Mekong delta food — Delectable plates in the flooded season
From September to November of each year, people in the south of Vietnam flock to catch natural specialties that are only available during their rain-rich season. And of course, local women take this occasion to prepare elegant menus of mouthwatering plates to treat their families or friends.
At the height of the rainy season when all fields are flooded, Siamese mud carp start to move inland to avoid rough waters in the river. People often call them young Siamese mud carp because they are just as small as a person’s finger. At the same time, when water fills up all the fields, common sesbans (or also known as Egyptian river hemp) and water-lilies start to blossom.
Siamese mud carp yield a rich sweet flavor with soft bones that can be cooked in a myriad of different dishes, of which sour broth is the most tantalizing. It can be easily combined with some Sesbania grandifloras to please any diner. Or try it with some young tamarind or fresh lime juice mixed with some basil leaves and fresh red chili, and you melt in delight over a simple bowl of broth serving with vegetable dip with caramelized fish sauce. For epicures, the sour mud carp’s broth will be in its best flavor when the fish is cooked with sesbans or water-lilies. For locals, this is a fantastic specialty because mud carps and sesbans are only available in the flood season.
While the market is far away from home and houses are surrounded by water, southwestern people serve their guests a unique sizzling cake cooked from mud carps and common sesbans instead of bean sprouts, shrimp and pork as normal. It seems that mud carp and common sesbans are such a perfect combination that they can make any of their dishes delightful and this sizzling cake is not an exception.
If common sesbans reminds us of the sour broth or sizzling cake with mud carp, water-lilies wake up our taste’s buds when they are cooked with salted fish during the flood season. Local people often choose wild water-lilies because they grow verdantly in this season. They are also sweeter and softer than the purple ones. Salted fish sauce is simmered with coconut milk, pork belly, fresh water anabas, mullets, lemongrass and fresh red chili. Then, it is served hot with water-lilies and some other fresh salads. The deep and spicy flavor of salted fish combined with the sweet and crunchy taste of water-lilies has made it a remarkable plate of Dong Thap province during the monsoon season.
When water flows all around the fields, locals also catch many frogs at the same time by using fish traps instead of the typical tools of flashlights and rods. Frogs are often fatter with bigger legs in this season. While Southwestern women treat their taste buds with a dish of stir-fried frog with coastal premna leaves or coconut milk, men prefer having grilled frog with lemongrass and fresh red chili.
Among specialties of the flooded season, we cannot miss dishes of harvest mice. At this time of the year, mice have no way to live but to look for high ground or tree tops to hide themselves. Mice hunters will take this chance to catch them in order to sell them for some additional income or cook them themselves in assorted scrumptious dishes.
Cao Lanh (Dong Thap province) is known as a local “wholesale market” of mice. This is also the first region to serve the aromatic roasted mouse. Local people of the flooded region will prepare mice in several different fashions. The rodents can be stir-fried, shredded, fried, boiled or cooked with lemongrass and fresh red chili served with green salads and girdle cake. However, roasted mouse is the best dish, in which its skin is crispy and its meat is as soft and fragrant as venison. Taste it once and you will understand why it has become a specialty that every visitor of Dong Thap is invited to try and why it leaves such a strong impression with so many.
Cuisine is not only the art of cooking for the southwestern people of Vietnam, but it is also a way to retain precious specialties of the flooded season.