Strange taste from the sea

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A delicious gift from the water evokes nostalgia in expatriate northerners

Chả rươi
is among the delicacies based on rươi, a kind of sea worm commonly called ragworm or clamworm that's best eaten in cold weather

Hanoians are proud of their cuisine, which includes delicacies based on rươi, a kind of sea worm commonly called ragworm or clamworm that's best eaten in cold weather.

What fishermen often use as bait sounds like a strange ingredient for a dish, but a cook's skillful hands can turn this oddball into an emotive delicacy for those who taste it.

Rươi spend much of their short lives in brackish water burrowing into the sand or mud. Their hue changes from pinkish purple when young to milky brown as they mature. When the bellies fill with a milky fluid, it is time for the ragworms to depart for the spawning grounds.

Fishermen catch rươi when they appear en masse following a rising tide, floating on the surface of the water in the spawning season in late September or early October.

Rươi taste a little fatty and greasy, and sweet enough, and they're a little crunchy. These characteristics are why they make for great food, though they must be fresh.

Before making a meal of ragworms, they must first be cleaned in a bowl of sink of water. Once clean, they can be kept in the fridge for up to a year and used as required.

Before cooking, place the ragworms in a bowl of hot water to remove their tentacles and take away the unpleasant smell. Note that if the tentacles are not completely detached and discarded, cooked ragworms can cause itching and other discomfort.

There are many restaurants in Ho Chi Minh City specializing in the cuisine of Vietnam's north. Most of their customers are nostalgic northerners, and chả rươi is always on the menu. Here are two of them:

Goc Ha Noi
24/8 Pham Ngoc Thach Street, District 3

Huong Xua
43 Ly Tu Trong Street, District 1

Fried rươi omelet (chả rươi)

One of the most popular ragworm dishes in Hanoi is chả rươi.

To prepare it, combine rươi and some minced pork, egg, mandarin peel, onion and dill in a bowl, then add fish sauce and mix until the contents are sticky and pliable.

Then heat up a frying pan and add some oil or lard (preferably the latter as it augments the final taste). Shape the ragworm mixture into small pieces measuring half a centimeter or so across, and fry them slowly but thoroughly over low heat.

After the mix turns golden-brown, take it out of the pan and serve while still hot on a plate with a little pepper on top. The dip that accompanies the omelet consists of fish sauce, chili, sugar and lemon juice.

The mandarin peel is a vital ingredient as it removes the last of the ragworms' unpleasant odor, adds to the taste, and makes the dish easier to digest.

Stir-fried rươi (rươi xào)

Rươi can be fried with some simple ingredients to go with rice.

For example, ragworms can be stir-fried with the leaves of baby jackfruit, also known as cochinchin gourd.

To make it, clean the leaves and chop them up, wash the rươi and place in a pan or wok, add some onion, chili and mandarin peel, and stir well until it turns into a fine mixture. Stir-fry the mixture with the leaves, and season to taste with fish sauce and salt.

Best served while still hot, the dish tastes sweet and a little acrid, and has a pleasant smell.

As an alternative, bamboo shoots or green papaya can be fried with ragworms.

Fermented rươi (mắm rươi)

Perhaps the most famous ragworm dish is mắm rươi. It's as simple as it gets as the only ingredients are rươi and salt.

To prepare mắm rươi, almost fill a large jar with ragworms, add a lot of salt, stir well and cover with a lid. After three months, they can be eaten fresh from the jar, or steamed and served with boiled pork and fresh herbs. Simple yet delicious.

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