Venture inland to eat the inedible

By Ngoc Thanh, Van Pham   July 13, 2016 | 05:14 am PT
Grab your bamboo cooker and join us for a taste-test with a twist.

Northwestern Vietnam is a special land. Scarcely populated, rugged and a heavily divided terrain. A few quick words to describe the region give one a sense of life here. The food here comes mostly from what the surroundings have to offer, rather than extravagant fusion experiments and delicate gourmet cooking. Forests, mountains, rivers and streams are the pantry here, and render the cuisine desirably seasonal to ensure every time of year offers a distinct experience.

Bamboo worm


Found only in bamboo, the worms are among the cleanest food ever known. The ethnic minority people here will look for bamboos with flat heads and a bigger-than-normal lower stem, an indicator a worms' nest is inside, each of which can offer up kilograms of worms. Steamed or quick fried, the protein-rich and fatty worms can’t go an inch without sour bamboo shoot sauce as a side dish.

Grilled fish


The Thai ethnic minority group in the northwest live off the waters, both still and running, given their mastery of all things fishy. Regarding preparation, grilling trumps them all. Gutted fish are seasoned with local spices, stuffed with meat, folded and put on the fire. Superlatives escape the finished dish.

Bamboo rice


There is a way of cooking specifically developed for foresters who trek through the forest for days and can’t afford the luxury of utensils: bamboo rice (called ‘com lam’ in Vietnamese). The bamboo, with their thick and shiny shells, become the ideal rice cookers. Filled with rice and water, they return an aromatic rice wrapped in a quirky inner layer of bamboo.

Raw fish salad


Vietnamese people don’t eat raw fish as much as the Japanese, but we still do. Fresh fish, scaled, skinned and boned, are mixed with herbs and topped up with sour bamboo shoot sauce. Sour with the sauce, spicy with peppers and dry with the forest banana flowers are what this dish is.

Buffalo skin salad


Available only on anniversaries due to the difficult preparation process, the dish instantly charms first-timers. Buffalo skin, usually not considered food, is cleaned, sliced and seasoned with spices, keeping its crunchy and crispy texture found almost nowhere else.

Dried fish


Different from dried fish found everywhere in Vietnam, the fish here are small ones caught in streams, seasoned with salt, pepper and chili, dried for a day and ready to eat off a charcoal grill.

Grilled minced meat


Any meat can be used for the dish, be it beef, pork or buffalo meat. Minced meat is seasoned with herbs and spices then wrapped in ‘dong’ leaves, the same leaves used to wrap the famous ‘banh chung’. When grilled, the outer leaves burn, leaving a desirable aroma absorbed by the meat inside.

Rock moss


One of the most complicated dishes on the region's menu, the dish is available only from the ninth month to the third month of the lunar calendar. The moss stays fresh for only two hours after harvesting. Found where the water flows the fastest, the moss of choice is found on stream rocks. Only young moss is harvested and then pounded to get rid of the dirt. Moss comes in soups, salads and grilled, but it's at its best with ginger and pepper.

Bamboo shoot


A most familiar sight for the people of the plains, bamboo shoots appears in two variations: bitter and sweet. The former is preferred by those who drink due to its mildly sweet aftertaste.

Purple sticky rice


Just a play of rice with colors achieved through leaves found in the forest.

Cured sausages


Aged with smoke, the sausages dry with an unforgettable smoky taste that will bring you to tears.

Photos by VnExpress/Ngoc Thanh

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