In the spring the mountainous areas in the north of Vietnam are alive with waves of tourists coming to enjoy the natural beauty of the flower blooming season and the many local festivals. One of the things that impress many about the region is the exclusive selection of traditional dishes.
Trau gac bep - buffalo dried by kitchen smoke
As the area with the most buffaloes due it ideal climate for the beast, the northwest is famous for multiple dishes made from buffalo. The most typical is buffalo meat dried in the kitchen.
On chilly winter days long ago it was hard and dangerous to go out for food, which saw mountainous people develop preserved food.
The meat is usually from the muscle of the buffaloes, cut into pieces with grain before being mixed with spices such as salt, ginger, chilli and mac ken (a type of pepper). It’s then hung over the fire place in the kitchen and cooked by the smoke whenever a meal is prepared.
The meat is dried for some months and the spices give it a special taste. It can be eaten by shredding it into pieces and enjoyed with beer or alcohol and is also nice food for hosts to present to guests.
Thang co - horse in a hotpot
At markets in the northwest an odd aroma often fills the air. Emanating from large pots, the dish looks a bit of mess. It resembles a broth of meat, but smells like dirty socks with a touch of dead rat thrown in.
If you want a ‘taste’ of real Vietnam, though, don’t run away. Stay and try the local delicacy of thang co, which is unique to the northern mountains. If pho is the pride of Hanoi and broken rice truly Saigonese, the horse-flavoured thang co is the dish of mountainous people.
Thang co is a traditional food of the H’mong ethnic minority people, which first appeared around 200 years ago in Bac Ha district in Lao Cai before finding their way to neighbouring provinces, according to Giang Seo Sau, a H’mong man in Bac Ha.
The name of the dish can be understood in two different ways. One originates from the Chinese word for soup made from meat and bones, Sau explained, and the other is the H’mong word for a soup pot.
Traditionally, only horse meat was used as the main ingredient. After all the parts were cleaned and cut into pieces, including the meat, bones, and everything inside, they were boiled before being put into a big pot to stew. In the past it was only available on market days or at festivals or big events.
Today, besides horse, other meat can be used, like beef, buffalo, pork, or goat, and is sold at markets. The cooking has also become more sophisticated. The protein, whatever it may be, is mixed with salt, ginger, cardamom, anise, grilled lemon leaves, and other spices. Everything is then stirred before boiling. The smell used to be believed to come from the unclean parts of the animal but in fact it comes from the mixture of the animal parts and the spices.
If you’re brave enough to taste it the smell seems to disappear. Instead, a combination of flavours lands on your tongue: sweet, sour, salty, and a bit spicy, which makes it a second-to-none experience, especially when washed down with local corn wine. Another special feature of thang co is that it is always on the boil, so can be enjoyed hot every time.
Com lam - rice done without a pot
In the villages, markets and homes of mountainous people, the prevalence of tubes of com lam (lam rice) shows how vital it is in the lives of local people.
It’s believed to have originated by a group of ethnic Thai people. Legend has it that there was a world of deities called Muong Then, of which one named Then Chat Chat controlled the birth and death of a spirit who was sent to earth for certain duties and would then return to Muong Then. All of the spirits were believed to eat com lam. Therefore, when a child was born, the mother would eat com lam to inform Then Chat Chat of the birth. If not, the child would not be listed in the deities’ birth and death book and could never find its way back to Muong Then and be reborn.
Another, more realistic, tale of the food’s origin is based on the daily life of the ethnic minority people. Living high in the mountains, it took a long time to travel anywhere, so they travelled light. Bamboo pipes and water from streams along the way were used to bake rice rather than carrying a pot to boil it in. The word for baked, in the Thai language, is lam.
Good com lam requires the right bamboo and good rice. The bamboo must be young, so it doesn’t allow the flame to get into the rice and ruin its natural aroma and taste. The water from inside the bamboo is also kept to cook the rice, as it is believed to be a gift from god. Sticky rice is the best type.
After the rice is placed in a split bamboo pipe, the open side of the pipe is covered by banana leaves. The pipe is baked with fire and turned regularly to avoid any part being uncooked or overcooked.
The sweet and soft taste of the sticky rice mixed with the bamboo’s aroma is a special dish of the forest and the mountains, made by creative human hands.
Xoi ngu sac – joining the five elements
Xoi ngu sac (five-coloured steamed glutinous rice) has long been a well-known specialty of the northwest. In the past it was only cooked on special occasions, such as important festivals, ceremonies, and weddings, but has now become popular in everyday life.
Its five colours symbolize Ying & Yang and the five basic elements of Eastern philosophy, as well as local people’s view of life and the solidarity among different ethnic minority groups. In each region people mix different colours, but the basic colours are yellow, green (or purple), red, white, and black, which represent the five basic elements - yellow for the earth and prosperity, green for the wood of the homeland and also hope (or purple for wood and loyalty), red for fire and ambition, white for metal and purity, and black for water and life’s difficulties. Each colour in the dish is also found on their traditional outfits.
The main ingredient is soft and aromatic glutinous rice with equal-sized grains, mixed with wild leaves for dying. Before dying the sticky rice is cleaned and soaked in water for 6-8 hours to ensure the rice rises enough. It is then divided into five parts for each colour. After the dying process is finished it is steamed in water. This part requires the cook be skilled. The rice with the colour that fades the quickest is prepared first, then others follow until, finally, the white part is on top. Each coloured part must be steamed in separate steamers.
According to the Tay people’s concept, the family that makes the colours correctly and beautifully is also considered to be skilled at work. The different colours also give each part a different taste. Serving the dish to guests expresses the hospitality of a host.