A cautionary tale in a pot

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Thạch sùng chắt lưỡi served at Chi Toi Restaurant in Can Tho City. The dish is eaten with the hands only. No spoon, so fork, no knife, no chopstick

Can Tho is the largest city in the Mekong Delta, and as such has long been known as Tay Do, which means Capital of the West.

It's big on scenery too, as I found out on a recent visit, and has retained its picturesque nature and escaped relatively unscathed by the rampant industrialization that has blighted much of Vietnam.

Situated on the south bank of the Hau River, the largest branch of the Mekong Delta, Can Tho is a breezy, comfortable town permeated by the fresh smell of nature and the abundance of trees and waterways that characterize the delta.

Yet perhaps what makes Can Tho memorable to many visitors is the region's simple food.

On my short trip to this enchanting land, the locals spoke highly of several eating places of the town. I couldn't help but notice that they all recommended a dish named Thạch Sùng chắt lưỡi, which literally means "gecko clicks tongue".

Keen to see how good the dish was and why it had such name, I headed off to Chi Tôi restaurant in the heart of Can Tho.

It wasn't a big place and certainly not one of those concrete monstrosities that are all too common these days. Chi Tôi (My elder sister) was a cozy enclave of trees, ponds and bamboo huts.

These open-sided huts with their dining tables and chairs also made of bamboo and other wood could each fit eight people in comfort beneath their roofs of leaves or straw.

I chose a hut that looked out onto a small pond populated with a variety of fish and water plants, and placed my order for Thạch Sùng chắt lưỡi.

"Why it had such name?" I asked a waiter. "Because the dish is served in a cracked earthenware pot, the thing that we know from the story of Thạch Sùng. I think you remember that, don't you?" he replied.

Yes, I did remember. As a Vietnamese, the old tale did not sound strange to me at all.

The story goes that Thach Sung and his wife were dirt poor beggars who lived in a hovel. Apart from the little money they could put aside from their daily takings in the streets, their most valuable possession was an old cracked earthenware pot in which they cooked their frugal meals.

Day by day, as they were crafty and thrifty, their tiny stash started to grow and became quite a substantial sum.

One evening, Thach Sung chanced to see an omen that foretold of heavy rain and flooding within the year, of the farmers losing their rice crops and the people going hungry. He and his wife decided to gamble their entire nest egg, built up over the years, on buying rice to store in a safe place.

Sure enough, the rain came with the flood, and the rice in the fields was destroyed, so Thach Sung retrieved his rice and sold it at exorbitant prices.

With substantial capital, the prosperous price gouger became a loan shark and the wealth piled up. And with money came elevated social status for the former beggar.

One day, Thach Sung made a wager with the king's brother-in-law Vuong that he was the richer of the two. The bet would be settled by comparing their possessions and the loser would forfeit all his worldly wealth to the other.

Each man then brought out his most valuable possessions to compare with the other's. Eventually it seemed that Thach Sung was victorious as he still had much treasure to display whereas Vuong seemed to have nothing more to show. But Vuong had an ace up his sleeve: he knew Thach Sung's history.

The crafty Vuong then stunned his opponent by bringing out an old cracked earthenware pot, the thing that once was most valuable toThach Sung, who had long forgotten about it as he had thrown it away when he got rich.

Thach Sung stared in shock at the old pot and the awful truth dawned on him that he would lose everything to Vuong. Words failed him and he just sputtered and kept clicking his tongue until he died and turned into a gecko that never stopped clicking its tongue in regret.

So now, when Vietnamese people hear the sound of a clicking tongue, they think of a gecko and remember the tale of the fool who lost everything because of an old cooking pot.

During the ten minutes I recalled my mind of the story, the food had arrived.

In front of me was definitely an old cracked earthenware pot, though smaller than what I'd thought it would be, and it was resting on a glazed terra-cotta dish as it was quite hot.

Inside the pot was a concoction of crackling, fish sauce, green onion and red chili. I found out that the dish is made by cooking fish sauce and sugar and only adding the green onion, chili and fried crackling when it is served.

Of course it was salty owing to the fish sauce yet, in the typically southern style, it was quite sweet too.

But what makes the dish special is the accompanying pancake of what appeared to be the burnt rice stuck together at the bottom of a cooker when it is overdone.

This brand of burnt rice is created in a different and intentional way. First the rice is cooked normally, then spread thinly across the bottom of a large frying pan to form a layer and cooked carefully until its surface is light yellow and there's a touch of burnt rice in the aroma it gives off.

Oh, and Thạch Sùng chắt lưỡi is eaten with the hands only. No spoon, no fork, no knife, no chopstick.

After examining the contents, I took a piece of the crunchy burnt rice, which was still hot, soaked it in the sauce and used it as a spoon to get the green onion and crackling.

It was delicious. My taste buds savored every sensation: the salty sweetness of the sauce, the greasy crackling, the crunch and fragrance of the hot burnt rice and the mild spice of the red chilies.

Taking a look around, I saw many patrons in the other huts were enjoying it too.

After a while, I found myself staring at a man sitting nearby who was obviously relishing his Thạch Sùng chắt lưỡi. He gave me a friendly smile and with no hesitation said: "Coming here would be pointless if we didn't have this, no?"

To me, that southern gentleman was spot on. It's a memorable dish and worthy of all the compliments it receives.

Address: Chi Toi restaurant, 118/9/48 Tran Van Kheo Street, Ninh Kieu District, Can Tho City

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