Delectable dishes

(No.10, Vol.4,Nov-Dec 2014 Vietnam Heritage Magazine)

Ingredients to make a salad

The salad, prepared by a chef

Bamboo tube rice with roasted chicken

Seafood, ant eggs with fig leaves
Photos provided by the organizer of the Golden Spoon Awards

Among Vietnamese food experts, Mr Chiem Thanh Long really stands out. He is neither a chef nor a cooking guru. But he had spent time and efforts to collect and design 110 folklore dishes and 50 traditional kinds of wines.
His love affair with food began years ago in a very sweet way; his mother, an avid vegetarian, asked him to taste the dishes she made. Once he was grown up, he let his virtuoso tongue take him on adventures everywhere, from mountains to sea shores, from the North to the South, to taste all the dishes Vietnam has to offer, with a dream of promoting them to the world.
As a jury member of the Golden Spoon Awards 2014, Mr Long shared with Hoang Anh the unique features of highland food in the regional round of Tay Nguyen region at Dalat, Lam Dong Province on 22th and 23th of July.

Someone said that compared to the food of other regions, highland food is somewhat simplistic in processing and tasting. Is that correct, sir?
‘Simplicity is mandatory and vital in Tay Nguyen food culture. The highlanders with their slash-and-burn way of life must be able to cook anywhere, at any time. Roasting is the simplest way of cooking with little or no seasoning, but the food is nonetheless hot and tasty.
Water is not always in abundance, so they don’t have wet kinds of food, like our various sorts of noodles. Gia Lai dry noodle is only a little viscous. Not carrying many pans and pots, they sometimes use bamboo to cook, combining with roasting. That’s why we have rice cylinders, yellow outside but white, soft and rich of flavour inside.
I think it is creatively simple but by no means simplistic.’

It means that while moving, the highlanders would eat whatever they can find without making the ingredients by themselves?
‘Life and climate in the mountains are tougher than in the rich low lands. The people there have fewer possibilities to create food sources. Instead they mingle with Mother Nature and use more natural resources. The vegetables and fruits are mostly natural, fresher, richer in minerals, and carry the flavours of the pristine forests.
Fed in the forest, their pigs, chicks and cows have less fat, and the meat is firmer. Creek fish is sweet without foul smell. On the menu of this round, there is a dish of catfish, native to Se San river, cooked with bitter egg-plants and cassava leaves, a dish with the feel of the mountains, hard to take at first but hard to part with later.
Or the vegetable roll with 52 kinds of forest leaves such as ming aralia, garcinia, and guava. And the little wild winter melons fried in honey are an excellent desert. So, each dish is both food and a folkloric, therapeutic formula.’

If the prep is so simple, the ingredients so immediate and random, then what makes Tay Nguyen’s food culture unique?
‘It’s the flavour. When you feel the strong smell of smoke and bamboo, you know it comes from up there. Roasted meat, fish, and rice from there have a distinct typical flavour. They don’t dry or salt the leftover meat and fish, but hang it over the kitchen to smoke. I love the never-dying fire in their houses. Makes you feel the warmth of family.
Ever since the beginning of time, salt has been precious up there. So they don’t use it for cooking. They add it while eating. And only the people of Tay Nguyen use yellow ant eggs in place of salt. It’s creative, clean, safe and nutritious.
On this year’s menu, there are many dishes made with it: broth with ant eggs rolled in bamboo leaves, ant eggs steamed with fig leaves, yellow ants fried with beef and la lot leaves.’

Nowadays, especially in contests like this one, many chefs go a long way to modify the traditional typical dishes. Their creations may sometimes be interesting, but they may also be a bit too much. What do you think about this?
Contests stimulate creativity. For example, the fish rolls used to be wrapped in rice paper. This time, they used leaves to make little cones, put a piece of fresh fish in there, spray some salt with chopped basil leaves on top. It’s wonderful. Or the flower rolls of Dalat open a new direction of using flowers as food.
Just think about how a beautiful dish made of purple spiderwort flowers, light green Tonkinese creeper flowers, roses and yellow chrysanthemums would inspire you. However, creativity has to be based on the original tastes of traditional food to be sustainable.’

The grading criteria of this round stresses: no wild animal meat. But wild meat is already a ‘underground specialty’, highly in demand here. Do you believe that Tay Nguyen food can still be good without wild animal meats?
‘We don’t have to eat wild meat to prove that we are eating Tay Nguyen food. Wild animals should be in the forest, not on the plates. The home grown sources such as pigs, cows, buffalos, chickens and ducks are enough to create countless good dishes in the exact highland style.
People eat wild meat because they think it is tougher and more nutritious. But if the pigs and chickens are also raised free in the forest, then the meat quality is no less delicious and nutritious, and much safer. The food quality also depends on the chef’s skills. Wild meat cooked by a bad chef can be bad, and you can do nothing about it.’

Thank you!

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