Quang Thi Noi, the Thai ethnic woman who cooked the grilled fish, with her impressive hair bun
I was lucky to be invited to the house of a Thai ethnic woman not long ago.
It was during my visit to Son La, a province in northwestern Vietnam that is home to 12 ethnic groups and where the Thai make up more than half the population.
I was invited by my friend, a local, to a Thai home to be treated to a distinctive ethnic dish called “pa pỉnh tộp”, which roughly translates into “grilled stream fish”.
The stilt house in a mountainous village belonged to Quang Thi Noi, a woman in her 50s.
After a warm welcome, Noi, who impressed me with her large, black hair bun, told us to wait until her husband caught a fish in the stream behind their house.
Let’s talk a bit about her hair. Noi belongs to the “Thái đen” (Black Thai) ethnic community (Thai people are divided into black and white groups but it is not clear if the names come from the color of their skin or clothes).
Their custom dictates that after getting married “Thái đen” women in northern mountainous provinces like Son La, Lai Chau, and Dien Bien must put their hair in a bun on top of their heads, which is called “tằng cẩu”. This is the sign to differentiate between married and single women.
Meanwhile, as her husband was catching fish, Noi picked up some herbs from her garden.
Around an hour later all the ingredients were ready to cook the dish.
The common carp used to cook this dish is of medium size. With a deep cut along its back, the fish is disemboweled and washed, but with its scales intact.
Next step: stuff the fish with a filling comprising lemon grass, ginger, basil, and a kind of native pepper, all chopped.
After stuffing the fish with the filling, fold the fish horizontally…
…and pin it with bamboo sticks.
The fish is grilled over an open charcoal fire.
The grilled fish is ready to be served.
The sweet flesh and the fragrant and spicy herbs all exploded in my mouth. It was even tastier when served with home-made banana rice wine.
We sat by the fire, ate and talked. That's when I wanted to stay there forever.