà ri. Curry in Vietnam hails from the Mekong Delta, where Khmer and Cham cuisines cross paths with a devoted southern love for coconut milk. The base is a sweet and nutty broth, made sweeter by chunks of sweet potato, carrot and eggplant. Its popularity during festive occasions mean that cà ri appears often every đám giỗ, đám hỏi and birthday celebration.

It had been at least half a year since my last experience with cà ri gà before Saigoneer’s visit to Cà Ri Gà 3T a few weeks ago. The restaurant showed up in a popular Facebook group for local food enthusiasts, and something about its setting and bowl of curry piqued my interest. 3T is far from a rustic street stall, as it is a two-floor eatery with an open plan and a decoration style reminiscent of Saigon’s vintage coffee shops. Rusty metallic fans and old-timey televisions line the wall, painted in the stereotypical “Hoi An yellow.” According to Trinh, the owner of 3T, the collection of old knick-knacks has been built over time, one item after another.

There wasn’t any special lore behind the decision to make Vietnamese curry the featured food at 3T, she explains. It’s a well-loved dish that her family makes often at home and one that’s not common on the market. Trinh refuses to take credit for the curry recipe 3T is currently serving, adding that the standard version is a group effort. “It’s a mix from many people, my parents, my mother-in-law and my husband,” she says. “I can’t say that it’s a unique creation by anyone, because it’s created by four, five people modifying and adjusting the taste many times.”

For the moment chicken is the only available protein at 3T, though diners can choose between a drumstick, chicken pieces, chicken offal, or a bit of everything for their main, accompanied by either rice, bánh mì or bún. On the side, a portion also comes with fresh herbs, beansprouts, a small bowl of pickled onion and cucumber, and chili salt for dipping, if they so wish.

“A good bowl of [Vietnamese] curry must first, be aromatic; second, it has to look visually striking; and third, the taste must be balanced,” Trinh shares when asked about her idea of an ideal bowl of curry. “If people want more spiciness, sourness or sweetness, they can add in condiments. The balance must be a priority. The meat must be well-marinated and tender. Some people like chewy chicken, but my family loves meat with the right amount of tenderness. Lastly, when you finish eating, you don’t feel tired or chills, which are symptoms of a dish filled with chemicals.”

The description sums up neatly my experience at 3T and matches her vision of a platonically ideal curry. The chicken meat, braised for long enough in the coconut-y sauce, falls right off the bone. A hidden spicy tinge gives the sauce an edge, and of course, it’s impossible to ignore the ever-present decadence of the golden coconut milk. It coats the meat, the rice, your tongue and your finger as you pick up the drumstick to munch on the tendon. The presence of chili in the sauce helps restrain the richness for me, but if coconut milk tickles your fancy, you’re in for a good time.

It took Trinh and her team three years to make this restaurant a reality. Since as early as 2017, a cà ri eatery has been on her mind because, she admits, of her own pickiness when eating out at other curry places in Saigon. The meat is either too tough or the broth has too much MSG for her palate, so she started developing her family’s recipe, setting the very first foundation for 3T later. The fine-tuning took many a weekend when family and friends were treated to a curry feast with everything from goat to seafood to fish.

Curry has been a constant part of her life for years, but Trinh admitted to me that she’s still not sick of it, and neither is the restaurant’s waitstaff — though 3T has only been operating since late October. So far, the reception has been optimistic: “There were customers who like a richer broth or more spiciness, but the feedback has generally been positive.”

“There’s one lady the other day,” Trinh recalls. “I don’t know if she was serious or teasing me, but she said that my curry is as tasty as her version.”

Cà Ri Gà 3T is open from 10am to 10pm.

To sum up:

Taste: 4/5

Price: 4/5

Atmosphere: 5/5

Friendliness: 5/5

Location: 4/5

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

Vietnamese chicken curry

28 Huynh Tinh Cua, Ward 8, D3

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