Story: Nguyet Anh
Photos: Xuan Chinh

As the staple food in Vietnam, rice is prepared in countless ways. Located in Vinh Phuc province, Huong Canh township is the birthplace of two truly unique dishes: “condensed porridge” (cháo Se) and “lump cakes” (bánh Hòn).

Long ago, people created these two dishes to sustain themselves during tough times. The ingredients were simple and readily available. Local elders explain how to prepare “condensed porridge”. The cook must choose good rice, wash it and soak it in cold water for eight to ten hours before it is milled. Water and rice flour are mixed to form a dense paste. The next step requires great skill and patience. The cook must knead the dough until it is smooth, then carefully drop it into a boiling porridge pot. The dough cooks immediately and rises to the surface. Visitors to this area can still see local woman sitting beside pots of porridge, kneading rice flour to prepare this rustic delicacy.

The porridge’s broth is equally important. Huong Canh locals use steamed pork bones to make the broth, filtering out all bubbles until the broth is clear. Any meat stuck to the bones is set aside to add to the porridge, giving it a delicious meaty taste. The pork is sliced lengthwise and marinated with seasoning, pepper and fish sauce. The meat is stir fried and added to the bubbling pot.

The fragrant rice, meaty broth, soft and sweet pork and fried spring onions appeal to all five senses. The hearty bowl is served with chopsticks rather than spoons, as guests pick up each thread of dense porridge and sip the broth, which is warm and comforting. Once tried, this simple but satisfying dish is hard to forget.

The other local delicacy is lump cakes. Again, the cook selects good quality rice to make fine rice flour, which is wetted to form dough. The dough is kneaded into lumps about the size of a guava and formed into long shapes. The filling includes spring onions, lard, mushrooms and sliced pork. After moulding the rice dough into little cups, the cook stuffs them and lays them into a pot to steam them. The cakes turn transparent when done, revealing their delectable interiors.

Lump cakes were once placed in baskets lined with dried banana leaves to keep warm. They are now stored in thermal barrels and sold at markets. There are two ways to eat these cakes. One, they are picked up and dipped in fish sauce with vinegar, sugar and chili. But the most popular method is to eat the lump cakes together with condensed porridge. The little cakes are dipped into the hot porridge and eaten. Every bite is hot and delicious.

Upon visiting Huong Canh, one can see locals enjoying condensed porridge and lump cakes. These two snacks are served all day long. Condensed porridge and lump cakes are even served at local weddings.

Each year on Lunar April 9, Huong Canh’s memorial day, locals set out trays of condensed porridge and lump cakes. They dedicate these snacks to the departed, remember past tough times and celebrate their village’s unique culinary traditions.

Huong Canh town lies in Binh Xuyen District, Vinh Phuc, 45km from Hanoi.