Bồn bồn (cattail, or bulrush) is a reed-like wild plant with long, firm leaves, olive-green, three-sided stems and drooping clusters of small spikelets. It usually grows in swamps or wetlands, and is known to be useful for land restoration and as an ingredient in food.
Some parts of Ca Mau Province are high in alum and are therefore not good for growing rice paddy, only bồn bồn.
Many families do grow the wild plant as a crop.
The root produces an edible tuber that is considered delicious and healthy. It is distinctively sweet, crunchy, crispy, and soft. It tastes a bit like lotus root and bamboo shoot.
At first people only used it as a pickle. But gradually, as locals began to migrate, they took the plant with them and it made its way into many dishes.
Some of the most popular are braised anabas with pickled bồn bồn, bồn bồn with sour catfish hot pot or sour snakehead hot pot, stir-fried bồn bồn with shrimp, and bồn bồn salad with shrimp and pork.
Pickled bồn bồn remains popular. To pickle it, one uses only the inner white portion of the stalk. Remove the tough outer layer and soak the white portion in salt water with some condiments.
A week later the pickle is ready: it is slightly sour and crispy, and looks like the rustic dish it is. It is delicious if stir-fried with shrimp, meat, or fish, or cooked in sour soup with fish. Also popular is pickled bồn bồn along with braised anabas, catfish, and snakehead fish.
Stir-fried bồn bồn with shrimp is possibly the tastiest of the lot and also easiest to make. The distinctive sweetness of the wild plant remains intact when cooked with little or no condiments.
To make the dish, peel shrimp and get the inner white portions of the stalk and clean them. Pour a little oil on the pot over heat, add some onion for flavor, add the shrimp and then the bồn bồn, and stir-fry together with some condiments.
The dish is served with hot rice.
Bồn bồn salad with shrimp and meat seems to be the most popular dish in restaurants. It is a combination of sour, spicy, salty, and sweet tastes, all essential aspects of southern cooking. Some make the salad with pickled bồn bồn to get many flavors, while others prefer fresh bồn bồn to enjoy the plant’s distinctive sweetness. The tuber is a bit crispy but not tough, the fresh leaves do not fall apart, and the dish seems to melt in the mouth. Black tiger prawn and soft meat with a little fat is often used to make the salad even more delicious. It is served with shrimp crackers as an appetizer at family parties and wedding banquets.
Bồn bồn can be combined with dried shrimp, beef, and pork to make simple but tasty meals at home. Depending on the other ingredients, and how long and how thick the bồn bồn is, one can cook numerous delicacies with the plant.
If customers cannot enjoy bồn bồn delicacies in the Mekong Delta, they can find it at restaurants in Ho Chi Minh City. Or buy it from markets or supermarkets and cook it themselves.
Bồn bồn costs around VND50,000 a kilogram.