Flavors and memories from the Countryside of Vietnam

Further to the post about weird Vietnamese food, in this latest update, I would like to introduce you additional special Vietnamese dishes, which belong to the countryside of Vietnam and have existed for hundreds of year but still remain their popularity and preference by any Vietnamese people. Some dishes may be somehow weird and difficult to imagine why we can eat them. However, it is guaranteed that “no money to be paid if it’s not appetizing”.

1.      Vietnam Sweetened Porridge

Vietnam Sweetened Porridge

“Chè” is a general Vietnamese word to describe any traditional Vietnamese thick, sweet dessert soup or sweetened porridge, which is usually available in the form of pudding, or as a plain drink. Chè has been a popular beverage for a very long time with many versions of chè created everywhere in the world. In Vietnam, chè is special in its own way that incorporates a number of varieties of beans and/or glutinous rice, cooked in water, and sweetened with sugar.  Other ingredients may include tapioca starch, salt, and pandan leaf extract.

Vietnam Sweetened Porridge

Chè is a special gift of the countryside as it was invented by moms and grandmas at home to relieve summer heat for their children. This beverage is not only good for liver but also protein-rich as it releases hungry feeling and strengthens our health. Chè may be served hot or cold with shredded or dried coconut and banana extract added to elevate the sweet smell of the dish. Hue citadel is famous for different kinds of Vietnam Sweetened Porridge which used to serve the Royal Family of Nguyen Dynasty.

Vietnam Sweetened Porridge
Lotus sweetened porridge with longan

Vietnam Sweetened Porridge
Grapefruit sweetened porridge

2.      Salty/Sugared apricot – Ô-mai

Salty/Sugared apricot
Sugared tamarind 
For many centuries, dry fruits such as grape, dates, apricot and apples have long been used as a popular dish for Mediterranean inhabitants. Dates were the very first kind of fruits to be pressed to collect syrup then sugared and used as a kind of sweet candy preferred by travellers through deserts. In Asia, apricots, plums and peaches, etc. started to be used to process O-mai later and only served in royal banquette combined with honey and other spices.

Salty/Sugared apricot
Apricot with ginger
Today, O-mai has become more popular with cheaper value and various flavors. In Vietnam, this amazing delicacy has been reminded as a favorite treat for both Vietnamese people of Tet holiday and foreign tourist of a genuine Vietnamese gift. To make the most delicious taste, the cook must concentrate in all steps of the progress from choosing the best fruits to using special recipes. Great O mai must be limber, the sour, spicy, sweet and salt tastes must be combined but not blended. Through talents and skills of Vietnamese people, kinds of omai have become so special with distinct flavors, which best go well with a pot of tea and some friends to chat with. Hong Lam Omai are now among the most popular and trusted brands of o-mai in Hanoi.

Salty/Sugared apricot

3.      Early green rice – Cốm

Early green rice
Special gift of motherland - Cốm
Cốm – early green rice is a special gift of Hanoi, which carries hard-working spirit, patience and creativity of farmers.  It is not dyed green, as can be done with pandan, but is immature rice kernels roasted over very low heat then pounded in a mortar and pestle until flattened. Cốm is seasonal dish associated with autumn. Its taste is slightly sweet with a nutty flavor.

Early green rice
Early green rice
Like other gifts, the initial meaning of cốm was for gift offering to father-in-law during Tet festival. Gradually, this pastoral dish was found so delicate and pure that it has been used in rituals and festivals like ancestral offerings and wedding gifts of northern people. Whenever the autumn comes, Vong villagers excitedly carry so cute hangers filled with early green rice covered by lotus leaf, singing “Green Rice here” along the road. Concerning how to make Cốm, Vong village is the most well-known for making sweet-smelling and soft rice, using edible canna leaves to create natural color for Cốm.

