A Hard Life Begets a Taste for Strong Flavors
The natural condition of the land shapes its people and the region’s nutritional choices. To economize, they complete their meal with ample amounts of white rice. Also, because most central families work in fisheries, they have to preserve seafood with processes that give it extra flavor.
Because of this, Central people tend to prefer salty, spicy, and fermented foods. Fermented foods are served during economic downturns and severe weather conditions, and food that is spicy and salty helps them combat the numbing cold of winters. Let's learn what a typical Central Vietnam family serves during the Lunar New Year.
Bánh Tét (Tet Cake or Vietnamese Round Glutinous Rice Cake)
When celebrating Tet with food, Vietnamese say it "ăn Tết". Maybe you don’t know Vietnamese, but the word "Tét" should sound familiar!
Like bánh chưng, bánh tét also represents heaven and the earth. It also emphasizes the importance of rice in the life of Vietnamese people. During Tet, people of Central Vietnam put a pair of Tet cakes on the altar to worship their ancestors. The first three days of the New Year are the perfect time for family and friends to visit, and bánh tét is an ideal dish to serve to guests coming to the house.
This Tet specialty is made with sticky rice and filled with pork fat and beans that are seasoned with black pepper and shallots. It’s wrapped in banana leaves giving it an appealing pale green color and a slightly leafy taste. To prevent the banana leaf from coming apart while it’s cooking, people wrap it several times with a plastic ribbon before steaming.
How was bánh tét first created? Some studies have claimed that bánh tét is a different version of bánh chưng—a similar food which is also stuffed with beans and pork—but this one is presented in a cylindrical shape due to the process of southward expansion in the 17th century. According to these studies, when Vietnam expanded southward to capture the former territory of Champa Kingdom, the dish was adapted to the colonized peoples' tastes. Bánh tét was thus shaped by a desire to affect the linga, a phallic-shaped post associated with the deity Siva, according to Cham belief. The culture’s artistic productions prominently feature rods and poles for this reason
One serving contains small, neat, and beautiful slices of bánh tét. Vietnamese are also known to enjoy the dish fried, which gives the bánh tét a delicious, chewy crispness.
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Dưa Món (Pickled Vegetables)
Just as bánh chưng is typically paired with onion pickles in the North, bánh tét goes along with dưa món (vegetable pickles). It’s not the đồ chua (pickled vegetable) you have experienced in Vietnamese bánh mì before. The vegetables in dưa món carry a distinct, extra crunchy texture.
What’s the secret to this textural peculiarity?
To answer this question, start by looking at the dried vegetables. People from Central Vietnam usually dry carrots and radishes in the sun for a few days until the vegetables get perfectly dried.
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These dried veggies will soak up tons of flavor when cooked instead of going soggy like they otherwise would. They’ll hold texture even after sitting in the fish sauce for a few days. They remain crunchy with an al dente bite that’s truly addicting.
If it's impossible to dry your vegetables due to cloud cover or pollution, just use your oven. Set it on the lowest heat with the over door cracked open for three to four hours or if you have a gas stove give it about five to six hours with just the pilot light on. Follow these instructions and you can also achieve that same appropriate texture.
A properly executed dish of dưa món carries the aroma, flavor, and sweetness of fish sauce and sugar as well as the crunchiness of papaya. The added daikon complements the beautiful vivid color of carrots.
Nem chua (Fermented Pork Roll)
Nem chua is an indispensable dish of the Central Vietnamese Tet tradition. It is made from fresh pureed pork mixed with pork skin, marinated with spices, pepper, chili, all of which are fermented before becoming ripe for consumption.
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Some won’t dare to eat nem chua at first as they know this dish is made from completely raw pork. However, once you give it a try, you will slowly fall for its addictive light sourness, sweetness, crunchiness, spiciness, and the fragrance blended on their tongue.
Each province presents its sense of flavor and natural resources by using different leaves as wrapping materials. For example, Ninh Hoa’s nem chua wears gooseberry leaves, Binh Dinh’s nem chua goes with guava leaves. These wrapping materials also contribute greatly to the flavor of each fermented pork roll.
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With close inspection, it’s easy to see that nem chua has two layers of wrapping. It has a layer of interior leaves, which decide the taste of nem chua mentioned above. The other is outer leaves, which are usually banana leaves. The banana leaf layer's thickness depends on how deeply fermented one would like their nem chua (more leaf means more fermentation). Normally, two layers of banana leaves are laid crisscross.
If you can’t afford to make it your own, no worry. Here are some of tips from the people of Central Vietnam to find the best nem chua. First, a well done nem chua must have dried surface. Second, it should have a slightly pink color, firm meat and reasonable sourness.
Nem chua can be eaten plain or served with wine in amongst a Tet feast. Each region has different ways to evaluate the flavor of the dish. Though North’s people prefer its original sourness, people from Central and South Vietnam usually add sugar, garlic, chili, and pepper to increase the spiciness and sweetness of nem chua.
Thịt heo ngâm mắm (Meat Soaked in Fish Sauce)
While Tet holiday could be tempting you with loads of nutritious, fatty foods, this rustic dish of meat soaked in fish sauce rolled in rice paper with various raw veggies, herbs, pickled vegetables is even more satisfying.
Meat soaked in fish sauce is a simple, flavorful yet super-easy-to-make dish. This charming treat is a traditional dish at a Tet meal in Central Vietnam. Over centuries and generations, Central Vietnam’s families still love to have a dish of meat soaked in fish sauce at their Lunar New Year feast.
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For locals, a roll of thịt ngâm mắm is well rounded and balanced flavour wise. The salty taste of the dish coupled with veggies dipped in sweet fish sauce play nicely against the spiciness of chili, pepper, garlic, and ginger to together create an exceptional culinary experience.
Mắm Tôm Chua (Fermented Shrimp Sauce)
If we’re going to talk about Central Vietnamese cuisine, we just can’t leave out its famous dish: mắm. And, at this time of year, mắm tôm chua is proudly in attendance in a traditional Tet meal. Unlike Mắm tôm—the well-known shrimp sauce that has a dark purple color and smooth surface—sour shrimp sauce owes its appealing orange color to the shrimp.
In order to make this sauce, the shrimp must be cleaned with salt water and slightly cooked in strong rice wine. Carefully mix the shrimp with sticky rice, sliced galangal, garlic, and chili before combining the mixture into a jar. Everything is covered with guava leaves and left for five to seven days.
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Mắm tôm chua is the best paired with thịt heo luộc (boiled pork), rolled in paper rice cake with loads of garnish including curly salad greens, cucumber, mint, herbs.
Pour crushed garlic, chili, and sugar into the bowl of sour shrimp sauce, and mix them well with a spoon. Season the mixture until it matches your own sense of taste. Finally, squeeze a few drops of lemon in, and your sauce is ready.