Luu Quang Thien Y

The cuisine of Vietnam’s highlands is as unique as its landscapes and the local residents’ outfits. Reflecting different ethnic groups’ cultures, highland cuisine is appreciated by both locals and outsiders.

Vu Thi Thu Huyen, Pham Quang Viet and Pham Kieu Duyen create fusion dishes inspired by the cuisines of minority groups

Millennial trio’s quest to promote highland cuisine

Siblings Pham Kieu Duyen and Pham Quang Viet were born in Thuan Chau Province, Son La. As children, these university graduates learned the local ethnic language and ate local dishes, thanks to their mother, the village teacher Mrs. Tham.

One fateful day, Ms. Duyen was attending a business course in Hanoi when she met Ms. Vu Thi Thu Huyen, a lecturer of her generation. Sharing a common interest in highland culture, they wished to share their passion for the cuisine and folk culture of Vietnam’s highland ethnic groups. Mr. Viet serves as the main cook, having learned about Mong, Thai, and Muong cooking from his mother, who spent 40 years teaching in the highlands.

Five-colored sticky rice, typical of H'Mong people in Lao Cai province

Together, the trio introduced us to various unique dishes, such as savory lạp (buffalo skin salad) with pickled bamboo shoots and the deliciously seasoned pa pỉnh tộp (grilled fish) – both recipes of Thai people in the Northwestern region. There was also buffalo jerky with charcoal-grilled chitterlings that smelled and tasted delightful, and five-colored sticky rice made from Lao Cai’s aromatic glutinous rice.

The highlight for me was the pizza topped with bamboo worms, a delicacy among Thai people that adds richness to this foreign dish. Mr. Viet also made pizzas topped with charcoal-grilled pork, salmon cooked with Docynia indica fruits served with chẩm chéo dry dip, and freshwater bass with Cao Bang’s trám đen sauce. The dishes were served with cocktails or mocktails made from Yen Bai’s D. indica or Dien Bien’s cucumbers, revealing the spirit of “traditional novelty” that the trio hopes to convey in their “Western-world’s Northwestern” dishes.

Bamboo rice with truffle sauce

The trio plans to help establish plantations to source local ingredients and to produce promotional videos to introduce Vietnam’s highlands cuisine and culture to lowlanders and foreigners. They had just undergone their own cultural food experience in Lao Cai, where Mr. Viet had gone to gather ingredients and cook new dishes.

Ms. Huyen later shared: “We want the beauty of our people to be known, whether they are of the Kinh, Tay, Muong, or Thai ethnic group. Not just the food, we also want to introduce highland culture to Vietnamese lowlanders and foreigners, and our biggest dream is to put them on the world map.”

From Japan to Ha Giang

The buckwheat plant (also known as the common buckwheat or Fagopyrum esculentum) is long famous in Ha Giang and Vietnam’s Northern mountain provinces for its stunning autumn flowers. Its seeds are used by the Mong and Dao people in rice dishes and distilled spirits. Many people don’t know that Japan’s popular soba noodles are made from this same plant. In fact, a Japanese man has come to Ha Giang to source buckwheat and produce and promote soba in Vietnam.

Matsuo Tomoyuki The founder of the Japan - Vietnam Culinary Association

That man is Matsuo Tomoyuki, Chairman of the Japan-Vietnam Culinary Association, as well as executive director and CEO of various other businesses.

In 2014, on a business trip in Vietnam, Mr. Matsuo discovered some local buckwheat plants of the same type grown for soba in his hometown in Japan. He headed straight for Ha Giang and found his way to Pho Cao Commune in Dong Van District, known for its many buckwheat fields. There, he was overjoyed when offered snacks and spirits made from buckwheat. He purchased the grain in bulk and made soba noodles at his establishment in Binh Duong, where the dish was a hit at just VND29,000 per bowl.

Matsuo Tomoyuki can cook up to seven different soba dishes from Ha Giang’s buckwheat flour and local ingredients, including side dishes that are familiar to highlanders in Vietnam, such as boiled eggs or sausages.

In Ha Giang, he also discovered Indian prickly ash seeds, dổi seeds, star anise, and other spices not native to Japan. He then founded the Japan-Vietnam Culinary Association with the desire to connect the cuisines of the two nations. He wants to bring Japanese chefs to Vietnam to cook with highland ingredients, similarly to how he uses goat, chicken, cải mèo greens, and freshwater shrimp to make Japanese soba with distinctive Vietnamese flavors.

A bowl of soba noodles made from Ha Giang buckwheat

Mr. Matsuo also wants to establish buckwheat processing plants in Ha Giang to export this crop and to expand its growing area in Vietnam for further exports. His next step is to call for investment so that Vietnamese buckwheat soba noodles can be sold worldwide.

According to the most recent news from Ha Giang, the Japan Culinary Association announced plans to export 600 tons of buckwheat seeds to Japan in 2022, gradually reaching 3,000 tons by 2025. From a local plant of little value, Vietnamese buckwheat is set to become a profitable crop for Ha Giang’s rocky mountains, all thanks to a Japanese man’s love for highland cuisine.