Early green rice

Cốm can be eaten plain or with banana while enjoying a cup of tea. People also make use of Cốm as an ingredient for rice flake (chả cốm) where the light green flakes scatter inside and on the surface of the pale beige meat log. Its natural viscidity (from the heating of sticky rice) increases the meat’s chewiness and causes the appearance of gossamer strings woven into the meat when the log is sliced.

Early green rice
Green rice sweentened porridge

Early green rice
Rice flake

4.      Street-side grilled corn

Each season, Hanoi has a reason to make its visitor feel something attached to this land. It is dracontomelum in summer, early green rice in autumn and especially winter with a variety of gifts that help take the chill off of the northern zone. Among such cozy gifts, street-side grilled corn is a very popular pastoral snack closely connected with red wood stove of street vendors.

Street-side grilled corn

Concerning its flavor, this street food is only young corn grilled over charcoal without adding any spices or any other special recipes. Once finishing, the corn’s skin is a little bit hard but its core inside is soft, leathery and smell tastily rich owing to flavors of corn milk and grilled corn leaves covered outside. Whenever winter comes, it is grilled corn that comes first into Hanoian’s mind.

Street-side grilled corn

Where to eat the best street-side grilled corn is difficult to define. Sidewalks of Ham Long cathedral, Hanoi Medical University and Hanoi Architectural University, etc. have street-side grill corn stalls well worth trying.  However, this kind of snack should not be seriously compared its flavor because it is the feeling when gathering around a street-side grilled corn hanger with friends, chewing fresh-baked corns in deep chill of Hanoi winter that’s enough to warm up your heart.

5.      Sweet-potato cake

When winter arrives in Ha Noi, fried sweet potato and banana cakes along the street of the capital will become favorite foods of Hanoians and visitors. The main ingredients of the crisp yellow cakes are sweet potatoes and bananas from the countryside. After being mixed with flour and sugar, they are deep fried and become a perfect treat in winter days.

The smell of this street-side cake makes passersby’s mouth water and the heat from the stoves keeps people warm in the cold atmosphere.

Sweet-potato cake

However, if one wants to find the most delicious sweet potato and banana cakes in Ha Noi, they are recommended to go to Lang Street running from Cau Giay Bridge in Cau Giay District to Nga Tu So Ward in Dong Da District.

6.      Crispy rice cracker with finely shredded pork

If meat of goat raised in the mountain of Ninh Binh has become a specialty taken to grand cuisine events, Kim Son wine has become famous with special taste, then crispy rice cracker (Cơm cháy) is a longstanding specialty and a special snack for visitors to Ninh Binh. Com chay is crispy and is the essence of rice owing to the fact that it is made from various ingredients of the homeland. Legend has it that com chay was first made in the late 19th century by a young man named Hoang Thang who learnt this dish from Chinese and opened restaurant in Hanoi and Ninh Binh.

Crispy rice cracker with finely shredded pork

The dish is sophisticatedly made with some secrets and creativity. The most difficult step is choosing rice. Plump and fragrant grains of glutinous rice will be soaked in water and washed then cooked and put into moulds before being fried. Salted shredded meat will be put onto the rice to add flavor to the dish and make it more buttery. The oil for frying the rice will be heated so that it can absorb into the rice. This dish is, however, not so difficult to make and you can make use of left over rice at home but make sure it’s still healthy to turn it into a wonderful and hard-to-resist snack.

7.      Popiah

Bò bía or popiah is a common street food in Vietnam with two versions namely sweet popiah and savory popiah both originating from the south of Vietnam. This kind of snack cannot be found in any restaurant but only seen along roadsides or school gates.

Sweet popiah

Sweet popiah

Sweet popiah has long been regarded as school age memory with a little bit leathery but very soft rice paper rolling inside deep sweet flavor of malt condensed like a crunchy candy bar and indispensably fatty flavor of shredded coconut and black sesame.  West lake bank along Thanh Nien street is now well-known for the best sweet popiah in Hanoi.

