A surprising adventure happened to me recently. A local girl named Linh was looking for a foodie/food blogger to guest host an episode of a food program with her. As it looked exciting, I decided to drop her a message with the link to my blog. A couple of days later I was sitting in the Vietnamese TV headquarters and discussing the details of our upcoming trip – still surprised that it all worked out!
We were about to leave the next day, early in the morning, and stay in the Phu Tho province for the next 5 days. I rescheduled all my meetings, asked a friend to cover for my fitness classes, packed some clean clothes, a camera and got ready for the escapade!
It started at 6am with a soup – my 1st pho with an egg (eating with the locals makes placing more complicated orders so much easier:)), a drizzle and one broke car that caused us 3 hours delay. A couple of hours later we were eating again which made me 100% sure that I’m going to love these people and this trip! Straight from lunch, we went to the muddy Thanh Ba village to find one out of a few families that held the tradition of making banh ot cake. When Vietnamese use the word cake (banh) it doesn’t necessarily indicate the food is sweet. Bann ot is just a simple mixture of sticky rice and black beans enhanced with a pretty unique ingredient – ash. I knew that banh ot is used for ceremonies – often connected to worshipping ancestors – and that Vietnamese are world known for eating almost everything… So I had a second of hesitation before putting the cake into my mouth afraid it might turn out that I have just eaten someones’ grandmother! Luckily the cake was purely vegan, the black powder being burned mai leaves, the same that are used to make the cone shaped wrapping for ban ot. After being prepared the cake is cooked for 2 hours and than enjoyed steaming hot. No additions, no dipping sauce, just the glutinous rice, starchy beans and the delicate aroma of …coal ☺
Taking all the necessary shots lead us into the night, so we all headed to the hotel barely talking but with still enough energy to fit heaps of food into our bellies. It’s not super healthy, but as I got the 1st chance to feast with the locals I decided not to go ruin it with some diet concerns☺
Banh ot before and after.
Filling mai leaves with the mixture of sticky rice, black beans and ash is a dirty job.
Some members of the family were getting ready for filming while others just looked around.
After 5 hours of sleep and a super fast morning routine I was happy to explore more! We started again, with a pho bo breakfast and this time I chose my latest discovery pho sot vang (beef stew pho soup). I didn’t have a lot of experience with this one yet, but it just wasn’t it. Linh, who is a long time foodie also confirmed the rather poor quality of the dish which, when cooked right can be such a treat. The only pro was the bunch of fresh herbs that was served with the soup (and that is very rare in the North).
Thanks to the herbs even the blandest soup tastes so much better! I was so thankful that I had it anyways. That afternoon and evening were to bring a lot of physical effort and emotions, which combined together would turn out to become the best day of the whole trip. Not to mention that it was the day of the sweet cakes and yes, I am a sugar girl!
Banh nang on the left is a dark brown, very delicately sweetened sticky rice cake which is diped in sugar cane syrup. On the right you can see banh mat and the one in the middle is che sac which is my favourite – pretty firm sticky rice mixed with ginger and sugarcane syrup and covered with sesame seeds and peanuts.
We drove to the remote, languid village of Di Nau, Tam Nong District where I joined a group of ladies to make banh mat. Grounded rice mixed with water creates dough that is later cooked and mixed with caramelized sugar cane juice. What you get is a warm, smooth textured, brownish, edible plasticine that is then wrapped in a leaf and rolled like a cigar. Once it is wrapped, the final product looks like a big candy. Then it’s cooked again before being served. At this point of our work, the first ‘problems’ emerged. As we were strangers in town with me being the biggest alien, potential spy and threat to the Vietnam’s most hidden secrets I had to come to the People’s Committee to talk to the local authorities. Me and one of the producers that is, as all I could tell those guys was my name and that I come from the distant land of Ba Lan. The office building looked deserted. The three man that showed up must have just finished playing cards and it all seemed like they wanted to give us a “who’s the boss” speech. Nevertheless they didn’t seem grim and after a lot of “bla, bla”, checking and copying my passport they shook our hands and let us go. Back in my natural environment of laughing ladies and food making we finished that part of the episode and just when we were about to go for lunch, there came another call to visit the Peoples Committee. This time some more important people wanted to see me and stop me from having my food… They were also more serious and younger which equals bigger ego and that was obvious from the very moment they started talking. It wasn’t that nice anymore, yet I tried to spread a positive vibe. I am not sure if the reason why they kept us longer, raised their voices and did more of the talking was because they wanted a bribe, but the important thing is that at the end they let us go and gave me my passport back. I could still make it for lunch!
When I arrived at the spot I was surprised to see almost half of the village there. One of the ladies featuring in the episode has invited other stats, friends and even one official guy to have lunch together at her home. The scenery was amazing, with the whole room and terrace filled with food and people laughing, chatting, men drinking strong alcohols, everyone enjoying wonderful, freshly prepared food and the beautiful nature around. I got so many smiles, handshakes and good energy there! And when our host told me to stay and live with them and then started singing still looking at me with this small, bright eyes – my own eyes got a little watery.
Our wonderful hosts and the view from their house that we admired while eating.
After the lunch we formed a procession and went to the desolate, beautifully situated Quoc Te Temple that dates back to 258 B.C. Then all the cakes we made were blessed and then shared amongst everyone.
If the officials and lunch wasn’t enough there came the evening. It was nothing out of the regular plan as I always got to know what is my role just a couple of minutes before the camera went on. This time I was to face some challenging workout joining five strong man while pounding the dough for Vietnamese mochi cake known as banh day. It’s being said that only men can do the pounding, and a long, long time ago only virgins were allowed to make the cake. Seemed like I was lucky to even be there!
The pounding itself results in a visually attractive ceremony with men wearing shiny, red clothes, bowing and spinning around with the big bamboo sticks while the local master of ceremony shouts to the microphone. At one point the steaming sticky rice is brought and put in the big, wooden mortar, the bamboo sticks become big pestles and the pounding begins! You’ve got to be pretty fast as the rice needs to change into dough before it gets cold and while it is still elastic enough to form the cakes. After just a couple of minutes I was sweating all over in the humid, hot evening, hair sticking to my face and falling into my eyes. Still, it was fun! Forming the roundbanh day turned out to be very easy plus the taste and especially the consistency made up a rewarding, light dinner (in particular when eaten at the temple with a sip of fruit wine). Afterwards, our proper dinner awaited and we fell into our beds to get just a couple of hours of sleep before the next long day.
Again eating with locals led to trying the chicken legs for the 1st time. And as they don’t look appealing I realy enjoyed chewing on them! Dipped in the mix of salt, pepper and lime they taste really nice. I had already had a duck embryo before but never in Vietnam, so I had to check if I still like it, and yes – I do.
If you want to see the Phu Tho episode of “Fine Cuisine” it’s here. Enjoy!