Tickled pink about mustard pickle

(No.7, Vol.3, Aug 2013 Vietnam Heritage Magazine)

In my native land, Quang Tri Province, Central Vietnam, when a lunar year draws to an end, it is the time every household begins to turn the soil in their garden and strew mustard seeds. After just a few days under drizzles, they become a young, lush, green plants, brightening the impoverished countryside like a rich man’s carpet.
Soon, every house in the village has a bed of mustard, well-planted and looked after. Mustard likes damp soil. The soil is turned over, then finely chopped and mixed with a little organic fertilizer. This is enough to create a favorable environment for the mustard to grow and withstand the unstable year-end weather.
During Lunar New Year’s celebration, or Tet, next to various kinds of fatty foods, a basket of fresh young green mustard leaves would be most desirable.

Mustard, Nghe An, Central Vietnam, November 2010.
Photos: Nguyen Ba Ngoc

Like everyone else in the village, my mom selects the big and strong mustards among those cast-planted to replant. About ten more days and the leaves are already so lush. On rare sunny days, my mom pulls out the big ones, washes them clean, then sun-dries them till they shrivel a bit. She boils some water, adds a little salt and stirs. Then she places and presses each leaf into an earthen jar, and pours the salt water in, just enough to steep all the leaves. The jar is then covered tightly for a few days. When it is opened, the air is filled with the sour, pungent smell of the pickle. The leaves have now acquired a beautiful, eye-catching yellowish color. The mustard pickle of my place is delicious and different from the Northern pickled field mustard. It is often called pungent mustard. Its leaves are small, with a long, thin stalk. The pickle is both crunchy and chewy, and has a sweet taste. Our pickle is special because it can be kept for a long time without getting tender, and doesn’t get doughy when cooked. We have a notion of ‘good hand for the pickle’, and the longer it is kept, the more delicious and fragrant the pickle made by those hands becomes.

Pickled mustard.
Photo: Nhat Vy

Although it is just a lowly vegetable, it is part of every meal, and in my native land, the mustard has another sacred mission, since its yellow flowers transform the panorama of the poor countryside during the New Year season, giving it a unique, unforgettable beauty. The yellow color of the mustard flowers imprints deeply on the memory, and vividly reappears every time spring comes with Tet. The fresh color of the mustard flowers somehow clings there, not wanting to let go of the spring, as it will sadly fade away when spring is gone.
At dusk, when red strokes brighten the darkening canvas of the sky that bends over them, the mustard flowers show an inconceivably beautiful glow. In the breeze, they rock shyly in a timid, flirting dance.
Though not fanciful, the beauty of the mustard is in its unassuming modesty, much like the sincere, heart-warming beauty of the peasants of my home land.

By Phan Bao Hoa
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