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‘Ech’ an unFROGgettable experience in Ho Chi Minh City

Tuesday, August 16, 2022, 09:28 GMT+7
‘Ech’ an unFROGgettable experience in Ho Chi Minh City
Frog is braised in a clay pot at a local porridge shop in Phu Nhuan District, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Photo: Bong Mai / Tuoi Tre

Editor’s note:Jordy Comes Alive, from the U.S., has lived in Ho Chi Minh City for three years and become a big fan of local food after spending time wandering around local alleys and markets to discover the culinary scene.

His piece has been titled, subtitled, and edited by Tuoi Tre News.

I’ve noticed people can get a little jumpy when you talk about eating frogs. Not me though, I always leap at the opportunity. 

When it comes to eating frog, I’m mainly familiar with it being batter-fried like chicken. Truth be told and I know this sounds strange to some but I honestly prefer fried frog over fried chicken on any given day.

Enjoying fried frog is the same kind of eating sensation as with fried chicken, only the meat has a cleaner taste (sans the flavor of fowl), and the white frog flesh is juicy with a buttery finish.

'Water chicken,' as funny as the term is, croaks partially true. I started thinking maybe it’s time I paddle my way to other ponds to broaden my horizons on Saigon’s specialty frog dishes.

After a journey, I can sum up my entire food adventure with just one word -- unFROGgettable!

Frog in fish sauce

A dish of 'ech chien nuoc mam' (frog fried with fish sauce) is served at a shop in Binh Thanh District, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Photo: Jordy Comes Alive

A dish of 'ech chien nuoc mam' (frog fried with fish sauce) is served at a shop in Binh Thanh District, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Photo: Jordy Comes Alive

For my first stop, I hopped over to Ếch Chỉ Stall at 49/99 Dinh Tien Hoang Street in Binh Thanh District to sample their most popular dish ech chien nuoc mam (frog fried in fish sauce). The frog was cut up into nugget-size chunks and wok-fried with the skin still on until golden brown. The crispy frog was then shellacked with a mixture of pungent sweet umami-packed fish sauce accompanied by onion, garlic, sugar, lemon, and salt. It sounded like this meal would be ribbiting!

The dish was set in front of me and I could smell the fish sauce with hints of garlic immediately. The skin attached to the meat was a sliding scale of grays with a green camouflage overtone. There were large strips of skin curled up in a tube-like shape giving the appearance of a long dark Cheeto. Laced throughout the dish were slightly translucent onions topped with a garnish of leafy greens sitting on top of the frog.

There were two dipping sides, one was fish sauce, the other a pepper, salt, chili, and kumquat slurry.

Upon the first bite, I immediately knew I’d pick ech chien nuoc mam over the fried 'chicken-like' frog I’ve become so accustomed to eating. The crunchy skin protecting the soft sweet meat fell apart in your mouth releasing a bang off the fish sauce with nutty garlic top notes. The frog skin was interesting, sporting a styrofoam texture with a snap similar to shrimp chips that could pinch your tongue while you eat it. When I took the perfect proportional bite of meat, skin, and onion all at once, I got the full effect of the dish feeling the mouth texture as I inhaled the perfumed funky flavor.

The portion was a healthy size, plentiful for a solo eater but I know this meal would be better shared among friends and beer. I most definitely plan on returning here with a handful of crazy comrades. Ếch Chỉ was packed with patrons (rightly so) and the service was notably perfect.

Frog in porridge

A set of Singaporean frog porridge is served at a restaurant in District 1, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Photo: Jordy Comes Alive

A set of Singaporean frog porridge is served at a restaurant in District 1, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Photo: Jordy Comes Alive

It was now time to check out and splash around at Lion City restaurant who specializes in Singaporean braised frog porridge at 45 Le Anh Xuan in District 1. Not only was this a first-time experience eating this dish but it would be my first time eating a frog that wasn’t fried. I was in for a total surprise! Obviously, this is a dish from Singapore, but over the years it’s become extremely popular in Vietnam. Saigonese love it.

The restaurant is tasteful, comfortable, and welcoming. I made my way to the very back where I slid into a posh booth. The server appeared immediately and I ordered ech cay voi ot say kho va chao (spicy frog with dried chili and rice porridge) then sat back excited to see what would arrive at the table.

Less than 15 minutes later my meal came in two covered rustic brown clay pots. The lids were lifted releasing a cloud of stream followed by a drifting whiff of what I can only describe as an enchanting frog-rance.

The pot to my left was filled with what looked similar to Cream Of Wheat speckled with green jewel tone scallions. It looked simple and basic yet it’s incredibly aromatic but not in an overpowering way. It smelled as if somebody toasted sesame seeds over a small campfire.

The pot to my right had a single frog chopped up and covered in what looked like caramel, mixed with maple syrup. I smelled garlic and pepper with fish sauce essence. There were a lot of flavors floating in the air and it seemed like all my senses were switched on.

An frog leg served in Singaporean frog porridge at a restaurant in District 1, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Photo: Jordy Comes Alive

An frog leg served in Singaporean frog porridge at a restaurant in District 1, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Photo: Jordy Comes Alive

I scooped a ladle of porridge and it oozed slowly into my bowl. It’s gelatinous, shiny, and steamy. I dipped into it and it tasted like it smelled with a creamy thick feel making the chives twinkle on your tongue.

I grabbed my chopsticks and plucked a small piece of the braised frog. The meat melted off the bone and glided across my tongue. I assumed by the looks of the sauce it would feel tar-like and be super salty à la soy sauce style. It’s exactly the opposite, it had a silky lube-like vibe that’s slightly sweet. It made my mouth squirm in delight.

The taste of the sauce was unlike anything I’d had before with or without the delicate frog meat. It’s intoxicating with its application of black pepper, garlic, and maybe a hint of coconut chased by a sweet smack that ends in a spicy pepper finish. The real wiz bang happens though when you combines the porridge with the braised frog.

The thick cotton white porridge acted as the canvas base for the frog’s sauce producing a wallop of an effect. It seemed as if the flavors were amplified. The frog was engulfed by a marmalade looking glaze that splattered and sat on top of the porridge. The consistency of both dishes remains separate in your spoon but joins together complementing both in flavor and mouthfeel. It’s truly unique. 

As I was gulping down my food, muttering to myself in awe and spying on a man standing off to the side of my table chuckling at my enthusiasm. He asked if I was enjoying my meal and I assumed he was a patron. I began to rave about the food and how pleasantly surprised I was, then I asked him if he’d ever eaten here before and tried the frog porridge. This made the man laugh out loud saying 'yes' several times and he introduced himself to me as Harry Ang, the founder of Lion City.

Ang ended up in Saigon as a builder and by taking a chance he opened Lion City because he missed his favorite Singaporean dish, frog porridge. His venture started just for fun driven by his passion for frog. Harry Ang became an accidental pioneer, opening 17 years ago and being the very first restaurant offering frog porridge in Ho Chi Minh City.

He proceeded to tell me that frog is one of the most nutritious meats one could eat. It has zero fat, making it extremely low in cholesterol plus it’s super high in calcium.

Ang also told me the key to creating great frog porridge is that fresh frog is a must, claiming to have close to 300 live frogs on hand at his restaurant daily. He also imports certain secret ingredients from Singapore that he has been using in his original recipe over the past 17 years.

I asked Harry Ang if he still eats frog porridge after being the owner of the restaurant for so many years and without hesitation, he told me he eats it at least once a week if not more!

He then asked me what I thought about my first-time eating Singaporean frog porridge and I told him I made a mistake ordering the dishes. I wished I had ordered two frogs. 

Tuoi Tre News

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