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Flavors of Fresh Fall On Northwest Highlands

Tuesday, 10/17/2017 10:42
People on plains have been always attracted by mysterious highlands not only because geographic differences have created different specialties but also geographic difficulties have prevented highland people to reach modern trends of the civilized society so basically.

Those minority communities have kept their own traditional activities and conventional folks, which are much more odd yet interesting to citizens.

A big number of people think that fall should be the most beautiful season of the year since it’s the transitive time between sweating summer and harsh winter, when all romantic and poetic ideas have begun. However, in Northwest highlands of Viet Nam, especially on along rice terraces, fall has only one meaning, which is harvesting season. Visiting the highlands at early fall, definitely tourists would have a chance to try all best specialties from the fields right under “the gate to heaven” (*).

Field’s Tu Le. Ảnh: Thien Thu

Tu Le green sweet-rice (cốm Tú Lệ)

Green sweet-rice is not only Tu Le’s specialty. There are many other areas where could provide fine green sweet-rice, such as the familiar Vong village right in Ha Noi. However, if you have tried a pinch of fresh cốm from Tu Le, you would understand why Thai minority has called their rice grains as “gifted pearls”.

Summer had just passed and fall had just come; rice fields from Na Loong, Pom Ban around Tu Le villages to terraces in Lim Mong, Lim Thai in Mu Cang Chai district have started to turn from tranquil green to yellowish. Rice grains are getting ripe. Thai minority in Yen Bai province have owned a special type of round-grain sweet rice called Tan La, which takes at least 90 days to get mature and fragrant. Agricultural scientists said that the fragrance and deliciousness of Tu Le sweet rice were definitely from its climate and soil: the amplitude between days and nights is quite far so the rice have stored high density; the soil is rich with mineral and humus; and the stream flows directly from Khau Pa pass onto those fields.

To make cốm, farmers must collect green sweet-rice grains in early foggy morning. Collective grains must be enough mature to deliver the best product. After harvested, women will thresh those sweet-rice grains and wash them in clean water. Chosen grains are roasted about 30 minutes in iron pan on burning woods till turning yellowish. Burning woods provides the best temperature for roasting sweet-rice grains as well as coating them by fresh smoke. When the roasting is done, the grains should have an indescribable smoky nostalgic aroma. They would be let to cool off then pestled in a eurythmic routine to shell them off. At the same time, another person (usually woman) is stirring grains in the pestle, taking off grain shells. Depending on the maturity of sweet-rice grains, people have to estimate how long and how hard the pestle process should be; usually it takes 10 times to turn sweet-rice grains to finished cốm. Cốm would be wrapped in fresh dong leaves to enhance the color and preserve all natural moisture.

Tu Le green sweet-rice.

Fresh cốm can be mixed with syrup, coconut milk and garnished with some shred coconut as northern style or simply have it raw as it should be. Let’s carefully chew Tú Lệ cốm to enjoy the flavor of earth and air from the northwest highlands and what Thai minority calls “our gifted pearls”.

Smoked buff

Highlands’ cuisine is a real gem because of its abundance and diversity, from ingredients and condiments to cooking methods and occasion. Thai community in Yen Bai province serve simple meals all year round but festivals, especially fall or harvesting season. To celebrate a new crop, one or two or more families would choose a buffalo to make their impressive specialty called smoked buff.

Smoked buff.

Even though smoked buff has become a pricy nation-wide specialty, black Thai community in Nghia Lo district (Yen Bai province) is still loyal to their traditional smoking process. Smoked buff must be made from fresh hot shank of free-run buff or cows/ox. They don’t wash fresh opened buff but chop the whole block into handful pieces. Condiments for this featured meat include salt, chili, ginger, lemongrass, wild herbs, and mac khen – a spicy seed with particular flavor. After seasoned, the buff will be hang over the stove in their houses and smoked for months. Buff is cooked by low heat the longer the better but usually it takes 8 months to a year for the whole buff load. When smoked buff gets done, its outer layer is absolutely dried but inner is still dark red; the flesh is so tender and totally soaked all flavors of the condiments. This specialty, compared to northern countries’ in the Europe, must be on the same delicious scale or even higher.

An old Thai man revealed his secret of delish great smoked buff, which tenderizes the flesh and lengthens its shelf life, was about “3 smokes and 2 fogs”. However, he denied to talk it clear but shred more of his smoked buff for the visitors, serving with pungent yet mild sweet homemade wine from Mèo apples so that the visitors would forgot what they wanted to ask,

Roasted bush crickets

After harvesting season, rice fields and terraces in Muong Lo (Yen Bai province) are left with bare stubbles but it’s not the end of the crop yet. Not even close! That is the funny and joyful time of working people, both children and adults, before fall really seizes its dominance. And the best activity here is to catch bush crickets.

Also called katydids or long-horned grasshoppers (belongs to Tettigoniidae family), this insect has its breeding season in the end of summer. As farmers finish their harvest, those bush crickets are fully mature with the biggest size of an adult’s finger. In the evening, they are attracted by the lights and rush into citizen area from fields. That’s when people start their bonus activity of the fall.

Those leggy insects would be cleaned as order: wings off, legs off, head off, and gut off; only the milky rounded body part would be used. They wash cleaned bush crickets with water several times then boil them in vinegar (or fermented sour liquid) to enrich the flavor and reduce “insect smell”. As boiling liquid goes off, they pour oil in and roast those succulent bush crickets in high fire until they get cooked. Seasoning with some hot chili and seasonings while quick stirring the body parts. Finally, just add minced lime leaves to complete the dish. Bush crickets already turn to dark brown with buttery and tender texture.

Insects are indeed not too odd to people on plains. However, bush crickets (or katydids) are not a dish that you can find on menus of any restaurants because no one can farm raise them for stable supply and moreover, they just come out after harvesting season. Therefore, bush crickets are still a feature yet rare specialty of the fall that visitors have to try when coming to the northwest highlands.

(*) Tu Le village (belonging to Van Chan district, Yen Bai province) lays on down of Khau Pa pass, meaning “gate to heaven” in Thai minority’s language.

By Thu Pham

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