Squid paste’s a gift when it’s handmade

By Vu Ngoc Khanh, Thanh Nien News

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A specialty of the world famous Ha Long Bay, cha muc (squid paste) is much tastier when it is made by hand

Pieces of cha muc (squid paste)made by hand in Ha Long Bay, the northern province of Quang Ninh / PHOTO: VU NGOC KHANH
Nguyen Van Thu has done this every day for the past 20 years.
He sits in front of his house in Bai Chay Ward, a popular tourist area in Ha Long Bay, with a stone mortar and a wooden pestle grinding squid into paste.
Made from nghien – a kind of rare wood (scientific name Burretiodendron hsienmu) – the pestle weighs nearly two kilograms, so Thu has to take occasional short breaks.
Sometimes he also stops to add seasonings and other ingredients into the mortar: salt, honey, sodium glutamate, pepper, cashew oil, yolk, arrowroot, onion, garlic, fish sauce, dill, chili pepper, and finely-minced pork.
Passing by tourists often stop to have a look at Thu crushing the mixture of squid and other foods into a fine paste. They stop to take photos of him, but rarely do they know that he is one of a few cha muc makers who still makes the local specialty by hand in Ha Long.
Thu said it takes him 30-45 minutes to grind some three kilograms of squid, while a machine can churn out as many as ten kilograms “in just a moment.”
“But, it [the mechanically-ground squid paste] is not as chewy and tasty as those made manually.”
According to Thu, he buys muc mai – a species of squid with a white, thick body – directly from fishermen at Cat Hai Town in nearby Hai Phong City. The squid is known for its taste and nutritional value.
After the grinding process, his daughter cuts the paste into small flat cakes, and deep-fries them with vegetable oil that must be of good quality or the cakes will be burnt with a blackish color and smell, instead of a pleasant yellow color.
Due to the time-consuming and complex process, Thu’s cha muc costs VND400,000-450,000 (US$18.7-21) per kilogram, compared to the mechanically-made paste that sells for VND230,000-260,000 ($10.7-12.1) per kilogram.
Thu said he produces more than 20 kilograms of squid paste everyday, part of which is sold at his seafood restaurant Yen Nhuan at the Cai Dam market.
He doubles his output before Tet (Vietnam’s Lunar New Year) due to an increase in orders for the festival season.
He said many of his customers, including those in Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City and the central province of Khanh Hoa, order as many as 50-60 kilograms as gifts for their families and friends.
In Ha Long, cha muc is eaten every which way: from being eaten as a snack with fish sauce or chili sauce, to being served with sticky rice, banh canh (tapioca noodle soup), banh cuon (rolled rice cakes) or bun (rice vermicelli).

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