LENGTHENING THE SEASON

Longan season is here and people in the longan “capital” of Hung Yen are hard at work.

By Le Diem on September 10,2018 03:20 PM

LENGTHENING THE SEASON

Photos:Hung Yen Department of Industry and Trade.

With a short season of just one month, local people brainstormed a way to dry the fruit so it can be enjoyed for a longer time, creating a new unique and tasty food.

Every year, when summer looks to leave, the longan season arrives, turning the northern province of Hung Yen into a fragrant land. Longan trees laden with fruit can be seen everywhere, making the mouths of visitors water when imagining their large size, thick pulp, and fresh sweet taste on their tongue. Not only fresh longans but also dried longans are renowned as a specialty of Hung Yen.

Longans are planted in many places around Vietnam but Hung Yen is regarded as the “capital” of the fruit for its large planting area and flavor.

Hung Yen longans are also known as “an offering to the Emperor” in legends. It was said that a mandarin once passed by right after the harvest. He was immediately lured by the scent and took some longans back to the palace to offer the emperor. Since then, when fall comes, people in Hung Yen offer the fruit to the emperors. Its reputation even spread out of Vietnam, as Japanese traders came to the country to purchase large volumes each year in the 16th and 17th centuries.

The fruit has recently been introduced to more people internationally, via national flag carrier Vietnam Airlines. Fresh longans will be served as dessert in business class on 70 flights from Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City to domestic destinations and to Europe, Australia and Asia until September 15, when the main longan crop comes to an end. The move aims to help introduce local produce to the world and support farmers while linking aviation products with the country’s traditional cuisine, according to the carrier.

With a short season of just one month, local people brainstormed a way to dry the fruit so it can be enjoyed for a longer time, creating a new unique and tasty food. Many communes now specialize in the dried variety, mostly in Hung Yen city, Tien Lu district, Khoai Chau district, and Phu Cu district.

The process of drying longans requires a lot of manual labor, according to Ngo Ngan, a student from Hung Yen whose family has dried longans for dozens of years.

When the longans are still ripe, they are divided into two groups. Those that are larger and have a thick pulp are sold fresh, while those of a medium size are kept for drying. “It’s easy to dry medium-sized longans,” Ngan said. “The larger ones require more time and are therefore more expensive.”

LENGTHENING THE SEASON

Before being dried, the skin and seed are removed, which according to Ngan is the most skillful step. A tool called a “seed-removing pen” is used, which is actually a metal stick with spiky end like an old fountain pen. Skin near the stalk of the fruit is peeled, and the “pen” is then used to access the seed and remove it. Care is needed so as not to tear the pulp. People wear gloves while performing the task and must watch out for bees attracted by the sweet scent.

A lot of time is needed for removing the seeds but a lot of people are always involved. When Ngan was small, she and her brother and sister used to wake up at 5am in the late summer and help their parents remove the seeds, as did most of her friends and neighbors. “It’s considered ‘earning season’ for children and older people,” she said. “Each can remove the seeds from 30 or 40 kg of longan each day and earn about VND150,000 ($6.5). It’s fun to watch six or seven-year-old kids do it today as it reminds me of my childhood.”

She also remembers how her back and hands felt after a day at the job, but while her siblings and she couldn’t to go to bed her parents stayed up late for the next stage.

All the seedless longans are placed on trays before being put into a drier. There are three stages in the drying process. The first requires a high temperature at about 1000C for three to four hours, which evaporates most the water in the fruit. If the temperature is not high enough, the fruit will be soft and have a bad smell, but if it’s too high it burns everything. The second stage requires lowering the temperature to 80 - 900C and turning the side of the tray so the fruit dries evenly. The final stage sees the temperature lowered to 700C, which retains color. The longan are then packed into plastic bags. Experienced driers know exactly how much time is needed for the best color, which is usually somewhere around three hours, according to Ngan.

As drying requires keeping watch over the temperature, Ngan’s parents usually took turns sleeping. In the past, before driers, the longans were dried under the sun, but this took longer and was less productive. “Though it’s hard work, it’s only for one or two months every year and brings in a good income,” Ngan said. “We could earn VND50-60 million ($2,100-2,500) a season, as demand for dried longan is always high. Sometimes we didn’t grow as much as people wanted to buy.”

Longans are rich in nutrients. Dried longans can be eaten by themselves, soaked in wine, mixed with herbal tea, or used in traditional medicine as a tonic to aid appetite and sleep. They are especially good for those with a stomachache, insomnia, headaches or stress and also provide more blood for those with anemia, as they contain glucose, sacharose, acid tartaric, saponin, tannin, calcium, magnesium, and iron, according to traditional medicine practitioners. The fiber in dried longans also promotes regularity and activity in the gastrointestinal tract.

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