Eating horse in northern Vietnam, the merry way

By Quynh Trang   February 1, 2017 | 02:15 am PT
How to stay warm (and cool) like the Hmong: thang co and rice wine.

Day five of the Lunar New Year spirit. The men in Lao Cai, near the Chinese border, are still all about drinking and feasting.

That’s more than alright for Tuan Anh, the chef of an increasingly popular horse meat restaurant famous for a hotpot version called thang co.

“It’s a festival dish. The Hmong people cook every part of four-legged animals in a giant wok, and bring it to sell at the bazaar,” Anh says, with a big smile on his red face, eyes moving around the tables where his noisy diners are clearly having a great time.


Tuan Anh’s thang co served in an electric hotpot. Photo by VnExpress/Quynh Trang

Before finding its way to restaurants, thang co has been a best-kept secret of Hmong communities in Sa Pa, Bac Ha or Ha Giang.

The colorful mixture of horse meat, beef, pork and innards of the animals signals springtime celebrations. Surrounding a steamy, heavily spiced wok are groups of locals — the more the merrier. They take a bite. They they take a sip of rice wine. Then repeat.

Many visitors from the Red River Delta recently fell in love with the dish and developed a taste for horse meat, which is still considered a strange if not controversial kind of meat in many parts of the world. Anh would make a convincing case for eating horse.

“Horse meat is very different. The fat doesn’t linger in your mouth,” Anh says. “The animal also doesn’t ruminate. That's why its organs stay crunchy, even if stewed for hours.”

At his restaurant, the dish is served in electric hotpot. Everything else follows the tradition, almost.

The chef, who quit a government job after two decades, says he wanted to get a little bit creative: he added grilled and ground horse meat and spiced everything up with a fragrant, savory orange chili sauce.

But don’t expect him to really dish on his recipe.

“There are spices that need 20 hours to cook,” he says. “I could only tell you there are cardamom, star anise and a plant called thang co that grows only in the northern mountains.”


CaptionImage 3: The chef gave the traditional dish his own touch. Photo by VnExpress/Quynh Trang

Local newspapers have written tales about the dish with 12 to 20 spices to make a perfect wok. But nobody can say for sure what’s in it because ethnic home cooks and restaurants are very protective of their own recipes.

For the diners at Anh’s restaurant, it doesn’t matter anyway.

They are happy to find a table here. Even in the summer, not the traditional season of the hotpot, the place would be still be packed — the AC brought some cool breezes as a stand-in for the northern winter. These days, you have to reserve a table.

Teleporting from one table to another in the one hundred square meter space to chat with his customers, he yells back: “I tell you, food always comes first no matter what. I only care that my meals bring people together.”


And its companion: alcohol. Photo by VnExpress/Quynh Trang

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