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A common autumn snack in Hanoi satisfies gourmet cravings

In autumn,
cốm is sold by vendors all around Hanoi

"An huong an hoa." Like fresh offshoots in a garden, this phrase springs up whenever Hanoians talk about food.

Literally translated "eating the scent of the food," the phrase means eating to savor the essence of a dish, and not to fill one's stomach.

The phrase indicates a fine-dining culture honed over the 1,000-year history that the capital city can boast of from this year onwards.

And catering to this culture is a smorgasbord of snacks and other dishes that help the Hanoian avoid overeating during the big meals of the day; and instead, snack away on several non-main courses between breakfast, lunch and dinner an approach advocated by modern nutritionists and other health experts.

The typical Hanoian snack is fresh, simple and full of flavor. Many, if not most of them are brought to the door by vendors and bought and consumed in quantities that are typically small, so that appetite for the dish remains whetted all the time.

There are hundreds of Hanoians snacks that originate in the green fields and gardens irrigated by the Hong River, and as such, there are peak seasons during which they are at the freshest and tastiest.

In keeping with its long-standing tradition of guild streets and villages, the snacks are also to be found on special streets knowledge that almost all Hanoians are privy to.

One of the most popular snacks that make Hanoians wait eagerly for autumn to arrive is cốm or pounded green rice. This humble food, sold in markets and on shoulder poles by itinerant vendors, carries within it a sophistication that would satisfy the palates of discerning gourmets.

Pound for pound

Cốm comes along at the most beautiful time of the year in Hanoi autumn, carrying subtle, enticing aromas that blend with the season

Women work to remove the grains of rice to make

I still remember the first time I tasted cốm as a child. It was an autumn day and a friend of my mother visited us with a big basket containing something wrapped in lotus leaves. When the leaves were opened, the fragrance of the freshly beaten rice mingling with that of the lotus leaves was almost heady, as was the sight of the light green flakes against the deeper green of the leaves.

A tasty snack by itself, cốm is mostly had with chuối trng quốc (ripened banana), a combination of taste and texture that is unique. It is also cooked with sugar to make a pudding or bánh cốm. Freely available in any market in Hanoi, one can also get dried cốm at the Dong Xuan Market during an offseason to make the cake and several other tasty dishes.

"Come autumn, I always buy cốm for my family. The best cốm is around VND20,000 per 100 grams. We normally take a pinch of it in the hand and then chew it slowly, enjoying its taste," said Xuan Mai, a shopkeeper on Hang Gai Street.

Cốm is made by farmers in many regions in Vietnam but the best one is from Vong Village, Tu Liem District which is around five kilometers from the center of Hanoi. Villagers use the nếp cái hoa vàng (a special kind of sticky rice) and a secret recipe handed over through generations to make their cốm.

It is said that several hundred years ago, Vong Village was hit by a famine. With nothing to eat except the sticky green rice still growing in the fields, one hungry farmer roasted the unripe grains. Then, in pounding the grains to remove their husks, a new, delicious dish was born. To this day, in the autumn, Vong villagers travel by bicycle to Hanoi to sell their cốm.

Only experienced rice farmers know the right time to harvest the grain for making cốm, which is a time-consuming, labor intensive job from the harvesting stage through the roasting and "beating" processes.

It is said that the best time to cut the young sticky rice is at night. As cốm tastes best on the very first day, the villagers spend most of the night making it and sell it early next morning.

Patience is another virtue that goes into making the top quality cốm: sifting the grain to select good ones; roasting them in a clay pot in small batches (of about 400g each) to ensure that the sweet flavors and vibrant green color are not lost; and then pounding the roasted grain again and again to remove the husk until it becomes very soft but not sticky.

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