FLOWER POWER

Edible flowers are common in the mekong delta during the flood season.

By Thuy Duong on December 05,2017 10:12 AM

FLOWER POWER

Photos: Thuy Duong

Once foreigners try lẩu mắm, a special dish from the southern region of Vietnam, they may wonder who invented the ‘romantic’ idea of eating flowers. The fact is that for hundreds of years the inhabitants of the Mekong Delta have eaten flowers as part of their daily vegetable intake during the flood season. As the waters rose, farmers weren’t able to plant crops so they had no choice but to eat wild plants or flowers. Over time, the flowers become part of the local diet and when taken to other regions became special and expensive dishes.

Among the many kinds of these edible wild flowers are names such as Hoa súng, or water-lily, So đũa flower (Aeschynomene grandiflora), Lục bình flower (Duckweed), and Điên điển flower (Sesbania sesban). Few things beat sitting by the side of a boiling hotpot on a cold winter’s night with a side of beautiful flowers in a bamboo basket, wondering how they taste but being reluctant to eat them.

The most recognisable flower is the water lily; the ones that are large and purple in colour. Not every water lily can be eaten. Those grown in the northern part of the country, though being similar in appearance to those planted in the south, are inedible. ‘Only the floodwaters of the Mekong Delta produce edible water lilies,’ said the young owner of Ut Giang Restaurant in Hanoi. ‘Only when the water reaches a certain height, carrying alluvium soil, do water lily buds and seeds take life, jutting their sprouts on to the water surface. The higher the water level, the longer the plant and the softer the stalk will be.’

Giang is the youngest daughter in a family from the western part of the Mekong Delta and owns two restaurants in Hanoi serving lẩu mắm and other specialties from her homeland. The flowers of water lilies, she explained, are not eaten, only the stalks. While the flowers can indeed be eaten, they’re not that filling. The first thing a chef does after receiving a bunch of water lilies is cut the flowers off, break the stalk into shorter pieces, and peel its skin. After being peeled, the stalk becomes soft and smooth and looks delicious.

The flood season is also the time when Linh fish abound. This is a type of tiny fish with very soft bones and can be eaten whole. Water lilies and Linh fish come together once a year, in the flood season, and together with fish sauce made from Linh fish, green tamarind and other flowers and vegetables, they form a unique specialty of the Delta - lẩu mắm cá Linh, or sweet and sour Linh fish sauce hotpot. The dish is eye-catching and an absolute delight!

Another type of flower that could be found on the vegetable dish accompanying lẩu mắm is Dien Dien flower. Different from water lilies, only the flower is eaten and the stalk discarded. Điên điển is bright yellow and as beautiful as dancer orchids. While the flower is edible it doesn’t have the elegant fragrance other flowers possess. It smells slightly of grass, like water boiled with wood, or like tea leaves after all the tea has been drunk. For this reason, Điên điển is combined with other ingredients. While the sight of beautiful flowers in the light-brown sauce of a lẩu mắm hotpot isn’t too appealing, the taste is. The strong sauce becomes milder with Điên điển, while the strength of the sauce helps Điên điển’s mildness linger longer on the palate.

Lục bình (water hyacinth) is a beautiful purple flower with very thin petals. People in the Mekong Delta often eat both the flower and its stems. The flowers are usually harvested early in the morning, when dew remains on each green leaf, and then withered at sunset on the same day. Lục bình withers so quickly that diners in the city rarely see the flower on plates.

FLOWER POWER

If you see tiny flowers in dark pink or ivory white with long pistils protruding from the petals in a lẩu mắm vegetable basket, they are probably So đũa flowers. Blooming from October to December in the Mekong Delta, the flowers are not only beautiful but also good for the health, despite their slightly bitter taste. During the season of So đũa flowers, people usually pick them early in the morning, cut off their stalks, then lightly wash the flowers with water. The clean flowers can then be cooked with fish, shrimp or, even better, eaten with a lẩu mắm.

So try a piece of a crunchy water lily stalk, pick up a piece of Điên điển flower, then experience the bitter taste of a So đũa flower, which are balanced by the rich creamy sweet, sour and salty broth of the hotpot. It’s such as an exciting dining experience! Once people try the dish, they are sure to come back for more.

‘Lẩu mắm, though translated as fish sauce hotpot, is actually quite different,’ explained Giang. ‘It’s a special fermented sauce made from Linh fish.’ Mắm cá Linh was invented by farmers living in the flooded areas of the Mekong Delta. As large quantities of Linh fish are harvested during the flood season, farmers try to save some of it by fermenting it with salt in terracotta jars. A year later, the fermented fish is taken out and milled into a kind of condensed sauce. The sauce is then diluted with water for preparing as a soup dish.

‘Each lẩu mắm restaurant has its own secret to making the dish,’ said Giang. ‘But the essential ingredient is the fish sauce, which must be the finest available.’ The details of the manufacturing method are jealously guarded, with each producer’s recipe being a deeply-held secret.

Depending on the availability of the flowers, all those mentioned above are served on a vegetable dish accompanying lẩu mắm. There are usually at least three types of flowers joining common vegetables such as spinach, banana flower, bean sprouts, and mustard leaves, and, of course, the lẩu mắm doesn’t lack the protein of dishes such as beef, shrimp or squid. According to Giang, the hotpot is best eaten accompanied by fish only, especially fish from the Mekong Delta.

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