A bitter mountain secret

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Green eggplants give a bitter twist to the cuisine of the Central Highlands

Bitter eggplant to cook with fish in Pleiku Town

The Central Highlands has become one of the world's most famous coffee producers. Vietnam is now the world's second-largest exporter of the bitter beverage and it owes much of that honor to the fertile, acidic valleys of the Central Highlands.

Few are aware of the region's lesser-known bitter delicacy, the green eggplant called cà Ä‘ng, which belongs to the Solanaceae plant family.

The broad-leafed prickly plant produces bright purple flowers in mountain fields and forests inhabited by Vietnam's ethnic minority tribes, such as the E De people.

The fruit resembles small hard green balls streaked with white. Its pungency is similar to that of the popular bitter melon of the south.

Good in taste

E De communities use the bitter eggplant in entrées and snacks. Some love the tart smack of this fruit so much, they eat it raw.

The bitter eggplants are also pounded into powder and used as a condiment, along with salt, chili, monosodium glutamate (MSG) and dried herbs. The powder is often sprinkled over rice for flavor.

The raw vegetable is also ground into a paste with chilies and dried shredded grilled fish. The powerful combination of flavors makes for a rich salad. In the town of Buon Ma Thuot in Dak Lak Province, or Pleiku in Gia Lai Province, visitors are often welcomed with this dish.

Sometimes, it is combined with pork skin or canned food (such as fish and pork meat) in order to beef it up.

The tart flesh of the bitter eggplant is often blended with fresh fish, fried shrimp and tofu to make a variety of regional dishes. These dishes are almost always accompanied by the region's two most distinct ingredients: chilies and lá lốt (piper lolot - the aromatic herbal leaf used to grill ground beef in).

Hale and hearty

When tourists visit the Central Highlands, what impresses them most is the ubiquitous soup made with bitter eggplant and sardine heads.

First, dried fish head is pounded into a fine powder and stir-fried in oil, onion and garlic.

This powerful stock paste is added to boiling water with bitter eggplants. The combination yields a simple yet, delicious soup. Sliced pork skin is sometimes added to fatten up the broth.

In addition to being celebrated for its flavor, this dish is believed to have a whole host of homeopathic properties.

"Central Highland residents often enjoy bitter eggplant at their dinner tables," said Nang Chau, who has lived in Gia Lai for the past fifty years. "As a result, they rarely suffer diseases such as gout, rheumatism or aches and pains."

Perhaps the best news of all is that bitter eggplant costs only around VND40,000 (US$2) per kilo.

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