Banana bulbs by choice

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The banana bulb salad is an amazing dish made from the humble banana bulb, a loathed wartime staple

Bananas are very popular in Vietnam, used both raw and as integral components of many appetizing dishes. With the right ingredients, even their coarse bulbs can be the basis of tasty meals.

During the wars more than 50 years ago, when our grandparents were starving in some of the country's richest farmland, the Red River Delta, banana bulbs were among the main foods to help fill the stomach. There was only one recipe for them: boiling. The bulbs were not tasty at all, but they and their neighbors had no choice.

I remember that just some 30 years ago, I grew sick of the boiled banana bulbs that we had to eat between crops. We were growing rice but never earned enough money to eat properly because of natural disasters and lack of farming technology.

Our family of five would eat boiled banana bulbs every dinner in March and August, when we would run out of rice and the new crop was yet to be harvested.

A dish of banana bulbs tasted flat and a little acrid, and we knew that there was no nutrition in it. Yet, had we not eaten it, we could have died of starvation.

My grandparents often recalled their deprived childhood during the 1940s, when thousands of people died from hunger as the French and Japanese forces took all their land to grow jute and cotton.

"Back then, we had to fight for a piece of banana bulb," my grandmother would tell me whenever I refused to eat any more of my dinner.

Life slowly improved so banana bulbs were used to feed the pigs instead of us. And now as pigs have their own instant feed, we have gradually forgotten about the bulbs.

However, people nowadays have created some amazing dishes from this plain, traditional ingredient. Banana bulb salad and simmered banana bulb with pork ribs or eel or stewed with snails are some of the most popular meals that women in certain northern provinces still cook for their families.

We will have the chance to try one of the dishes if we travel to Phu Tho, Hanoi, or of course Ninh Binh, my home province.

These dishes require a lot of spices but are quite simple to make.

In all the dishes with banana bulb, they always use the tender part of the bulb, slice it thinly and soak the slices in water mixed with some vinegar to keep the bulb pieces white.

To make the simmered dishes, they mix the bulb pieces with pork ribs, or eel or snail, and then add shrimp paste, seasoning, salt, onion, chili, pig fat. Then they pour some water into the pot, put it on the stove, and simmer for 30-45 minutes.

While the simmered dishes have a buttery and fatty taste, the salad is really light. For this, the banana bulbs are cut into long, thin strips and boiled. The strips are then mixed with roasted peanuts, thinly sliced boiled pork, boiled shrimp, shrimp paste, salt, sugar, and herbs. The flavor is something else.

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