Sweet popiah

Savory popiah from the south (sausage spring rolls and peanut sauce) is a refreshing crunchy rice paper rolls filled with jicama, eggs, chinese sausages, peanuts, herbs and lettuce, and served with hoisin, chili and peanut dipping sauce. Although the word “bo” means beef, there is no beef in this. The stuffing however can be diverse and include other items such as tofu, and bean sprouts

8.  Fermented pork roll

Nem chua is a cured/fermented pork charcuterie in the form of index-finger shaped cake either wrapped in banana leaves or plastic wrap in Asian groceries. It has a sweet, sour, salty and spicy taste that is so addicting.

Fermented pork roll

Made from rustic ingredients, namely ground pork thigh, minced pork skin, chili, garlic, fish sauce, sugar, salt, those are mixed, pressed and then naturally fermented by tender fig or guava leaves, nem chua has a very characteristic sour, acquired sweet, garlicky and salty taste with a nice crunch of pork rinds. While the fig leaf cover can be eaten with nem chua, creating a special acrid taste, the banana leaf cover makes its flavor more subtle and attractive. Both traditional nem chua and grilled one are served with chutney mingled with squeezed kumquat or spicy fish sauce added lemon juice.

Fermented pork roll

Besides, it is common to enjoy the grilled with fruits such as star fruit, green mango, jícama, not only reducing fatty taste but also whetting appetite.  Just a look is enough for guests to salivate over the thought of savoring each bite of nem chua. More interestingly, while nem chua of the north in general and of Thanh Hoa province in particular is in favor of sour taste and has subtle fragrance of fern-leaf aralia, the southern one prefers sweet and spicy added by powered grilled rice and pepper. Therefore, there are more choices for gastronomists to enjoy. Another version of nem chua, fried fermented pork roll served hot chilli sauce is a famous appetizing snack among the youth of Vietnam.

Fried fermented pork roll

9.      Organ and rice porridge cooked with pork innards

Pig organs

Organs of pigs or cows have been elevated to a whole new level. Pork tongue, heart, liver and pork blood cubes are well treated, then boiled again before eating and enjoyed by almost all Vietnamese mans. The organs are also cooked with rice, which is then served hot with Vietnamese herb mint leaves, bean sprout and chili paste. After processing, organs’ texture varies greatly from pasty, crunchy, or chewy.

Pig innards

Rice porridge cooked with pork innards
We eat a lot of food that is deemed weird to say the least. Sometimes the reason simply is because it is appetizing and we believe it provides certain health benefits. For example, why take Viagras when you can eat a bull penis? If “cháo lòng” – rice porridge cooked with pork innards is a popular breakfast dish in the north, the Southern equivalent would be “bánh hỏi lòng heo”.

Hoi cake with pig innards

10.      Fermented shrimp paste with fried tofu and rice vermicelli – Bún đậu mắm tôm

Bun dau mam tom is a very famous street side food in Vietnam not only owing to its cheap price but also a fantastic combination of fried tofu, traditional shrimp paste and rice vermicelli. As a matter of fact, shrimp paste has long been in the list of "worst smelling foods in the world". Some of you may react to this: "Ewww" but why not give "mắm tôm" a try if one of the reasons why you travel is to see (hear, smell, touch, taste, feel) the world in all its diversity? And you can feel assured because the street vendor always prepare some pieces of chewing-gum to have after eating this very special food.

Fermented shrimp paste with fried tofu and rice vermicelli

Traditionally, this dipping sauce is made of heavily salted ground shrimps, left for months of fermentation. The typical aroma comes from an enzyme which is available in the intestine of shrimps. Shrimp paste or mắm tôm can be served, normally with sweet and sour grated water morning glory, salty egg-plants, dog meat and of course, "bún đậu mắm tôm". "Bún đậu mắm tôm" includes rice vermicelli, deep fried tofu, shrimp paste and, last but not least, odoriferous herbs, basil or cockscomb mint.

Fermented shrimp paste with fried tofu and rice vermicelli

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