Phan Rang Chicken Rice
– A journal entry by Chef Nam
Today, I reached my final destination for this trip, Phan Rang–Tháp Chàm in Ninh Thuận, my place of birth. Despite living abroad for 41 years, coming back to Phan Rang awake a feeling of familiarity and a deep sense of purpose. I guess like an ancient Chinese proverb: “Falling leaves return to their roots.”
Ninh Thuận is a province in the South Central Coast region of Vietnam. A mountainous, heavily forested province in the southeast. In fact, it’s Vietnam’s most arid province, with some areas in the province receiving less than 800 millimetres of rain per year. Phan Rang–Tháp Chàm is Ninh Thuận’s capital city and it’s alive with native Cham culture, dated back to the 13th-century. Looking to the south, the crowded, lively hub of Phan Thiet, and to the north is the beaches at Nha Trang, and to the west to wander the forest and admire the lakes and waterfalls of mountainous Da Lat.
Phan Rang – Ninh Thuận is a well-known land of sun and wind and due to the weather condition, it has a lot of specialities that can hardly be found in other parts of the country. Phan Rang people are resilient and resourceful, with their laboriousness and imaginativeness, have made these specialities of various special foods, not only the grape and viny products such as wine, fish sauce, dragon fruits but also dishes made from seafood such as fish sausage soup, jellyfish noodles, etc. But it is Phan Rang chicken rice, a brand formed naturally by the local diners, that is most remembered.
Phan Rang chicken rice is so special perhaps because of its recipe and local chicken breeds. Most restaurants use backyard-raising hens (ayam kampung) which are fed on the farms on hilly land. Young chicken is not chosen because the meat is too soft and tasteless to their liking; apparently all restaurants choose yellow-skinned hens that had laid eggs for the first time as their preference in this province. Choosing the good chicken of the right age comes down to an esoteric experience and people are willing to spend more for these chickens. High-quality breeds are greatly appreciated and have more value compared to any meats such as beef, goat or pork. People here are incredibly proud of their local chicken, so the chicken is not just any chicken. Broiler chicken is literally non-existent in this part of the country.
So, guess what? Obviously, my first meal in Phan Rang is always chicken rice upon my return. Unlike anywhere, people in Phan Rang eat chicken rice for breakfast with three dipping “sauces”, chilli-sea salt, sour sauce (taken from the sour liquid which surfaced during the tofu fermentation process), and light chilli-ginger fish sauce. Served with standard condiments such as sliced cucumber and Vietnamese mint. Another ingredient I have not seen anywhere is chicken’s blood cake served with the giblets (heart, gizzard, liver). I have been eating “Com Ga Ngoc” for decades.