Sandworm season

Late fall is when a rare specialty appears on dining tables in Vietnam - sandworms

By Thuy Duong on November 15,2019 02:28 PM

Sandworm season

Photos: Thuy Duong

At the end of fall, when a cold breeze starts to blow through Hanoi’s streets, soft voices can be heard calling out: “Who wants to buys sandworms?” The precious creations of the sea, scientifically known as nereididae sandworms, only appear for a short time every year, caught near the coast and shipped to the capital.

“Ninth month - the day of twenty; Tenth month - the day of five”, (Lunar Calendar) as a proverb has it, is the time when the specialty appears. It was a much-anticipated time for my mother 30 years ago, when I was a young girl. She’d place a chair close to the window, where’s she’d sit knitting and wait for vendors and their call of “Who wants to buy sandworms” to approach. The narrow laneways nearby amplified any and all sounds, and her excitement grew when she first heard the vendors call out, even though they were still some distance away. For several days already she had been planning to prepare a special dish my Dad really liked: “Cha ruoi”, or sandworm pie.

The vendor, always a woman, would finally arrive and open up her a basket full of awful-looking colorful sandworms: some pink, others blue, and others still with a yellow hue. They wriggled around the basket, forlornly trying to escape. In my memory as a little eight-year-old girl, the worms looked so creepy and disgusting - the size of half of a baby’s little finger and with a soft fuzz around their bodies. The fact is, though, that the sandworms are quite nutritious and their rarity, at just once a year, makes them much sought-after. If you weren’t quick and bought them straight away, you’d have to wait a whole year for another chance.

Nereididae sandworms are a type of mollusk, belonging to a class of “fluff worms” that are only found in brackish waters, where fresh water meets sea water, in some tropical countries, including Vietnam. When spawning, the worms swim in from the sea to the brackish water to lay eggs under 40 to 50 cm of mud. In late fall and early winter, the worm eggs hatch and the youngsters head back out to sea. This is when the “sandworm season” begins.

Sandworm season

The sandworms, though, only hatch in the middle of the night, when the tide is at its highest, so those hoping to catch them must venture into the water with lights, wading around and scooping them into buckets. Time is limited, because as soon as the tide ebbs the sandworms go back under the mud or are swept out to sea.

The annual sandworm season is quite short, lasting only two weeks or so, from the 20th day of the ninth lunar month until the fifth day of the tenth lunar month. Quantities are limited, of course, and vendors sell out pretty quickly every day, perhaps over the course of just a few hours in the morning after the sandworms are caught. It’s rare to see any on sale after lunch. Some people buy a large number and dry or store them in the freezer for later. And, needless to say, they are relatively expensive.

When under water, the sandworms are a light blue color and when taken out of the water turn yellow, pink or light brown, then, finally, dark blue just as they’re about to die. Sandworm season tends to come at the same time as tangerine season. Tangerine peel is thin, spicy and fragrant, and drowns out the sandy and fishy taste of the worms, so the two are often combined in dishes.

Other dishes include sandworm pie, braised sandworms with star fruit or radish, stir-fried sandworms with eggplant, sandworm spring rolls, and a sandworm sauce, among others.

The most sophisticated is braised sandworms in a clay pot. A layer of sliced ginger, star fruit, radish, tangerine peel, dill, and leaves from the Cochinchin Gourd tree are laid out on the bottom of a clay pot, with sandworms placed on top and then fish sauce, pepper, and a little bit of water added later for slow cooking. When the water in the pot evaporates, the dish is ready to eat. The sandworms are soft and fragrant and perfect with steamed white rice.

Making sandworm sauce requires greater cooking skills. After being cleaned, the sandworms are poured into a clay jar, topped with salt, a cup of traditional Vietnamese rice wine, and 100 grams of roasted bran, then clean water. The jar is kept closed and left in the sun for about two weeks, until the sandworms are totally fermented and turn into a rich, flavorful sauce.

Both raw or cooked sandworm sauce are edible. With raw sauce, people scoop up a little dark green or dark brown sauce, squeeze in some fresh lemon, and add a few slices of chili, a little tangerine peel, young ginger, and roasted peanuts. Those eating cooked sauce scoop a few spoonfuls into a pan, add egg whites, garlic, onion, tangerine peel, galangal, and peanuts, then braise the liquid until it thickens slightly. Sandworm sauce boosts flavor and provides more minerals and protein to boiled vegetables, pork, or spring rolls.

My mother used to cook delicious sandworm dishes, especially “cha ruoi”, or sandworm pie. She cleaned the sandworms in warm water, mixed about 200 grams of them with 300 grams of minced pork in a large bowl, added two duck eggs, three teaspoons of fish sauce, a little pepper, and a quarter of a teaspoon of a mixture of minced tangerine peel, dill, and green onion. She beat it all with chopsticks until the ingredients were completely mixed together and looked smooth.

Into the frying pan went lard and then the mixture. She scooped up spoonful after spoonful and dropped it into the pan, frying it on low heat until it became golden brown and gave off a sweet delicious aroma.

And, of course, the first piece of sandworm pie was always mine, as the youngest in the family! The piping hot pie was extraordinarily delicious and wonderfully fragrant and nothing else could compare! The bitterness of the tangerine peel and the sweet and fatty taste of the sandworms blended in with the aroma of the dill and the mild spice of the chili. When a sandworm pie was finished, everyone yearned for another! The taste of sandworm pie in my childhood still lingers. The cry of “Who wants to buy sandworms?” in the late fall always reminds me of my childhood and especially my mother.

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