Vietnam’s strategic geographical location endows the country with a long coastline, dense forests, plains and mountains that support a wide array of agricultural crops and animal habitats. These blessings from Mother Nature, together with the people’s rich culture and resourcefulness, are reflected in Vietnamese diverse culinary practices and regional cuisines. Beyond the mainstream phở and bánh mì, many dishes remain unexplored. Here are a few lesser-known Vietnamese delicacies. They may not be for everyone, but we must approach them with respect and an open mind.
Tiết canh (Blood soup)
Tiết canh is made from the raw blood of pigs, geese and ducks (the most popular choices), but it’s also common to come across goats, snakes or seafood. To make this dish, cooks first blend the fresh blood with fish sauce or salted water to prevent coagulation. Then, they boil the meat and gizzard, chop them finely and place them in a bowl. To serve, they ladle the blood, which has been diluted with a hot broth, on top of the meat. For final touches, pepper, chili, mint and peanuts are added, with fresh herbs on the side.
Tiết canh is more popular in Northern Vietnam, but its consumption has been declining over the past decades, given the risk of contracting bacteria and viruses from raw blood.
Varieties of worms
Worm consumption has been well-documented across cultures and territories. Some are proved to be protein-rich and contain high levels of minerals such as iron, copper, manganese and zinc. Not all worms are edible though, depending on the soil conditions and the environment.
In the Mekong Delta, it’s common to find coconut worms, which are considered pests, as they live inside the coconut tree trunks and feed on their nutrition. It is illegal to farm these, so people have to forage for them from old trees, pushing their price to about VND 500,000 (C$ 29) for a kilogram at one point in time. Coconut worms can be eaten raw (alive) with fish sauce, deep-fried or grilled. They are believed to improve men’s sexual health.
Up North, people enjoy bamboo worms, which live in old bamboo tree trunks. These worms thrive in humid conditions. During the rainy season, residents in the provinces of Sơn La and Thanh Hoá venture into the forest to look for slanted bamboo trees with bruised exterior, signs where bamboo worms live. These can be prepared in various ways, including boiling, deep-frying and sautéing with lime leaves. The fattest ones are toasted before being left to ferment in alcohol.
Chuột đồng (Field mice)
Field mice live in rice paddies and feed on rice, so they are completely different from omnivorous rats that infest sewages. These rodents are delicacies of the South Western provinces in Vietnam, where rice is the main crop. Some even say they taste like chicken! When farmers harvest rice, they also set up traps to catch field mice, as by that time, the mice will have been well-fed from all the ripe grains.
Field mice are versatile and featured in a variety of dishes. The most famous of all is chuột quay lu (field mice grilled in a porcelain vat). The mice, hanging on a string across the top of a porcelain vat (a common water storage vessel in Southern Vietnam), are slow-cooked by a low flame inside the vat.
Similar to worms, insects are widely consumed over the world for their high-protein content. Crickets and grasshoppers make regular appearances, while other less common insects are stink bugs (bọ xít), beetles (bọ hung) and giant water bugs (cà cuống).
Stink bugs are delicacies of the Thái people, an ethnic group living in Sơn La’s mountainous areas, in North Western Vietnam. To remove the stink, cooks soak the bugs in salted water for a few hours, then boil them in the liquid from fermented bamboo until the liquid evaporates. Once the bugs are drained, they are marinated with chili, garlic and salt, before being toasted on high heat. The use of finely-chopped lime leaves will also help the stink dissipate.
Giant water bugs are known for their aromatic and sweet essence often used in the dipping sauce for bánh cuốn (steamed rice rolls). They can also be fried and toasted with different seasonings.
Nậm pịa (Intestine soup)
This is another delicacy of many ethnic groups living in North Western Vietnam. In the Thai language, “nậm” means “soup”, while “pịa” is the excrete inside an animal’s intestine. These animals are herbivores, such as cows, goats and buffalos, so the excrete often has a grassy green colour.
How this dish is prepared and seasoned differs across regions. After the animal is slaughtered, its small intestine is removed skillfully to keep the excrete intact for extraction later. Cooks then boil the bones and organs for hours until the flavour concentrates before adding the excrete back into the soup. A lot of aromatics are used, including lemongrass, ginger and lime leaves. This dish is believed to be a cure for a hangover, so it’s often served at village feasts and weddings.
This post is also available in: Tiếng Việt