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Fateful meeting with Highland cuisine on 5-star party table

Monday, 11/07/2016 08:44
There were lots of surprises within 3 days in Dien Bien, having a food tray with nearly 20 strange-hearing yet delicious dishes. Famous spices of the Northern Highlands were Doi seed, Mac Khen, Mac Mat leaves, and another interesting seasoning called “cham cheo” which has several types.

Chef Hoang Van Lien from Muong Thanh – Lao Cai hotel was decorating party table in northern semi-final round.

A week later, we had met northern highland cuisine again on The Golden Spoon party table and surprisingly experienced creative dishes of 5-star chefs.

1. The crabapple and Doi seed cake was shaped as stalactite blocks in Son Doong cave’s photos. The cake was really eye-catching and robust with buttery texture of cream, root beer hint of Doi seeds, and sweetness of crabapples. “What a unique and exotic dessert!”, food artisan Bui Thi Suong gave comment. Hilton Hanoi Opera hotel’s chefs were the creators of the cake.

Baking this cake was not difficult but the tip was how they created and combined all northwest ingredients. Docynia or commonly called crabapples are used to make wine and Doi seeds are famous spice for seasonings or meats. However, those Ha Noi chefs were confident to bring them into a dessert. Brief instruction as following: 

- Chop crabapples into small cubes, blanched to reduce acrid taste then stir-fried with butter, sugar, and vanilla extract; 

- Mash Doi seeds with some peanuts and cooked in cooking cream about 15 minutes then filtered to collect all hot cream; 

- Mix batter with foam of egg yorks;

- Add in gelatin to thicken batter;

- Combine Min-phoi flour, wheat flour, salt, and butter and knead thoroughly; 

- Bake the dough; 

- Cover each layer of cake with cream and crabapple jam;

Crabapple cake with hint of Doi seeds.

From highland specialties, Muong Thanh Lao Cai hotel’s chefs created many other dainty dishes, such as sautéed duck breast with Doi seeds in fruit sauce. Breast flesh was from a good-size duck then seasoned with salt, black pepper, and Doi seeds. After 30 minutes, sauté duck breast and squeeze fat out of the flesh. Bake duck breast about 7 minutes at 160oC until pinky and soft. The thicken sauce was made from mango flesh grounded with fresh orange juice then boiled with Doi seeds and seasonings.

Other particular dishes were steamed local pork with wild leaves in cham cheo sauce, Don leaves salad and Seng Cu rice cooked with fresh turmeric. Not only using famous local specialty black pork, they also brought in many regional fruits and spices, such as Mac Mat leaves and fruits, Doi seeds, apples and pears from Sapa, Nep leaves, lemongrass, and galangal. Chefs boiled a big pot with spices and vegetables in 30 minutes to extract oil and savor then added pork into the pot to absorb all the essence from the broth. The pork was fruity yet robust in your mouth.

The Golden Spoon judges were pleased by talents and ideas of chefs.

An indispensable seasoning going along with pork is cham cheo. In Thai minority’s language, “cham” means dipping and “cheo” is an adjective, which describes the aroma of combined spices. There are 3 – 4 types of cham cheo, depending on main dishes. Cham cheo for this pork was made from grilled green peppers, garlic, Mac Khen seeds, salt, MSG, spicy leaves, and a teaspoon lime juice. A bite of pork was dipped in cham cheo, a bowl of Seng Cu rice was gone.

2. To collect and to introduce highland specialties, chefs had to work hard. They varied recipes of local people to their own.  Knowledge and modern cooking techniques have helped them to use up all special ingredients and to create fusion dishes.

