A K'Tu man in Thua Thien-Hue Province grills fish in a pipe. The dish is called gio ra a xiu in the group's language and is treated as a special dish for visitors from the lowlands. Photos by Tuyet Khoa
It looks like a very simple task just throw in whatever ingredients you have at hand into the pot and stir, but making a thick porridge is a challenge that a Ta Oi woman cannot take lightly.
Among this ethnic minority community, it is a long-standing tradition to have the daughter-in-law cook ta luc ta lao, meaning "mixed or messy," on the very first day she enters her husband's household.
Getting this porridge right needs painstaking control of the fire to make sure it is soft but not burned. It needs regular stirring, but this cannot be overdone, to ensure that the rice is not broken.
For the 48,000-strong community in central Vietnam, who constitute a majority in the mountainous district of A Luoi in Thua Thien-Hue Province, this porridge is a special dish, recalling the days when they would cook together anything edible they found in the wild.
Ho Van Ninh, 65, said the dish dates back to the time when the community still lived in the jungle, hunting and gathering fruits. Food supply was short in the winter and ingredients needed to cook any dish were scarce, so every small edible thing was gathered and cooked together.
The dish has now become a central part of the Ta Oi cuisine, and is served at festivals, holidays and weddings. The only difference these days is that select ingredients are used.
As the name of the dish suggests, the ingredients depend on the cook, but it usually has rice, bamboo shoots, banana flowers, pumpkin, baby corn, eggplant, some wild beans and fish that has been grilled.
Ta luc ta lao, a thick porridge of mixed ingredients of Ta Oi people in Vietnam
Rice is cooked first with water and other ingredients, hard and soft, are added 30 minutes later.
Seasonings including wild pepper and chili are added when the dish is about done.
"It is tasty and good for health. It is the best for any sick person, young or old," Ninh said.
"It's almost thick as rice, but not crumbled or broken."
He said most Ta Oi women can prepare the porridge, which is served with a seasoning powder made by grinding grilled fish, but it is almost a mission impossible for young girls.
A Kieng Ha, famous for her culinary expertise, said her first pots were a failure, burning in seconds after she lost attention.
The pot needs to be cooked on low fire, sometimes just red coal.
"All Ta Oi women are nervous when preparing the porridge for their husbands' families, no matter how many times they have done it.
"It is the main dish in a meal and the whole family will be left hungry if it fails," Ha said.
The ethnic group, also known as Pa Co, reserves another wild dish for special guests: grilled bamboo worms, known in the Ta Oi language as om po reng.
Om po reng, grilled bamboo worms, is another Ta Oi specialty
The story is that the community learned about this dish from a pair of lovers who ran away deep into the forest after their families opposed their union on grounds of inbreeding. The couple lived by bamboo ranges and fed on wild fruits and leaves, until one day an old man passed by and taught them how to harvest worms from bamboo and grill them.
Ho Thi Mon, a local, said the dish is extra special one for the Ta Oi people and thus saved for honored guests.
The worms are only available in the winter, from around the tenth month to the first lunar months next year, and it requires experienced eyes to recognize the trees that host them.
"They are usually found in young bamboo trees, or the old shoots that are about to grow into trees. Those are soft and nutritious, and ideal home for the worms," Mon said.
The worms presence usually creates some dots on the bamboo and also causes them to be thinner and drier than others.
After a bamboo cluster is spotted, one can cut into each eye for the worms to crawl out. They are washed and put into one opened bamboo eye, with some salt, pepper, chili and leeks. Then the bamboo is covered tight with some wild leaves and grilled for around 20-30 minutes, or until the eye starts to turn yellow and exudes a fragrance.
"One bite can get you addicted, and the dish can only be found in mountainous areas," Mon said.
Ta Oi people love grilled dishes, and worms and fish are top lunch choices when they need to work on the fields, saying proudly that their "wild" dishes are not just delicious, they build immunity.
The K'Tu ethnic community in central Vietnam, said to be 65,000 in number, also like a lot of grilled food, and one of their specialties is stream fish grilled in wooden pipes, called gio ra a xiu.
Ra Pat A Ray, head of A Xang Village, pointed to more than 40 fish pipes prepared for his son's wedding party, saying it was a main dish in festivals and big parties.
"The whole family has to go out to catch fish in the streams, go to the jungle to find bamboo eyes for the pipes, and pluck fragrant pung leaves several days before the party," Ray said.
Once a dish that served a nomadic lifestyle, it remains a source of pride for the K'Tu people, something they like to surprise and delight visitors from the lowlands with.
Ethnic minority communities in the south-central province of Phu Yen might have the most simple specialty of them all the "then len" salt, which is a mixture of salt, chili and the pounded leaves of "then len," a plant that grows wild in the area.
The salt mixture is used as an accompaniment to rice, not because the people are still poor and do not have other choices, but because it is highly favored for its taste.
The mixture is also used with boiled vegetables and meat. One popular combination in the area is to have this mixture with fried ants.
Juice is extracted from a doac tree before it is fermented with some bark
The wild dishes that ethnic minorities in Vietnam have contributed to the national cuisine go well with homemade wines, the favorite one extracted from doac trees in the forest. This is considered a God-given beverage.
People chop the top of the tree and collect several liters of a milk-colored liquid, which is fermented with some bark.
Ninh of the Ta Oi group said doac, which belongs to the palm family, can be found aplenty on Truong Son mountain range on the border with Laos.
A mature tree of five to seven years old gives the best wine, around 80 liters for two to three months.
Ninh said drinking the cool and minty wine directly from doac trees is a unique experience. As a mere natural beverage, it is more relaxing than industrial spirits that cause one to get drunk and lose control, he said.
Many locals also collect more wine than they need to sell later for VND15,000-20,000, or less than a dollar, a liter.
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