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From necessity to dac san: unconventional countryside dishes

  Luon om xa ot (braised eel with lemon grass and chili)

Vietnam's creative countryside cooks seek out the tinniest and strangest creatures to cook some spectacularly unusual dishes that provide the weary meat eater with an array of new and interesting protein options.

From the rice and water of the deltas have sprung surprising dishes made of the things youngsters find in and around rice paddies, rivers, ponds and lakes.

Frogs, hen (tiny clams), mother of pearl, eels, snails, field crabs and even insects are all ingredients formerly used only by the rural poor that are now sold for a premium as "specialties" in the city.

Poverty-stricken farmers were the first to start eating these little guys and people still typically do not cook these dishes on special occasions such as Tet or at weddings when some form of extravagance is important.

These dishes have survived from the days when rural Vietnamese households were more self-sufficient units. Mothers and grandmothers would combine what staples they had in the home and in the garden with these tiny creatures that lived on their land.

The parents or their children would catch the creatures while tending to their crops. Field crabs or snails were particularly nourishing ways to supplement their diets.

Nowadays, these countryside dishes are dac san (specialties) in many traditional Vietnamese restaurants. Many of these small restaurants serve special dishes like chao trai (mother of pearl porridge) and chao luon (eel porridge) as snacks throughout the day.

Because these small creatures are big on taste, they are usually matched with different herbs and vegetables that complement the main ingredient.

In the old days, pork was rarer and more expensive. Vietnamese consumed pork mainly on special occasions. What we now consider as the more unusual field and river creatures were daily fare.

Because most of these creatures are small and slim, stewing or frying them is often too much for their flavor to handle. So, Vietnamese people consumed them mainly in soups. Soup cooking techniques allow the subtle and fresh flavors of the main ingredients to be retained. And sometimes these soups also contain the traditional Vietnamese staple: rice.

Herbs are added to balance the am duong (yin and yang) of the dish. Main ingredients such as hen, mother of pearl, eel, snail, frog which are believed to be yin (also referred to as cool), are usually cooked with yang (warm) herbs and spices such as rau ram (Vietnamese coriander), lemon grass, chilli, tia to (perrila), nghe (turmeric) and rieng (galangal).

 Oc nau chuoi dau (snail cooked with unripe banana, tofu and tia to leaves), an unconventional countryside dish
In the past, many families in Vietnam, especially those in the countryside, had gardens filled with these herbs and spices. And whenever they wanted to cook oc nau chuoi dau (snail cooked with green banana fruit, tofu and tia to leaves), chao trai (mother of pearl porridge), canh chua hen (tiny clam soup), canh cua mung toi rau day (field crab soup with vegetable) luon om xa ot (braised eel with lemon grass and chili), or hen tron (tiny clam salad - a very popular dish from center of Vietnam) the garden would provide the side ingredients for the dish.

These dishes are not difficult to cook, but quite time consuming.

First of all, soaking and washing these creatures for hours is necessary to get rid of the sand inside them. If people keep snails for one or two days before cooking, they are typically soaked in rice water (the water used to wash the rice), which people say keeps them fresh. (For frog or eel, the cook has to use straw ash to clean them).

Shelling the small beasts is also very time consuming.

In the past, this kind of food preparation would be an occasion for the whole family to work together with neighbors, separating the boiled snails or clams with grapefruit thorns or even by hand.

Nowadays, when a housewife can buy processed hen, frog, snail and field crab in the supermarket, the cook can work much quicker. But once in a while, though, spending a Sunday with the family doing kheu oc (separating the boiled snails), the old fashioned way, can be a lot of fun.

Preparing these countryside flavors with these rituals can hearken back to peaceful childhood summers sitting with loved ones, cooking one small and sweet thing at a time.

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