Chefs of Dung Tan Restaurant (Thai Nguyen province) introduced Northwest healthy dishes, which were varied from local recipes, Da Hien salad and burnt shrimps in rock salt. Da Hien is a wild vegetable in Cao Bang rocky highlands. This vegetable is so flexible that we can use it in many ways, like boiling, stir-frying with garlic, or making hot pot. Local people believe that Da Hien vegetable helps to strengthen bones and heal kidneys. Chef Dinh Trong Giang picked fresh Da Hien tips, washed thoroughly, blanched then soaked in ice water to keep them green and crispy. Whole fresh shrimps were placed on Himalayan rock salt - which was formed over 250 million years ago and considered pure - together with ginger, hot pepper, and wine to deodorize. After 15 minute cooking, heat from salt layer brought shrimps to well done. Peeling crust and heads off, shrimp flesh were placed on Da Hien vegetable, served with Tien Vua vegetable, carrot, purple cabbage, salmon caviar, and black garlic.

Bamboo shoot salad and red tune rolled in veggie with peanut sauce and cilantro.

Stewing pheasant meat with Ba Kich root is a medicinal dish. Pheasant meat highly contains nutrition so that it only appeared on royal dining tables in the past. Chefs cleaned the meat to make fillet while bones were stewed with pork bone and herbs in about one hour and half. Ba Kich roots (Morinda officinalis) are known as strengthener for bones, kidneys, and sexual ability. Dam Duong Hoac (Epimedium), Ngoc Cau mushroom (Balanophora fungosa), and Nhuc Thung Dung flowers (Cistanche) are rare and valuable herbs and also known as sexual ability’s supporters. Cogon grass’ roots (Imperata cylindrical) have natural sweet and can be used as sweetener. Fillet meat were seasoned by pure salt, ginger, dried onion, and rice wine then bagged in special bag with holes and put the whole bag into broth pot in 45 minutes.

3. Highland spices surprised people when attending in high-class dainty dishes. Mac Khen, Doi seeds, and crabapples were combined with deluxe food in modern cooking methods of molecular gastronomy, such as consommé and sous vide. Chefs from Pullman Danang Beach Resort (Da Nang city) broke old-fashion recipes to create goose liver pate with crabapple wine and grilled Spanish pork served with Italian pasta in Red Delicious applesauce. Spanish pork is from black pigs, which are raised in forest-side and fed oak fruits so that the meat is tender and super delicious. Mac Khen seeds have both black pepper and hot pepper savor, which will rise up the taste of Spanish pork.

Hilton Hanoi Opera hotel’s chefs performed smoking method to make smoking goat meat in Moc Mat sauce, served with fried rice. Goat meat (cabrito) is a famous specialty of Ninh Binh province. The best part is tenderloin and each mature goat provides only 1.5kg tenderloin. Instead of normally washing goat meat by ginger and rice wine, those 5-star chefs smoked them by fokienia wood and Thai Nguyen tea. After that, goat meat would be thinly sliced and seasoned with black pepper, salt, sugar, oyster sauce, and Moc Mat juice. Well-seasoned slices of meat would be rolled, sautéed then baked until well done. They added Mac Khen (or black pepper), salt, honey, oyster sauce, and tapioca flour into Moc Mat sauce then cooked to thicken.

Baked smoked-goat meat in Moc Mat sauce, served with fried rice.

These fusion dishes, Vietnamese taste yet European cooking style, have shown chefs’ enthusiasm, longing for Vietnamese cuisine to seize their appropriate places on classy dinning tables. They have been working hard, varying old-fashion recipes to create new own ones, and widely researching on regional ingredients and spices in order to bring Vietnamese cuisine to higher class. Actually, they made it. Chef Hoang Van Duong from Duong’s Restaurant (Ha Noi city) performed a particularly robust and dainty tray of meat, which had BBQ beef rolled in pork fat and Moc Mat seed, BBQ pork with Mac Khen seasoning, and duck pate. Chef Duong said, “Those are unique dishes I’ve learned since I was in Sapa”. Moreover, chef Duong was willing to guide foreign chefs to cook his recipes because he though this was a very good way to bring Vietnamese cuisine to international.

The enthusiasm, creativities, and talents of Vietnamese chefs do bring more opportunities for northwest highlands’ specialties to have usages in academic culinary field. We hope to meet them again.

By Nguyen Trang/Nguoi Do Thi

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