Bright colours and full palette of flavours at the Seahorse Bistro

(No.12, Vol.2, Dec 2012 Vietnam Heritage Magazine, Advertorial)

Lau tha (seafood hot pot). Photo: Seahorse Resort & Spa

Bursting with colours, featuring spectacular natural ingredients galore and the original way of serving, Phan Thiet and Muine seafood hot pot (lẩu thả in Vietnamese) is one of the heartiest meals this coastal region has to offer to a hungry visitor. The meal was invented by fishermen’s wives as an excellent means to recharge energies of their sailors after a long day in the open sea, and it dates back to the times when Muine, now a thriving resort capital in southern Vietnam, was a small fishing village. It spread along the endless sandy shoreline, hidden from the blazing tropical sun under the thick shade of coconut palms. Having recently metamorphosed into the popular resort destination, Muine has still managed to preserve the rustic charm and deliberate pace of life of a fishing village.
As I sit on the patio of The Seahorse Bistro, already full of lively fellow diners, the waiters start to bring out the impressive serving set for lau tha hot pot preparation and degustation that seems as though it will turn into some kind of festive ceremony in mere minutes. The small black lacquer table with sophisticatedly carved legs is placed on the scene next to the dining table. Then comes the traditional Vietnamese clay pot full of red-hot crispy coals and crowned with a tripod stand for the casserole.
Meanwhile, the space of the half-open air bistro also doesn’t lack spectacular and distinctive local colour; a big basket boat, with a rich catch of fish, mussels and crustaceans on display, anchored at the entrance by the road, irresistibly seduces all passers-by. It seems to have been brought ashore from the high seas with their mighty evening surf only minutes ago. A few steps behind the fishing vessel, Mr Minh, the boat skipper and Seahorse Bistro chef is busy with open hearth cooking, conquering the flame with a skill of a lion tamer. On the other side of the boat on the sentry go is an elegant lady in a pants suit, the skipper’s first mate and bistro manager, very confidence-inspiring and willing to guide guests through the plethora of seafood.
The bistro itself belongs to the 4-star Seahorse Resort & Spa, and includes spacious open-air seating with plenty of tropical foliage. Orchids in pots at full flower hang all over and the wood-and-straw rooms have a particularly charming and rustic atmosphere.
While distracted by the vivid interiors and exteriors, I nearly overlooked the very moment when the lau tha hotpot appeared with full flamboyance and burst into full bloom on the dining table. Served on a round straw basket tray with a juicy green cover of banana leaves, the multi-coloured ingredients placed in a good dozen petals of banana flower looked both like fanciful exotic flowers and giant multi-coloured sea stars from the depths of the ocean. Crowning the straw tray and forming the fragrant core of the bright gustable flower was a plate of marinated small sillago fishes. With the shallow, thick bath of terracotta–coloured sauce in a clay pot and snowy white rice noodles placed on both sides of the tray and the boiling casserole with broth of tomatoes and minced shrimps and pork on the live coals, the preparation stage was perfectly complete and the feerique seafood hotpot was ready for degustation.
Flamboyant and prepared right on the table by diners themselves, the lau tha seafood hotpot is also the dish through which one can discover explore and taste the sophisticated and meaningful philosophy of Vietnamese cuisine, which is based on the five great elements borrowed from ancient Buddhist tradition (Mahabhuta). According to the principle of the five great elements, only the meal, comprising the full and harmonious combination of ingredients ‘born’ by the five nature elements: earth, fire, metal, wood and water, can bring health and vital energy to a human. Corresponding to the five great elements, five spices should be used in cooking; spicy (metal), sour (wood), bitter (fire), salty (water), sweet (earth). The meals must attract and awaken the five senses; be attractive to the eye, pleasant to the touch, crisp to the ear, delightful for the tongue and fragrant for the nose. And finally the meals should comprise five colours: white (metal), green (wood), yellow (earth), red (fire) and black (water).
While looking on the colourful bunch of the lau tha served at the Seahorse bistro, its unique taste, piquant and many-faceted, rich in demi-tones interlacing with main notes of fresh fish and herbs, clear flavours and breathing in its exotic aromas, one can easily think that lau tha served as a base for the ancient Vietnamese to work out their culinary philosophy. Even now, when serving this meal at the modern high-rank restaurants, local cooks zealously keep the culinary traditions untouched, not letting a single alien detail in the serving ceremony. Those meticulous travellers familiar with culture and folklore of Vietnam will surely recognize and recall the tale of the house fire god (Tao Quan), when looking on the tripod of the clay stove on which lau tha is cooked. One also has the image of small basket boats on which local sailors have been prowling the high seas, and when looking on the round straw tray on the table and the lacquer table serving as the clay pot stand, one can be reminded of carved furniture from 100-year-old houses in Hoi An and Hanoi. Seahorse Bistro proudly presents the lau tha seafood hotpot as its signature dish, prepared by a skilful chef, born in Phan Thiet to three generations of cooks.

Seahorse Resort & Spa
Km 11, Ham Tien Ward, Phan Thiet City, Binh Thuan Province
Tel: (062) 3847-507
Email: info@seahorseresortvn.com

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