Poisonous root a highland delicacy in northern Vietnam

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No visit to the northern mountainous province of Ha Giang is complete without a bowl of the local poison, called the "poisonous porridge."

To many natives in the province, which seems even colder than it really is thanks to the grey rocky mountains, it is not just the plum and peach blossoms in the first lunar month or the golden terraced fields in the tenth month that make the place attractive.

A major winter attraction is a porridge made from the poisonous "ấu tẩu," a hard, rough and thorny root known scientifically as Aconitum sinense paxt, the Tuoi Tre newspaper said in a recent report.

The root is as hard as rugger rock and can only be found on the top of Tay Con Linh mountain in the province. The first use of the root is to poison arrows in hunting.

But the poisonous root has been cleverly processed by local ethnic groups like Muong and Dao into a thick and grey dish that is not only delicious but can also cure cold and strengthen one's bones, said Nguyen Thi Huong, who runs a famous shop of the porridge at 171 Tran Hung Dao Street in the province's capital, Ha Giang Town.

The recipe has since been learnt by people in the lowland as well.

Huong said the dish needs painstaking preparation over a whole day to make diners feel the fragrance, the taste of fat and the bitterness of the roots on the tip of the tongue, as well as the sweetness of meat and bones.

Before cooking, the roots are cleaned and soaked in rice water, with which rice has been washed, from early morning until noon, or at least four hours. The roots are then cleaned once again before being boiled for four hours until they become loose, the chef said.

A bowl of boiled ấu tẩu (Aconitum sinense paxt)

They are then left to dry and smashed until smooth. The root broth, which is red, will be mixed with boiled rice porridge and pig's feet, before the mashed root is added and the mixture is cooked over a weak fire until it is served.

Huong said the name of the porridge is so attractive that her shop has been crowded with customers every night for more than ten years now without any advertisements.

But if the root is not properly processed, the delicacy will "poison the diners, causing numb jaws and constricted legs and arms, and even kill people if they are not treated in time," she said.

A delicious bowl of ấu tẩu porridge should be complemented with lean meat, pepper, onion and balm mint leaves.

Diners are recommended to rest after having the porridge, thus the shops are only open from the evening until midnight.

But Huong also recommends that children under 18 not try the dish, as too much of root will make their bones fragile.

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