Story: Huong Quynh
Photo: Minh Quan
Food Stylist: Thu Hang Nguyen Vu
With picturesque scenery and hospitable and hardworking residents, the area around Hong Mountain and the Lam River is popular with tourists. This region’s rustic but delicious cuisine is iconic of the local culture. Join Heritage Magazine as we explore the culinary offerings of Nghe An Province.
Dishes made with field eels
Eels caught in the rice fields of Nghe An have inspired many culinary artists and master chefs, which is why the 2019 Nghe An Culture, Food, and Tourism Festival featured approximately 50 eel dishes. Among these, eel porridge is the most popular. Both locals and tourists love a simple bowl of rice porridge paired with delicious eel cooked with local spices. The secret to a good bowl of eel porridge is to choose the perfect eel and prepare and marinate the meat properly.
Golden rice field eels are cleaned, boiled, and cooled, then skillfully deboned to maintain their length. The meat is marinated with spices like turmeric, fish sauce, pepper, and chili. The head and bones are simmered in boiling water and used to cook the whole-grain rice porridge. Other essential ingredients include annatto powder for the meat’s lovely burnished golden color and small mashed shallots. The local recipe is quite spicy, but the marinade can be adjusted to suit most diners’ tastes.
The carefully marinated eel is stir-fried in hot oil with onions. The result is a long eel fillet that is rich and savory. Diners are presented with an appetizing bowl of porridge garnished with eel meat, onions, minced vegetables, and pinches of pepper and chili powder.
Nghe An locals also enjoy eel soup, which consists of a sophisticated broth poured over a bowl of stir-fried marinated eel. This is served with banh muot (Nghe An’s steamed rice crepes) or bread rolls.
Smooth and flavorful banh muot
If the North has banh cuon and the South has banh uot, the Central provinces, including Nghe An, have banh muot. Made from rice flour, this thin crepe looks almost identical to the other two dishes but has a distinct taste. Perhaps the key to Nghe An’s banh muot is to use plain rice, soak it for about three hours, grind it finely, and soak the flour mixture for a further three to six hours. A smooth cloth securely covers the top of a pot of boiling water. The chef quickly scoops up a ladle of runny rice batter, spreads a thin layer onto the cloth, and covers the lid, waiting for the crepe to steam in seconds. The cook’s prowess determines the crepe’s thinness.
The steamed crepe is rolled and plated, then garnished with crispy golden fried shallots. Diners can experience the rustic flavor of banh muot by dipping it in pure Cua Lo fish sauce flavored with a few drops of lemon juice and slices of spicy chili. Banh muot can also be paired with spring rolls, eel, or chicken soup.
Chao canh or banh canh?
Almost every province in the Central Region has a distinct banh canh made from a variety of flours, including rice flour, wheat flour, and tapioca flour. Nghe An locals prefer wheat flour noodles, which are kneaded, rolled, and covered to prevent stickiness before being cooked in a broth of well-simmered pork bones. The result is a smooth broth full of soft and chewy noodles that have absorbed the delicious bone broth. This is probably why locals call the dish “chao canh” (wheat noodle porridge). It is eaten with various toppings, including boneless stewed meat, chopped pork rolls, steamed shrimp, and quail eggs. The dish’s vibrantly colored garnish,which consists of fresh green cilantro, red chili powder, and fried yellow onions, catches the eye of discerning diners.